Helaine Olen

How the Self-Help Industry Hustles America

For all the howls of rage from plutocrats like Tom Perkins and Ken Langone over possible tax rate increases, there has been relatively little public anger about the increasing wealth disparity in the United States — especially compared to the past.

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Banks Throw Hissy Fit After Elizabeth Warren Endorses Idea to Allow Post Office to Offer Financial Services

The U.S. postal service inspector general put out a report last week suggesting an intriguing way to shore up the ailing institution’s finances: Let the mailman double as a bank teller.

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How Focusing on Face Time at the Office Hurts Women's Pay

Late last year, Goldman Sachs made headlines by announcing they would no longer permit their younger recruits to work round the clock. So they banned them from entering the offices for a 36-hour period between Friday night and Sunday morning. Several other banks have taken similar steps in recent weeks.

This is what passes for work-life balance on Wall Street.

I suspect Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin would say we need to do better than that if we want to improve women’s position in the world of high finance.

Goldin presented a paper recently at the American Economic Association, making the argument that the male-female salary gap is not going to be fixed by begging men to do more at home, or by teaching women better bargaining skills.

Instead, look to the flexibility gap.

When men and women begin their careers, their earnings, in Goldin’s words, “are fairly similar.” According to the Pew Research Center, women between the ages of 25 and 34 earned, on an hourly basis, 93% of men’s pay. And then … well, family life intrudes. Soon you have the infamous gender gap, where women overall earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Yet as Goldin goes on to report, some fields of endeavor offer worse returns than others. An earlier study by Goldin (with Lawrence Katz) showed that for 1990 Harvard College graduates, those with an MD degree suffered a 15% loss in earnings if they took an 18-month work break, but those with an MBA or JD lost a far more significant 41% and 29%, respectively.

So what’s going on? Are medical industry professionals more avid readers of Sheryl Sandberg than lawyers and investment bankers?

Goldin points to workplace flexibility. When an industry is structured so that part-time and flexible working positions are all but verboten, then women, who most often bear primary responsibility for managing their families, are the ones most likely to suffer.

Says Goldin: “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might even vanish if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who worked long hours and who worked particular hours.”

How to do this? Goldin believes the answer does not rest in either government intervention or teaching women better negotiating skills. It rests in convincing companies, industries and their clients to change the structure of how they perceive and compensate workers, so that employees who seek flexibility are not financially penalized.

Is she right?

Well, yes … and no. I wish it were that easy.

Once upon a time, bankers’ hours meant nine a.m. to three p.m. The workday, even for those in relatively high corporate positions, often ended around 5 or 5:30 p.m. Yet that slowly changed, or at least it did for high earners. According to a working paper by Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano published several years ago by the National Bureau of Economic Research, work hours increased by 14.4% for the top fifth of wage earners between 1979 and 2002.

Employers like to claim this changed because that’s just the way the 24/7, forever connected economy works. They need those employees to be available. As a result, companies like Yahoo have all but ended flexible working arrangements, saying they don’t work for the company. As Goldin points out, many businesses believe their “employees meet with clients and accumulate knowledge about them. If an employee in unavailable and communicating the information to another employee is costly, the value of the individual to the firm will decline.”

This frankly, is so much horse manure. There is not much essential about the work young associates on Wall Street or Big Law do. One person is as good as another when it comes to putting together Excel sheets for financial deals, or performing grunt legal research. If that weren’t true, law firms wouldn’t be outsourcing the work formerly done by associates to places like India.

Moreover, even as our lifespans have lengthened and more women have entered the workforce, the world of employment has all too often remained wedded to a traditional model, where employees who want to make it to the top need to all but sacrifice their personal lives in their twenties and thirties to make it big in their forties. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that this puts women at something of a disadvantage, since that’s also the prime age for women to have children. If they don’t do it then, it’s quite possible they never will.

So why not adjust? Why not be more flexible? Why not let people take time out in their twenties or thirties, and put in the face time in their forties?

Maybe it is just habit. But perhaps we need to consider something else: that these ridiculous work hours are just another form of sexism, but one that is legal in 2014. As Joan Williams, the founding director for the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law puts it, “Workplace norms cement felt truths that link long hours with manliness, moral stature, and elite status.”

