Ms. Smith Goes to Washington: Inside the Modern Send-Up of a Classic Political Story

Hundreds of feminists, seated in long wooden benches under the vaulted ceilings of the Los Angeles City Council Chambers, bore witness last week to a historical revisitation fit for the current political moment: a gender-bending update on the classic 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Director Stephen Sachs adapted the classic screenplay to feature a female Senator in the titular role and include discussions of gender in politics through the lens of corruption in Washington post-World War II. Before one-night celebrity reading of Ms. Smith goes to Washington began, hosted by The Fountain Theatre at a part of their 2019 FemFest, he called for ongoing partnerships between city governments and local artists.

“We believe that theater,” Sachs explained, “can be a trigger for social action.” The cast—including Joshua Malina (Scandal, The West Wing), Jeff Perry (Scandal), Sam Waterston (Law & Order, Grace and Frankie) and Bellamy Young (Scandal)—helped him prove that night just how powerful that vision can be.

Each member shone in their roles, but some of the most poignant moments of the evening were delivered out of the mouths of babes—specifically, 16-year-old Aurelia Myers. She played a young girl who inspires her father, the Governor, to appoint Ms. Smith to the Senate, disobeying the corrupt boss of a political machine in their state. 

At one moment, Myers made space for levity and also called to attention the gender disparity in the chamber—where women currently hold only 25 percent of seats. “Dad,” she exclaimed at once to laughter from the audience, “this is 1939, not the Dark Ages!” 

Sachs avoided naming a specific state or political party in his adaptation, and in maintaining the story’s 1939 setting, the performance was able to tow the line between a night of entertainment and a rallying cry. But in the shadows of the City Council chambers’ marble arches, the evening also felt like a celebration of the feminists currently fighting for equality in Washington—just like Ms. Smith.

“It is the arts that remind us of our common humanity,” Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell (CA-13), an event sponsor, said when he opened the reading—adding that, when the division and disappointing defining Capitol Hill today become history, “we are going to owe the arts and women a great deal.” 

During Myers’ plea to her father, she echoes the sentiment in a declaration that, no matter the era, remains revolutionary: “Sometimes the best man for a job is a woman.” 

Madison Pontz is a passionate storyteller and driven communications professional with on-the-ground campaign experience and expertise in editorial writing and real-time social media management. She graduated summa cum laude from The George Washington University with a B.A. in Political Communication and a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies and is currently the Development Associate at the Feminist Majority Foundation.

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Ms. Muse: Mary Oliver’s Escape

feature image via Charlotte Olivia on the official Mary Oliver Facebook page.

We’re carving out a new discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry to nourish and give voice to a rising tide of female resistance—and you’ve clicked right into it. Click here to read more Ms. Muse.

“I don’t like buildings,” she said matter-of-factly to Krista Tippett in a rare 2015 interview.

As a girl, Mary Oliver often wandered alone in the woods with a copy of Whitman’s poetry in her backpack, a small notebook and a pencil. Of her habit, she said: “I think it saved my life. To this day, I don’t care for the enclosure of buildings.”

Photo: Vivian Felten

Oliver’s repetition of the word “buildings,” such a clunky noun, might seem an awkward generalization coming from this great American poet, our bestselling poet, a woman who made a life of selecting words with care and precision.

And who doesn’t like “buildings” categorically? On average, Americans spend 93 percent of their lives passing from one building to another, day after day, decade after decade. Here is a woman who usually woke around 5 a.m. and spent entire mornings walking and “scribbling.” Is this partly because she never in her adult life felt fully comfortable indoors—not even her own home?

In 2011, Oliver told Maria Shriver in an interview that her father had sexually assaulted her as a child. With Tippett, she spoke briefly of her “very bad childhood” and the “very dark and broken house” into which she was born. In her poem “Rage,” she wrote what she described as “perfect biography, unfortunately—or autobiography.”

She added: “I couldn’t handle that material except in the three or four poems that I’ve done—just couldn’t.”

The narrator speaks of a father:

stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body,
leaving your bitter taste.
And forever those nights snarl
the delicate machinery of the days.
When the child’s mother smiles
you see on her cheekbones
a truth you will never confess;
and you see how the child grows–
timidly, crouching in corners.

The speaker’s reference to an unconfessed truth foreshadows a damning end: “in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, / and dreams do not lie.”

