Last week I got to meet my hero, Gloria Steinem. If you must Google her, “feminist icon,” is the first result, that’s how badass she is. And while she’s been a force for women’s rights for four decades, founded Ms. magazine, has written a million books, and continues to be a major leader at the age of 78, she was incredibly friendly and approachable and now I love her even more.
It was an interesting night for many reasons. First, we all got to be in the same room not only with Ms. Steinem, but with 14 other stand-out women who are part of an AOL and PBS collaboration called Makers, a program that tells the stories of amazing women in the form of addictive mini-bio videos. Their list of women is refreshingly diverse: Diane von Furstenberg, Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power), Elizabeth Blackburn, Nancy Pelosi, Tavi Gevinson are a few that caught my eye.
Not that it takes much, but I teared up multiple times over the course of the evening, especially while watching Maria Pepe’s Makers video. She was a Little League baseball player in Hoboken New Jersey in the early ’70s until officials told her it was against the rules for girls to play. When the team’s charter was threatened, the coach told her she could come to the games and keep score. She got choked up when she relayed that part of the story and goddamn so did I. The good news is, the National Organization for Women lobbied and got the Little League Association to change the no girls rule. The super sad news is that by then she was too old to play. But she paved the way so 100,00 girls can play today. The video is bigtime worth watching.
Also, I had myself a bit of an eye-opening thanks to this event. While I was getting ready that night, bouncing Ms. Frida in her bouncy chair, trying to guide a few molecules of mascara onto my lashes while checking my Twitter feed, I noticed bloggers were posting from the San Francisco Target opening party, which I didn’t know about. I felt a little pang that I hadn’t been invited, and maybe a little competitive.
I’ve always thought of myself as non-competitive, and believed it was something that prevented me from being the ambitious go-getter I saw in some of my friends and colleagues. But since I started blogging and seeing other sites pull ahead of mine, my competitive spirit seemed to be coming out. It didn’t feel like an attribute, though. It wasn’t helping me get ahead, it was making me sad. And that wasn’t doing any good for the quality of my work, or my life for that matter.
As I listened to Gloria Steinem generously and humbly address us at the Makers event, I thought about competition. Steinem seemed embarrassed by our standing ovation, and spent most of her talk recognizing the other Makers women in the room. I had hoped to interview her, but I didn’t have an opportunity to chat with her alone. So when I got home I looked up as many interviews with her that I could find. The one in Teen Vogue stood out for me because the interviewer asked about the stereotype of competitiveness between girls and women in school and at work. Her response, in part:
There’s a book I would recommend to anybody who’s thinking about competition, it’s called No Contest: The Case Against Competition, and it demonstrates that most admired human accomplishments have come from cooperation, not competition. It shows that competition produces one winner who is then immediately worried about losing the next time. What allows people to become productive is the faith of a group of other people who believe in them.
So I’ve ordered the book, and can’t wait to dive in. And I’m already looking at competition versus cooperation differently. Science supports the idea that mammals, including humans, thrive in a collaborative environment, and while the jury still seems to be out on whether women are innately more collaborative than men, Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel Laureate in molecular biology, explains in her Maker video that over her 40-year career she’s observed women collaborating more effectively than men, and that’s a good thing for the future of women in science.
I love her (I interviewed her when I was at Wired) and I love that scientific and other professional communities are finding that collaboration can be so productive. My own competitiveness is also waning. I’m grateful I was exactly where I was that night.