Women were disproportionately impacted by downsizing in the financial services industry in the wake of the 2008 crisis. Numerous banks, including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, have been sued for discrimination in recent years, with female plaintiffs claiming unequal pay, bias, and sexual harassment. The treatment is often quite blatant and crude. Just last year, hedge fund superstar Paul Tudor Jones told a gathering at the University of Virginia, “You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men.” The reason? “As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it. Every single investment idea, every desire to understand what’s going to make this go up or go down is going to be overwhelmed.”

Just the guy to approach about workplace flexibility and the right to equal pay, I’m sure.

I’m all for giving Goldin’s suggestion a try.  I work at home myself, and I suspect the flexibility it gives me can also improve the lives of quite a few men and women out there. But as for solving the gender pay gap, we’re going to need more than that.

CEO Pay Went Up 16% Last Year to $15 million -- How Much Did Your Pay Go Up?

Congratulations CEOs! You've been having a great time of it. Salaries are up, and up in a major way. The Economic Policy Institute says you brought home an average $14.1m in 2012. The New York Times, looking at slightly different numbers, claims the news is even better, saying the median number is $15.1m. That's a 16% increase in one year.

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Wake Up, America! We're Paying Billions for Personal Financial Advice, and It's Making Us Poorer

Wake up, America! We're paying billions for personal financial advice, and it's making us poorer. From financial "coaches" to leading academics paid to tout dangerous products, members of what former financial columnist Helaine Olen calls the "personal finance industrial complex" are ripping us off, preying on our fears and ensuring that our financial futures are anything but secure. Olen exposes the bogus -- and well-compensated -- advice issuing from the mouths of slick celebrities like Suze Orman, David Bach, Dave Ramsey, and Jim Cramer. She blasts through the mirages of 401(K)s, mutual funds and gimmicks of the do-it-yourself retirement plan that America has foolishingly embraced, along with the real estate schemes and stock market fantasies we turn to when the numbers in our savings accounts don't add up.

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Corporate Dominance of Every Aspects of Our Lives Is Suffocating us

Are we all corporate shills? That's the thesis of Doug Rushkoff's provocative new book Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back.

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A New Way to Foster Parent

Editor's note: The following article originally appeared on Child Welfare Watch.

Allen Rose was watching cartoons in the kitchen of his foster parents' Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone when his father picked him up for the weekend. His dad leaned over and kissed his nose. "Mommy," the 3-year-old boy said, smiling.

"I'm not Mommy. I'm Daddy," said his father, Tom Rose.

Allen giggled and looked over at his foster mother, Allyson Green, the woman he knows as Mommy.

When Bruce Green, a car inspector for Metro-North Railroad, walked into the room a few minutes later, he picked Allen up and swung him over his shoulders. Allen screeched his pleasure.

Allen calls Bruce Green "Dad," too. "Sometimes when he says 'Daddy,' it's confusing," says Tom. "He has two dads and one mom."

The Greens, in turn, consider not only Allen, but Allen's father to be part of their extended clan, which includes numerous current and former foster children -- and sometimes, their birth parents. "Tom and Allen found a new family," says Allyson Green, a petite woman whose voice still carries the lilt of her native Belize. "When they go home, I will still be a part of their life if they let me."

But in the meantime, before the two leave for the weekend, Allyson Green makes Tom take moisturizer for Allen's eczema. "The other day Tom didn't have the right lotion," she says.

This is the kind of relationship between foster parent and birth parent -- cooperative, loving, supportive -- that child welfare officials around the country would like to see develop with greater frequency.

Traditionally, foster parents and birth parents had very little to do with one another. Child welfare officials often assumed birth parents were potentially violent or threatening to foster parents, or were simply difficult to deal with, and agencies routinely advised there be only limited contact between the two families. That attitude changed about a decade ago, when foster care agencies around the country began following the lead of the Family to Family foster care model, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Baltimore-based foundation designed Family to Family to give children in foster care as much stability as possible and to help them find permanent homes quickly. A key principle of Family to Family is that when foster and birth parents cooperate, foster children can find permanent homes -- be it through reunification or adoption -- more speedily than they would have in traditional foster care arrangements.