“Yeah, well, he never got any love out of me—or deserved it,” Oliver says of her father when Tippet inquires further. “But mostly what makes you angry is the loss of the years of your life, because it does leave damage. But there you are. You do what you can do.”

The image of “crouching in corners” suggests bent, elbow-like corners of rooms holding a huddled human figure. Oliver’s words echo in my head: “To this day, I don’t care for the enclosure of buildings.” The word “enclosure” means “to close in,” “to surround,” “to fence off for individual use,” “to hold in” and “confine.”

This claustrophobic take on “buildings” reminds me of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s take on doors. I recall the research psychologist saying she had a second front door. Who has a second front door installed in their home?

In her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Blasey Ford recalled a counseling session with her husband. “In explaining why I wanted to have a second front door,” she explained, “I described the assault in detail.” I envision the narrow stairwell and the upstairs bedroom in which she describes a young, drunk Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her in front of his male friend. Then only 15, she escaped and locked herself in a bathroom.

What happened within Ford in that small room? She knew she was still not safe, that she had to exit. She had to go down the stairwell on which she’d just heard Kavanaugh and his friend drunkenly bumping against the walls like ping pong balls. She heard their voices combine with others downstairs. She knew she had to pass them to get out the front door—the only front door.

Ford managed to leave that house quickly—and she has never stopped making sure she can leave, making sure there’s a second exit strategy.

Trauma affected both of these women to such a degree they changed their daily habits and/or environment to accommodate their suffering. For a young Oliver, the scene of the crime was “home,” and so the natural world became her escape. She left her father’s house the day after her high school graduation and spent the rest of her life leaving by wandering and writing about the woods, ponds, fields, estuaries, harbors and beaches into which she disappeared.

“And I escaped it, barely, with years of trouble. But I did find the entire world in looking for something,” she goes on to say. “I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.” Exiling herself from the man-made world, to whatever degree she could, Oliver’s daily ritual defined both her life and work.

Photo: Vivian Felten

As a young woman first reading Oliver, I loved the meditative, prayer-like power of her voice. But I was a city girl raised on Watergate and Vietnam, and wondered why Oliver seemed to ignore more urgent subjects like injustice, oppression and war. She wasn’t known for addressing racism, sexism or classism; nor did she focus much on environmental issues, a paradox I couldn’t figure out. The challenges of being gay and being out never seemed to make it into her poems. She often seemed to me a famous white woman living a rarified life, spending long mornings strolling and dreaming. Did she hire a housekeeper, I wondered? I tried to picture Oliver and her life partner, Mollie, vacuuming, much less scrubbing floors.

Sure, Oliver may have read Rumi every day, but what did she know of the 21st century? Her poems seemed like dispatches from paradise. I remember reading Oliver, loving Oliver, but wishing she’d walk around a major city, find a massive parking lot and write about the beauty of the world from that perspective. Write about people’s faces, graffiti, gleaming metal, litter, trees pushing up concrete—and buildings.

Mary Oliver seemed a stranger to the world I knew, but I learned to accept all she offered instead of asking her to speak a language foreign to her. I entered her poems and took what I could get. And they never stopped giving.

I also learned that before Oliver became one of America’s bestselling poets, she’d chosen a minimal life so that writing could be her day job. “Best selling” and “poet” are not words that know each other well. They are not usually found next to each other, and the first two rarely modify the latter. Remarkably, Oliver’s tendency to avoid the pursuit of money and objects had brought her unsought, unlikely commercial success. But along the way, on her long walks, she often gathered clams, mussels, mushrooms and berries. She searched the dump—an image incongruent with my ignorant assumptions. As a girl, she’d made a list of all the things she was prepared to never have if she became a writer.

“I had a $100 car I used to stop by hitting a brick wall,” she once told students at a college Q&A. “It was a wonderful life.”

After Mary Oliver died on January 17, I read her 2011 interview with Shriver for the first time. Near the end, she spoke of wanting to write about “personal material,” wanting to be “braver and more honest” about her life. In that moment she chose to reveal publicly her childhood sexual abuse for the first time.

When Shriver asked if age—she was 76 at the time—had made her braver, Oliver instead credited “the forerunners who have dared to tell.” Again, I thought of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, then America’s most recent “forerunner” who “dared to tell.” Of course, Oliver is technically a forerunner, but admitted having been surprised that she’d even written a handful of poems like “Rage.” She also described being “very moved by Eve Ensler’s courage.”

The next words out of Oliver’s mouth stunned me.

