The Maybes of Parity

by mraynes

Yesterday, in an effort to conquer a melancholy mood and get a break from the endless toddler demands for my attention, I went to the gym and hopped on one of the fancy elliptical machines with an attached tv. In the course of my work out, I happened to see an interview with Marie C. Wilson on CNN. Wilson was president of the Ms. Foundation for Women and more recently founded The White House Project, an organization dedicated to advancing women’s leadership in all sectors of American society.

At some point during the interview I was struck by an assertion Wilson made, that adding women to leadership within cultural institutions, businesses and politics would change the foundation of our society…that it would change everything. Generally assertions such as these make me uncomfortable. They make me uncomfortable because behind them lies the sticky ideology of gender essentialism; that somehow, somewhere inherent in women’s nature are kinder, gentler, more moral beings. Although it is a nice ego-stroke to believe these things, especially when they’re being used to promote female leadership, these same arguments have been used to keep women out of the public sphere, deny them the vote and keep them cloistered in a cult of domesticity. And as we Mormon women know, gender essentialism has been used as a handy, “god given” tool to place us on an out of the way and inescapable pedestal.

It has always been more comfortable for me to believe that both women and men have good, bad and ugly qualities. That women are just as likely to be despots, only they historically haven’t been given the chance. And I still believe this. I believe that men and women are equally as beautiful and virtuous, equally as capable and intelligent and equally as subject to human frailty.  But I also find myself concurring with Marie Wilson; I do believe that adding women to positions of power would drastically change our society. And while I can’t be sure that women’s increased presence would lead to an increase of virtue, it seems irrefutable to me that evening up the power distribution would change society, simply because the decision makers themselves would have changed. Currently women comprise only 18% of the leadership across all sectors: government, business, culture and religion. Surely even striving for parity would bring profound change to our society.

As I was running and contemplating these things, I remembered an experience I had a couple of weeks ago watching the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. mr. mraynes is an orchestral conductor by profession and so we often go on dates to classical music events so that he can watch and learn from other conductors.

This particular concert was conducted by the former music director of the Colorado Symphony, Marin Alsop. Now for those of you who don’t follow orchestral conductors, Marin Alsop is currently the most famous female conductor in the world. A protégé of Leonard Bernstein, Alsop has conducted some of the best orchestras in the world and was recently appointed as the first female music director of a major American orchestra. And yet she has had to work to overcome the amazing sexism of a profession still firmly rooted in the traditions of the 19th century. At the beginning of her career nobody would hire her, so she started her own orchestra. When she was given the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to lead, the musicians revolted.  Despite this, Alsop’s leadership has been an undeniable success; the BSO had a deficit of $19 million when she took over in 2007, today the orchestra is debt free.

But it was not Maestra Alsop’s leadership that impressed me; her conducting and musicianship were astounding, and frankly, it was like nothing I had ever seen. Alsop bounced, crouched and jumped, literally dancing on stage. Her physicality was erotic and erratic, but she was always in control. It was exhilarating to watch and by the end of the concert I found myself breathless, knowing I had experienced the music more fully than I ever had before

There was something, some ineffable quality in the way she feels the music and then interprets it in the movements of her body, that seemed to me uniquely feminine. Marin Alsop strives to make her conducting and appearance androgynous, she does not want the music to be about gender, and yet she is betrayed by her body, by her muscle memories. Because you could see the innate understanding in her body of the irony in the final movement of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. It was as if her body were saying, “I know what it is like to put on a happy face while I’m being discriminated against.” It was her personal experiences, experiences that she has never turned into victimhood, that made the music come alive.

This made me wonder, what are we losing in the gap between current reality and true equality:

How would Wall Street or Capitol Hill be different if women made up that extra 32% that would give them equal representation? Maybe it wouldn’t be different…but maybe it would.

Maybe a conductor like Marin Alsop is truly unique, above gender, but maybe women really have something profound they can offer classical music.

And maybe Mormonism would be the same if women were equally represented in the leadership of the church, but maybe we would have a fuller, deeper understanding of our purpose in mortality and eternity. Maybe we would see and feel God more clearly.

I don’t know the answers but I grieve for these maybes.


Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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17 Responses

  1. Jen G. says:

    Very interesting post. I also grieve for the maybe’s…it seems life is full of them. I also agree that men and women are equal, in terms of quality, worth, and in deficiency, although they tend to be in different areas in many cases. It’s hard not to notice that often these strengths and deficiencies counter balance each other, so it makes an awful lot of sense that to have an equal representation of both in just about any given sector in society would be beneficial to it.

    I appreciate your clarity of words and ideas on this subject, it brings voice to some of my own deeply embedded frustations.

  2. Margaret says:

    I don’t have an answer to your maybes but I wanted to say that I’m so pleased you’re writing about Marin Alsop! I live in Baltimore and my husband and I go to hear the BSO partly just to watch her. I absolutely agree that watching how every part of her body displays the music has made me appreciate the music in new and more complete ways. I wonder how my life would change if every muscle of my body responded to music in the way hers does. She is an extraordinary conductor and has become a minor celebrity in Baltimore.

  3. Stella says:

    When I was a young and naive 24 years old I was dating a 32 year old man who would often say he didn’t agree with certain things the church or community did and he referred to it as “gender essentialism”. I had NEVER heard a man recognize or talk like that in my entire life and those 8 months I dated him opened my mind up to all the “maybes” I had never seen before.

    I love that it was a man who helped spur me on to my current ideologies and beliefs about feminism. He was caring and thoughtful, he was patient with me and loving and he helped me see that there are a lot of maybes.

    I always think of him when so many tell me that I make a “big deal” of things or that the church can never change. I believe it can, it is, and it will continue to.

  4. Davis says:

    I have asked a similar question to this before, but have never gotten a real answer. Please let me know what you think.

    If you truly believe this:

    “I believe that men and women are equally as beautiful and virtuous, equally as capable and intelligent and equally as subject to human frailty.”

    Then how can you say this?:
    “…That women are just as likely to be despots.”

    If you truly believed the first quote, then women would have had plenty of chances to become despots over the centuries.

    Single handed combat ceased being the method of attaining leadership when the bow and arrow was invented.

    When you remove physical strength from the equation, either men are more ruthless and violent than women, or women aren’t on par with men in other aspects. Which do you think it is?

    Your two statements do not support each other.

    I agree that more women in leadership positions would be a plus, but I also do not believe that women are truly capable of the kind of violence that most me are.

    On many levels (like this example) there is such thing as gender essentialism and to deny it only sets things back.

  5. mraynes says:

    Jen, I love what you say about our strengths and deficiencies counter balancing each other, I have always really like the idea of yin and yang for this reason. I know that this is how my marriage works and it seems to work pretty well, I don’t know why this can’t be extended from the private realm into the public. And considering the Mormon doctrine on joint godhood it really baffles me that women aren’t encouraged to more fully participate. It just seems like we’re losing out on so many possibilities. Anyway, I’m glad I’m not the only one frustrated by this. Thanks for your comment.

    I’m so jealous that you live in Baltimore and get to see Marin Alsop all of the time, Margaret. I believe that she is an emeritus conductor of the CSO here in Denver so I’m hoping that I’ll get to see more of Alsop’s conducting. You know, one thing I’ve read about Marin Alsop is that she refuses to consider herself a victim of sexism even though she probably could because she has so much confidence in her abilities. I wonder if I had that kind of confidence if I wouldn’t be able to access parts of myself that would take my writing, singing, parenting to another level. The more I get to know about Alsop, the more I see that she is really a woman to emulate.

    What a wonderful story, Stella. We need both sexes to realize our possibilities and your story really highlights this. And I agree, the church has changed and it will continue to do so. We just have to be patient and have faith that the possibility is there. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Beatrice says:

    This post touches on one of the main paradoxes I face when thinking about gender issues. I believe that for men and women, there are more similarities than differences. Thus, someone’s gender should not indicate how smart they are, how competent they are in various jobs, etc etc. However, I also feel thrilled when women break into male dominated fields. But, why do I feel like it is important that there are female supreme court justices if I believe that men and women are so similar? If there have so many similarities, it shouldn’t matter if the supreme court consisted of all men or all women, right? I have come to resolve this paradox the following way. Regardless of men and women’s inherent similarities, their experiences are vastly different. Maybe this is what you see in Marin Alsop’s interpretation of the music. The differences are not from the fact that she is a women, but that she had to pursue a very different path to get to where she is now. So, I do think that it is important for men and women to be involved in different positions of power. At first, it will be needed because people with vastly different experiences will be leaders which will add different perspectives, but eventually I hope it will lead to less differences in what is required to get to those positions.