To that end, several cities and states now encourage what was previously considered counterintuitive: close relationships between foster parents and birth parents. The new model asks that foster parents serve as "resource parents" who are there not only for the foster child, but for the child's family as well. These parents are a combination of parent, coach and cheerleader to both the foster child in their care and the child's parents.

Though in recent years resource parenting has become more widely used, empirical evidence that it accomplishes what it sets out to do is scant. No one knows for sure whether it truly gets children into permanent homes faster. "There is a dearth of research," concedes Denise Goodman, an independent trainer and national consultant on resource family issues.

But anecdotally, almost everyone agrees it makes for a less traumatic experience in foster care and helps ease a child's transition back to his or her family. "We can definitely see patterns when the birth parents and the foster parents work together," says Goodman. "We see far less conflict, but it is purely anecdotal at this time."

"If the parents are empowered, there is a much better chance of them staying involved with their children," says Mary Odom, assistant executive director for family foster care and adoption at SCO Family of Services in New York City. "We are all creatures of habit. If you have no input into your child's life except for visiting two hours and then you are gone, you are not the parent and you are not there."

An ongoing relationship with the foster family also gives parents somewhere to turn for advice and support when things get tough after the children return home. Numerous foster parents report providing babysitting and other assistance for their former foster kids.

The concept of resource parenting is now ingrained in the Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP), the training many states and cities use to certify foster parents. MAPP includes a segment on foster and birth parent cooperation.

In New York City, where Allen Rose lives with his foster family, the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) has also unveiled new initiatives designed to improve relations between the two families, like parent-to-parent "icebreaker" meeting within three to five days of a child's placement in foster care to help break down barriers between the two sides.

"It's an opportunity for the birth parent to share information such as 'She doesn't eat broccoli, she wets the bed at night, this is the name of her best friend at school,'" says Lorraine Stephens, ACS deputy commissioner for family planning services.

"There is a magic moment when the child first comes into care, when the birth parent knows more than the foster family," says Michael Wagner, director of permanency at the Children's Aid Society in New York. "This allows the birth parent to work in collaboration with the resource family instead of in competition, and the resource family gets to see the value of the birth family."

But implementation of and follow-up on resource parenting is difficult to track, and some child welfare workers believe this kind of collaborative parenting is more of an aspiration than a reality, especially in urban areas like New York where staff turnover is high and potential foster parents are in short supply. If a foster parent does not want to work cooperatively with a child's parents, caseworkers can have a hard time changing their minds. Some agency executives say they try to hold foster parents to the highest standards, but ultimately they don't want to drive people away if they are otherwise doing a good job caring for children.

It can be especially challenging to convince women and men who have been foster parenting for decades to change their stance toward the children's parents, says Wagner. When these people began in the field, they often saw themselves as providing the first stable homes these kids had ever known. "We were changing what they signed on to do," says Wagner.


Achieving a positive relationship between parents and foster parents can be like setting up an arranged marriage -- many end well, but some people are not meant to be together no matter what.

Most parents enter the relationship angry or at least resentful. After all, they've had their child taken from them by authorities who deemed them unfit. How foster parents deal with that anger can set the tone for months and years into the future.

Yet at the time of the initial placement, the question of how well parents and foster parents might get along is rarely considered. Many children come into foster care suddenly, sometimes in the middle of the night. With emergency placements, children generally go to whatever homes are immediately available. Agency officials say there is no time to carefully consider which foster parents will best mesh with birth families.

For Allen Rose and his father, it took four foster families to get the relationship right.

When Allen was born in the spring of 2005, he tested positive for exposure to drugs. The boy's mother was addicted to drugs, and when Allen was a few months old, she entered a rehabilitation program where she could be with her son. She quit the program, however, and Allen ended up in foster care. Allen's mother no longer sees her son. Tom Rose, who says he had been sober for nine years before these events, also relapsed, and eventually entered a rehabilitation program himself.

Allen arrived at the Green household at the age of 14 months, after other foster arrangements had collapsed. (Agency workers decided that in one of his foster homes Allen was not getting the care he needed. A different foster mother left the city for vacation.)

Tom Rose admits he initially bumped heads with the Greens. "The second time I visited, [Allen] had a shaved head and new clothes. I was cursing under my breath," Tom recalls. Other things got him angry too: Allen calling Allyson Green "Mommy," and food restrictions.

But Allyson Green would patiently explain to the boy's father that she wasn't putting Allen on a restricted diet arbitrarily, but because sugar and chocolate made the boy's moods and eczema worse.

"Tom complained about everything. He complained when I put jeans on Allen with a car on the pocket, saying I was raising a thug," she recalls. "I would tell Tom all the time, 'I'm here to help you with Allen. I love him, but I know you love him more because you are his parent.'"

Tom says a caseworker at the agency sat down with him and explained that the Greens were good people with an established record as successful foster parents. It would be easier, the official said, if he could work on letting his anger go.

Allyson Green worked on her issues, too. "I needed to pray a lot. I needed to learn to let him come around," she says.

And, in time, he did.

The Greens, who have a reputation at their foster care agency for being exceptional foster parents, make it a point to include mothers and fathers in their children's lives, if they are willing. They've taken middle-of-the-night phone calls from the mother of one of their foster children when she struggled with her recovery program. They've opened their home to Tom Rose for unstructured time with their family, and he frequently drops in for Sunday dinner.

"The secret is to be as natural and normal as possible," Bruce Green says. "If you are a family, you don't have to put on a show. We ask folks to go to the store and take out the garbage because that's what you ask family."

Many agency officials believe that the more flexible foster parents can be and the more informal contact the foster and birth family can manage, the better the outcome for children. This can mean allowing parents to call at will instead of only at specifically mandated times, allowing the children to see their parents outside of scheduled visitations, and including parents in important moments in a child's life such as school events and doctor visits, even without direct orders to do so from a caseworker or the courts.

"We have one foster mother who would tell her mothers, 'You can come and cook whatever you want, but you have to leave the kitchen the way you found it.' Many of the mothers would come and cook for their kids," says Odom of SCO Family of Services in New York City. "This same mother told another mother that she didn't do braids and made her come to the house every Saturday to braid the child's hair."


There have always been foster parents who practiced collaborative foster parenting even if they didn't know it was officially encouraged. When Audrey Thompson, who lives in the Bronx, took in her first foster child more than a decade ago, she did not expect to gain an entire family. But the day after Jonathan, then 8, arrived at the Thompson home, he accompanied the family to Coney Island -- where they literally ran into the boy's mother on the street.

"We turned around and they were hugging each other and crying. We stood apart and looked on," Thompson recalls. "Finally, my husband told her, 'You can walk with us,' and she tagged along."

Jonathan was one of six siblings, spread out among several foster homes in Brooklyn and Queens. He visited his siblings and mother on Saturdays in alternate boroughs. Tired of all the traveling, Thompson asked if visits could take place at her Bedford-Stuyvesant home. "This was unusual at the time," she recalls.

Thompson became more and more involved in the life of her foster child's family and, eventually, all six siblings became her foster children. She and her husband adopted the youngest two, and their mother remained involved in all of her children's lives. The two families became so intertwined that Thompson's husband helped the children's mother obtain a job as a home attendant via his employer, New Parkway Hospital in Queens.

"We could see the kids loved her," Thompson says.

Nonetheless, Thompson says she sometimes wonders if she should have been less accommodating with her foster children's mother. Maybe then the woman would have summoned the wherewithal to regain custody of some of her children, she says. None of the six siblings ever returned to her.

"Sometimes I think we enabled her because we accepted her as part of the family," Thompson says. "So I think she was quite content for us to raise the kids and for her to be there."

Another foster mother, who requested anonymity for fear the foster care agency she works with would penalize her for being critical, said she generally supported the concept of resource parenting, but found it hard to carry out. "Many parents come in with a lot of luggage and a lot of attitude," she says. "Advocates say we are a team, but sometimes that's not true. Parents have to get to know you, and then they will feel comfortable with you. We foster parents put in a lot and we put up with a lot."

With children currently in her care, this foster mother said she carefully monitors their contact with their mother. Negotiating boundaries was especially difficult because, at certain points in the case, the foster mother allowed the mother to speak with the children even when officials asked her not to. "She wasn't supposed to call, but I told her to call because the kids missed her. If they don't hear from her, it's hard on me," the woman says. She adds that she also speaks to the mom by phone when the children are not present, so they can share information.