  7. Zenaida says:

    I find it interesting that you describe her as erotic. Have you ever seen a male conductor in this way?

  8. Seraphine says:

    My choir is singing the Brahams Requiem with the BSO this coming spring. I’m afraid I may have to bow out since it’s also the end of my school year, but your description of Marin Alsop has made me want to figure out how to do this concert!

    (Sorry I don’t have more comments about the great questions you’re raising about gender.)

  9. mb says:

    Watching and reading about Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Isabel Peron (not to mention Jiang Qing) has led me to believe that, in government at least, being female doesn’t automatically make that much of a difference in the quality of governing.

    I believe that quality is more related to the upbringing and goals of the individual and that the spectrum of abilities and insights in those roles is just as wide among men as among women.

  10. mraynes says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Beatrice! It is the difference of experiences that I think is vital to good leadership. Your example of the Supreme Court is a good one. For example, last year they heard a case concerning the legality of strip-searching which originated from the strip-search of a 13 year old girl. The male justices asked some of the most ridiculous questions, not understanding how violating this would be for a young girl. And these male justices can’t be expected to understand the experience of a 13 year old girl because they have only experienced being a 13 year old boy. In order for women’s rights to truly be protected, or even thought about, there has to be somebody on the bench who has had a similar life experience. Thanks for your comment.

    Zenaida, do you mean a male conductor other than mr. mraynes? 🙂 I think I understand what is behind your question; women often get viewed in a sexual way for no other reason than the fact that they are women. In my saying that I found Alsop’s conducting erotic,I don’t think it has anything to do with her femaleness, like I said, she tries very hard to achieve androgyny. Rather, I think my reaction has more to do with her confidence in using her body to fulfill her artistic vision. I find anybody who exhibits this level of comfort with their body erotic, regardless of their gender.

    What a fantastic opportunity, Seraphine! What choir do you sing in? My husband watched a rehearsal she did with the CSO and was so impressed. I hope you can find some way to work it so you can experience Marin Alsop first hand.

    mb, I think you’re exactly right; in terms of ability and quality in leadership, women and men are equal. But like I said in my comment to Beatrice, I do think that personal experience has implications for how a person will lead and it is important to get as many life experiences as possible into our leadership.

  11. Emily U says:

    One of my husband’s (male) professors in his DM program said he thought women made better conductors because they’re more expressive, or that physical expressiveness comes more easily for them.

    I don’t know if that’s true or not. I think the big problem with gender inequality is not so much that one gender brings unique talents to a field, but that when you exclude women from an entire field (like orchestra conducting), you miss out on the talents of half of humanity. There are women who will simply be great artists/scientists/doctors/teachers/whatever regardless of their gender, and leaving them out slashes the talent pool in half. Bill Gates told this to an audience of Saudi Arabians when someone asked him if he ever thought Saudi Arabia would rank in the top of technology fields. I thought his answer rocked.

  12. Starfoxy says:

    At some point during the interview I was struck by an assertion Wilson made, that adding women to leadership within cultural institutions, businesses and politics would change the foundation of our society…that it would change everything. Generally assertions such as these make me uncomfortable. They make me uncomfortable because behind them lies the sticky ideology of gender essentialism; that somehow, somewhere inherent in women’s nature are kinder, gentler, more moral beings.