Foster care agency officials say the best way to encourage resource parenting is to offer parents and foster parents greater training, counseling and support so they can focus more energy on forging collaborative relationships. Still, no amount of encouragement and sit-downs can mask the fact that collaborative foster parenting often involves a great investment of time and emotional reserves, and not all foster parents are equipped to handle the increased demands. "We try to make our families understand their roles with respect to the birth family, and to take on their roles as models for the birth family," says Wagner. "But that's sometimes not the role they were looking for."


Allyson and Bruce Green know it's likely Allen will one day return to his father's full-time custody. Tom Rose now has weekend visits with the boy, who turned 3 in May, and the two families are handling the pending change in the cooperative way they've always done.

Tom picks Allen up on Friday mornings -- and if he needs parenting advice, he knows he can call Allyson for input. If Allen is having problems adjusting to being alone with his dad, Tom will bring him back to the Greens for the night and take him again the next morning. Tom will often snap pictures of the boy as he plays in the park and at the library and send them to Allyson's cell phone. It's his way of thanking her for all the times she would call him when the boy did something new or amusing.

Perhaps most important, Tom moved to be near the Greens. He's even named them the boy's godparents. "The Greens are the closest thing to family my son has," Tom says.

In turn, the Greens have now found another way to show their love for Allen: The boy's mother recently gave birth to another boy, and they have agreed to be his foster parents.

How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking

Somewhere in between the ceaseless celebrations of the Baby Boomers turning 60 and the Millennial generation discovering they were suffering from a quarter-life crisis, the cultural powers that be forgot to take note of a major milestone: Generation X began to turn 40.

Molly Ringwald, of the quintessential Gen X film The Breakfast Club, celebrated her 40th birthday earlier this year. Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel might well be spending her days taking notes on perimenopause -- she's turning 41 in July. And if Kurt Cobain were still alive, no one would be thinking of him as an angry young man. He would be 40-plus too.

Yet Generation X, those born roughly between 1965 and 1980 (it's worth noting that demographers disagree about the group's exact parameters, preferring to use the dates 1963 to 1977), remains forever young in the public imagination, still those 20-somethings sitting around Seattle and Austin grunge bars and coffee houses exchanging ironic witticisms about life and doing not much else with their time. "Somebody seems to have forgotten Generation X," writes Jeff Gordinier, author of the just released X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking. "The stodgy old species known as the 30-something has been shuttled off like Molly Ringwald herself, to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers."

Gordinier seeks to rescue Generation X from the shadows in this rollicking book. (Hint: if you don't think Gordinier is funny, read his hilarious take-down of a Newsweek article on Boomer friendships in his introduction), He revisits Gen X highlights from childhood in the inflation-ridden 1970s through slacking during the recession of the early 1990s to the dot-com boom and bust, and what came after. He looks at the careers of folks as disparate as director Paul Thomas Anderson and Meetup founder Scott Heiferman and his partners to prove that, well, Gen X doesn't deserve its slacker reputation. They work, those 30- and 40-somethings. They really do -- when they can get work, that is. Generation X, it seems, has a nasty habit of getting bushwhacked by bad economic conditions time and time again. Yes, they've produced a few Internet millionaires, but Census Bureau figures reveal that the men of Generation X are grossing less than their fathers at the same age. And if you think you detect a tone of slight bitterness in my reportorial voice, in the interests of full disclosure I admit to a birth date that marks me as a full-fledged member of Generation X.

Yet in his attempt to shill for a group that is genuinely in need of some good public relations, Gordinier lets some less than exemplary Gen X traits slide. When it comes to solipsistic spending, for example, Generation X puts Baby Boomers to shame. What other generation can claim to have made $1,000 architecturally inspired infant strollers and $5 cups of designer coffee into necessities? Gordinier could also have devoted more page space to the women of his generation, who are now on the forefront of the work/life balance debate.

Yet Gordinier is ultimately an optimist, believing Generation X is only now coming into its own as a true force for change. He points to a growing number of 30- and 40-something social activists, arguing that the sheer number of political, international, economic and environmental disasters that have occurred over the course of George W. Bush's presidency leaves Generation X with no choice but to begin to go about the business of fixing our society. In short, he believes the group will turn into the demographic equivalent of Winston Wolf, the clean-up character played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction:

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Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary

Hillary Clinton elicits reactions so intense, so vehement and at times so odd it's a wonder the poor woman manages to continue performing on the political stage. She's been called everything from a doormat to a drag queen, and her public image somehow manages to encompass both the story of Chaucer's Patient Griselda and the tale of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. She plays a large role in the internal psychodrama of many American women, who often seem convinced that Hillary Clinton finds them personally wanting.

There's something about Hillary, but what is it? Susan Morrison, a longtime editor at the New Yorker, decided to try to get to the bottom of our obsession with the former first lady and current presidential candidate by asking 30 well-known female writers and journalists to explore their thoughts about her. The result is a compulsively readable but ultimately erratic anthology devoted to all things Hillary: Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers (Harper 2008).

Morrison's goal was worthy, but one wishes she had gone about it by, well, mixing it up a bit. The vast majority of the contributors to her book are card-carrying members of the chattering classes, with more than half residing in New York City or the immediate surrounding area. Almost all identify as feminists and Democrats. As a result, there is a lot of hand-wringing over female competitiveness and the persistence of double standards for everything from grooming to likeability for men vs. women. A few more red staters, women who don't identify as feminists, or even a male viewpoint or two might have gone a long way toward shedding light on the topic of Hillary Clinton.

That's not to say the conversation isn't sometimes enlightening. Two of the best pieces in the collection are written by lawyers, who might well have a greater understanding than most of us for the environment that molded Clinton into the person she is today. Susan Lehman's piece "Firm Hillary: How the Culture of Corporate Law Shaped Hillary," ultimately attributes her controlled and controlling public persona, at least in part, to the 15 years she spent at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. She makes a compelling argument about what makes Clinton tick, even if you don't agree with her ultimate conclusion that after eight years of George W. Bush, a successful corporate lawyer is just what the United States needs.

In addition, Slate's Supreme Court correspondent Dahlia Lithwick writes a compelling brief about what women do and don't like to see in other members of their sex. In her view, Hillary Clinton reminds us of "someone shrill and judgmental" like a know-it-all neighbor. The genius of the piece lies in Lithwick's refusal to let either herself or us off the hook for feeling that way, arguing we are unlikely to elect any American female politician to the top job until we learn to "judge female candidates less brutally."

Nonetheless, a number of the essays in Morrison's anthology are intensely self-involved, more about the authors' reactions to Hillary Clinton than Hillary Clinton herself. There's little examination of Clinton's political skills or her record in the Senate. Despite what some of the essayists in this anthology think, the personal is not always political. Our need for action on problems ranging from healthcare reform to ending the war in Iraq go way beyond what these writers think of Hillary Clinton's -- or any other candidate's -- various haircuts or personal life. And whether one is pro-Hillary, anti-Hillary or an agnostic on Hillary, that's a sentiment all voters should share.

AlterNet sat down with Morrison in her New York office to see what insight she could offer into our fascination with Hillary Clinton, why she chose to approach her subject in the way she did and how she plans to vote in her state's primary on Feb. 5.

Helaine Olen: Why did you decide to edit an anthology on Hillary Clinton?
Susan Morrison: She clearly pushed different kinds of buttons than other politicians pushed. When people are talking about her, they were, more often than not, not talking about policy and ideas. They were talking about kind of strange, personal, emotional reactions. We have different expectations of her just because she's a woman. That's the jumping off point for the essays in this book.

Olen: Why didn't you include any male writers in the anthology?

Morrison: I found that the most complicated and in some cases the most vociferous reactions to Hillary were reactions that women had. It's kind of a social commonplace that women can be toughest on one another. This just seemed like a way to explore that. How do women react to other powerful women? Are they more judgmental of them than they are of powerful men? Is there an element of competition? And I think that looking at all of these emotional reactions is a really useful and valid way to think about Hillary as a candidate.

Olen: Yet, the women writers in your anthology often seemed to be blaming men for their own reactions. For example, a number of your writers went on and on about men talking about Hillary Clinton's hair or looks. They said it was men. But they were also going on and on and on ...