    Granted I didn’t read the actual quote but I don’t see how asserting that including women in leadership roles would change everything necessarily indicates that women are kinder gentler and more moral, and that those qualities are part of women’s innate beings.
    I think that, on balance, women are kinder gentler and more moral because women are treated so differently than men from birth (even before). They are trained to be selfless, restrained caretakers by the whole society, even if the parents are consciously fighting against that sort of gendered training. It’s everywhere, we’re marinating in it.
    So because men and women are treated differently they act differently and approach leadership roles in differing ways. Including women in leadership does lead to very different sorts of governments. No gender essentialism necessary. We can chalk that whole difference up to different life experiences.
    The other way I see women in leadership changing things without necessitating gender essentialism is because it changes the place of women in society. Perhaps the female leaders behave just exactly the same as a male leaders would, but the people on the ground see a woman in authority, listened to, treated with respect. Her basic dignity and human status is taken for granted. These prominent powerful women shape people’s impressions of what women are ‘supposed’ to be like. That leads to changes in the way women and girls are treated in their homes, in school, at work, and in the media.
    And lastly the physical body one lives their life in shapes their movement through society. When people in power have just one type of body (able, white, male) no amount of similarity in mental, & emotional capacity can account for the highly different ways people with different bodies view the world. And governments that do not include those with varied types of bodies will always underserve those whose bodies are not well represented.

  13. Beatrice says:

    Emily U, your comment really resonates with me. I think about that a lot when I hear comments along the lines of, “the greatest contribution that a woman can make to the world is to raise her children.” While I think that raising good children is very, very important I have a hard time with specifying that to a particular gender. Here is a though experiment that I like to do. Imagine that all the men in the world up to this point in history had focused on raising their children and all the women in the world had “worked outside the home.” Think of all the inventions, discoveries, and powerful ideas that would be lacking from the public sphere because all those men had focused on child-rearing. However, think of all the different inventions, discoveries, and powerful ideas that we would have because women had been more involved in the public sphere. The truth of the matter is, we have no idea what someone’s impact on the world might be. Personally, I think we need to get away from the public/private sphere dichotomy in order to all more people the opportunity to make their impact both a home and in broader society.

  14. Seraphine says:

    I’m in The Washington Chorus, and I’ll definitely see if I can figure out a way to make it work!

  15. Deborah says:

    On the flip side, I grieve that — as a K-12 teacher — so few of my colleagues have been male. I happen to enjoy working with seventh grade boys — had that job for a lot of years — but too many of my colleagues had little love for most of the bell curve of boy behavior at this age. I especially felt for boys in single-parent households who, in both home and school, and next to no adult male role models. And why would they think to become teachers themselves when so most of their teachers were women? (Because while the pay isn’t great, the benefits and job stability ain’t bad . . . )

  16. Caroline says:

    mraynes, how beautifully you articulate my thoughts on gender essentialism. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post.

    Starfoxy, right on with your comment on how having women in leadership does change society. When people on the ground see men and women as leaders, I think it changes the way men and women interact with each other and the way they aspire to certain goals. It’s much easier for a girl to aspire to be president of the U.S. if there actually has been a female president.

    Davis, I don’t see those two statements of Mraynes as contradictory. The reason more women haven’t become despots is simply because society hasn’t given them the chance, IMO. Societal and religious forces for centuries have reinforced women’s place in the private, rather than the public realm. Those are some powerful forces that very few women have been able to break from to become the leaders of countries. As women are afforded more and more opportunities to lead nations, I expect we’ll see more and more female despots.

  17. css says:

    There is a big distinction between gender essentialism and being aware that genders are different. As a biologist, it often infuriates me when feminists try to eschew anything that proves men and women are different. Now, this isn’t to say that culturally-constructed versions of gender are correct or should be entertained, but it is to say that our generation is past the nature-nurture debates. We all know and every discipline from genetics to anthropology to psychology has confirmed that at most it’s about a 50-50 influence. New research is confirming that gender does matter. That women have a very powerful and necessary role to play- not just because we are equal but BECAUSE we are different! During the economic crisis financial institutions and hedge funds run by women faired significantly better. Sociologists have discovered that when women are in charge there is higher rates of negotiation and less risk for assets and people. Similarly, female dominated businesses show less hierarchy driven structure and more cooperation and flexibility (that said, studies also show that when women are singular in their representation they often take on male attitudes and roles to get to where they are and garner respect. i.e. female athletes or professionals 50 years ago vs. now. As representation increases difference is more acceptable. This was also the case for minorities). If we want institutions to changes structurally to accommodate working women and mothers, you better believe we need someone in charge who has a biological clock. Many countries necessitate that there is a mandatory percentage of female representation in governments (although none actually have 50% which would accurately represent the population of any country), but America has never fought for this on account of gender essentialism. If we are different, but equal then we have every right to be represented according to our population. “Different but equal” should be a slogan we wear with pride!

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