Morrison: Well, men seize on her chubby calves and eyebrows and go nuts with it. But women do too. As Deborah Tannen points out in her piece, there's so many fewer bells and whistles that men can attach to themselves in terms of appearance. There's so many fewer kinds of hairstyles or ties and suits. There's an infinite array of ways that a woman can look. That's just the way it is historically. The fact is that culturally, for thousands of years, we're just used to evaluating women in terms of the way they look.

Olen: There is no question there is a misogynist edge to some of the talk that surrounds Hillary Clinton. Is it possible to be unaffected by it?
Morrison: Gosh, I guess I just think it's so pervasive that we don't even hear it. But of course if you really think about it, those things trickle down in their real attitudes. There is also a way in which it makes you defensive towards her. It makes you think, "Oh brother, this is insane."

Olen: The book is a very eclectic collection of essays. Some of the pieces are very political, others are extraordinarily personal takes and a few take on things like Hillary Clinton's eating habits. Do you think such an approach inadvertently trivializes Hillary Clinton?

Morrison: The intention was to create a pointillist portrait. Just lots and lots of different takes. I thought that the reader would be happy to have some things that were just kind of, like, the sorbet course in between the more complex, probing pieces. And there's been enough op-ed page stuff written about Hillary. This book isn't really trying to be that. It's trying to look at all of the different kind of little emotional reasons that we like her or don't like her. So I felt that having some things that were kind of light and lively worked. I don't think it trivializes her. You want to take the full measure of the person who might be president.

Olen: One of the criticisms of this anthology is that it is unclear if some of the essays are about Hillary Clinton or the essayist.

Morrison: I think that that tells us something. I think it tells us that we don't think about male politicians that way. It would never occur to me to look at Jack Kemp and think about my inner life in any way that's connected to Jack Kemp's inner life. And yet I think there's something about Hillary because she's a baby boomer, because she's a working mom, because she's a lot of the things that a lot of us are that make us project onto her. And even thinking about her makes us think about ourselves and our own situations. And that's what makes this such a rich and tangled up subject.

Olen: Which essay came closest to your viewpoint and why?

Morrison: I think Dahlia Lithwick's. There's just a couple of lines that really stuck out. I feel that she was really getting something. She said roughly, "Sometimes I think that successful -- that men look at a successful man and they think, I want to emulate that. And that women look at a successful woman and try to look, to see all the hairspray and bobby pins that are holding it together." She also, I think, got at some of the more subtle things that legitimately bother some of us about Hillary. There's a paragraph in the essay where she describes Hillary speaking at an event and saying, "Privacy? What on earth do I know about that? There has been so little in my own life. But I have a firm commitment to protecting it for the rest of you." She does have a bit of a self-righteous thing that way.

Olen: I confess that's one of my favorites too. But it's for the conclusion. I don't think you need to be a Clinton supporter to agree that with Lithwick that as long as we are expecting someone to be all things to all people, no woman will make it to the White House. And that struck me, because I can't think of a male politician we expect to be all things to all people. Can you?

Morrison: No. I don't think we realize that we have different expectations of a woman leader and a man leader. Jane Kramer puts it pretty well when she writes we are trying to look for the right combination of sweet and steely. There may be things about Hillary that aren't completely right. It may be depressing from a feminist perspective that the first woman presidential candidate is riding her husband's coattails. But as I think Lara Vapnyar says in her essay, once you break the ceiling, the ceiling's broken. And then however she got there, she'll have gotten there. And then we won't have to be going through this exercise anymore. I mean, it'll just be a level playing field.

Olen: Do you believe that?

Morrison: To some extent. I wouldn't advocate that women vote for Hillary just because she's a woman. You want to vote for her because she's a candidate who you think would be a good leader. A good president. But I do think that once that barrier is broken, it will pave the way for it to be easier.

Olen: Could you say Hillary Clinton is a strong feminist who got to this great achievement in the most traditional of ways?

Morrison: I think that's exactly right, and I think that's why some feminists have a problem with her. There is this sense among certain die-hard feminists that the first woman achieving this achievement shouldn't have got there in such traditional ways. She shouldn't be running for president because her husband was president, and there's something about that that's a little depressing and regressive.

Olen: You wrote in the introduction that you felt authenticity was shaping up to be the buzzword of the 2008 election. Do you still feel that way?

Morrison: Yes, even though I recognize that the concept of authenticity in politics or authenticity in a politician are completely at odds. As Amy Wilentz writes in her essay, what if you had to live a life where you couldn't let people know that you spoke French and you couldn't dress the way you wanted to dress. You couldn't order foie gras if you wanted it. Or everything that you did, every breath you took, had to be managed with an eye toward how it was going to be perceived.

To a certain extent, anyone who wants to be in public life has to be a little bit crazy and be at home with the idea that their personality and public persona have to be kind of market researched. People say, "Well, Bill is more authentic than Hillary." What does that really mean? Is he just better at being charismatic than her? Who knows?

Olen: Did you think Hillary Clinton's tears the day before the New Hampshire primary were authentic? A number of commentators -- mostly male -- did not.

Morrison: I did think that the tears were authentic. Although, at the same time, I think she's such a political animal that she must have been completely mindful of the fact that they weren't going to hurt her. Hillary is never more popular than when she looks like a victim, then when she looks vulnerable, particularly with women voters. I didn't mind it. I felt that she reminded me in that moment of -- I'll probably get jumped on for saying this -- well, I recognize this tone in my own voice sometimes when I'm talking to my children. It's like, "You kids, you don't appreciate what I'm doing for you."

But I think the more interesting observation about the tears incident is that I don't think that she won because she wept. That clip was played on TV over and over and over and over and over again. And yes, she was looking emotional. But also, she was saying again and again on television, "We do it, each one of us, against difficult odds. We do it because we care about our country. Some of us are right, and some of us are not. Some of us are ready, and some of us are not." It's a brilliant attack ad. So under the guise of this kind of womanly tearful moment, she basically had this kind of killer attack ad playing dozens of times on national television. I can't tell you if it was intentional or strategic or not.

Olen: You wrote and said today you wanted to do this anthology to try to figure out what buttons Hillary Clinton pushes in people. Did you change your views about what buttons she pushed in people over the course of working on this book?

Morrison: No, I just knew she pushed different buttons on different people. And you can see how some women are really turned off by the fact that she didn't throw Bill out after Monica. Some women are turned off by the fact that they think that her whole marriage is opportunistic. Some people are turned off by the fact that they think it's anti-feminist to ... you know, has she paid her dues out of her own account or her husband's account? And then some people are just bugged by her mannishness. You know, there are people who compare her to a drag queen. I think everybody has different buttons.

Olen: What was your ultimate take? Where were you at the beginning? Where were you at the end?

Morrison: Well, in the beginning I think I saw Hillary as obviously an intelligent woman, but I didn't have such a great, positive feeling about her. When I started working on this book, I read more about her, learned more about her, I found myself quite liking the woman that she was in her 20s, and I found her passion very convincing. Her passion for different kinds of traditional liberal social causes and children's welfare and all that, and I found her to be an incredibly impressive person. Also the more I thought about her, the way she is often criticized and judged now as a candidate, I began to realize that this American obsession with likability is kind of ridiculous, and at the end of the day, she would be a really competent president. I was as guilty as anybody of judging her more harshly than I would a man just because she wasn't particularly charismatic.

Whether you agree with her vote on the Iraq war or not, I have this idea that deep down inside she's closer to that person who battled for social causes and children's rights when she was in her 20s. And I came to feel that all the criticism of her being charmless, grating and calculating were not such terribly important things.

Olen: What do you want people to take away from this book?

Morrison: I would hope that the thing that people will get from this book is a realization that the reactions and judgments that we make about people, including political candidates, come from our personal histories, come from our relationships with other people, and are both very subjective and objective. But it's worthwhile and interesting to really think about why we come to the conclusions we do, and then try to evaluate which of those reasons are rational and which are irrational, and that perhaps will help us make a better decision.

Olen: So are you voting for her?

Morrison: Well, like a lot of Democrats, I'll vote defensively. I mean, I'll vote for whoever we can get into the White House who isn't a Republican. In a primary I'll probably vote for her. But I feel like we have a lot more to watch between now and then. I would be very happy to have Edwards, Obama or Clinton in the White House. I feel actually good about it.


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