Photo: Vivian Felten

“I now know it is a subject or theme I will not be avoiding,” she declared. “There will always be birds, but I’m gonna broaden out a little bit, or maybe a lot.” She also claimed to have one new “brave” poem that needed to be typed.

The fact that this master poet, in the last decade of her life, felt inspired by other women writers to be “braver”—and worked to write those new poems—suggests that Mary Oliver finally exited the building that had once sucked all the air out of her body, and escaped that “broken house” of her childhood once and for all.

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. and the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her poems and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review and Texas Observer, among others. She is at work on a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.

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Can Miki Come Back After Her Downfall at THINX?

She has always loved breaking taboos.

THINX founder Miki Agrawal at Burning Man.

It started when she and her twin sister faked their gender at age five, disguising their long hair under helmets and pulling on shin guards to break into a boys’ soccer game in the playgrounds of Montreal. By their teen years, Miki and Radha Agrawal reached the Canadian National Championships. The identical twins were in a race over who would be first to change the world.

But nearing age 30, Miki was burned out from running between her two successful organic pizza cafes in New York City. Radha had just broken off an engagement and become a fixture at a sports bar, drinking every night until she passed out.

The twins were spiritually untethered. They had no community. They began to feel the burnout that hits so many millennials, particularly entrepreneurs.

“I just love the taboo space,” Miki often said. Few words are more verboten than the one that describes everywoman’s healthy menstrual flow.

In 2010, when Miki hatched the idea of designing a luxury underwear line for “people with periods,” she had a tiger by the tail. THINX was the first major successful innovation to hit the women’s sanitary product market in 75 years, since tampons. Posters appeared one day wrapped around posts in Grand Central station, with beautiful young women showing off their bikini panties and sports briefs without a trace of embarrassment.

Miki earmarked a portion of the proceeds to go to a partner, Afripads, to serve poor girls across Africa. While traveling, she’d discovered many young women drop out of school at 13 or 14, ashamed to have nothing to hide their time of the month but unhygienic materials like rags, leaves, or bits of foam.

At the peak of Miki’s phenomenal success in 2017, she was scorched by scandal. The first hint of trouble was when her “public relations girl,” Chelsea Leibow, demanded a raise only a month after she was hired. The 25-year-old’s only previous employment had been as a nanny. Leibow gave herself the title of High Priestess of Period PR and insisted her name should be on all emails, not the founder of the company. Miki kicks herself for letting her antagonist stay on for a year.

Fired in December, 2016, Leibow re-appeared in the office to threaten her former boss, demanding $250,000 or she would go to the media with allegations of sexual harassment against Miki. Agrawal says she refused what she called an “extortion” attempt.

But serious problems with her company had been looming. Her executive life coach, Lauren Zander, saw that Miki was headed down a dangerous path long before the scandal. Working at breakneck speed to build her business, Miki took shortcuts and made decisions and deals that left her vulnerable. Zander told her outright that she had ignored the most significant aspect of building a successful team by turning the hiring of her staff to another person. And she had no HR department.

Many online blogs and magazines shared Leibow’s story: Agrawal had an “obsession” with the young woman’s breasts, touched them without consent, and asked her to show her nipple piercings to other employees. She and a few other staffers complained that Agrawal often disrobed in the office while trying on new products and would FaceTime into meetings from home while sitting on the toilet. Leibow also described her boss as having “an aggressive management style” that made Leibow too intimidated to speak up. Up to one-third of the 30-person staff had quit since January of 2017.

At a board meeting in New York that March, the CEO was forced to step down. “The board had been looking to replace Miki as CEO well before Miki left,” I was told by the new public relations manager of the reorganized company, Leesa Raab. Several other new executives told me they had wanted a corporate bottom-line person.

She had also made a classic mistake of new entrepreneurs— giving her board 51 percent of the company. Her board members took advantage of the scandal about to hit the press to fire the founder.

Miki’s “takedown,” as she calls it, happened just as the #MeToo movement was bringing sexual harassment into a serious national conversation. It was toppling scores of powerful men who would lose their exalted positions in places like Hollywood, Silicon Valley and all over the media.

There are no documented cases of women using their corporate power to intimidate women employees to offer sexual favors, on pain of losing their job. One former THINX employee explicitly said that she doesn’t believe Agrawal was actually pursuing a sexual relationship with anyone at the company; rather, she called it performative. “She’s not a predator and it’s not malicious, but that doesn’t make it right. And it all boils down to the fact that she has no conception of it not being right.”

Breaking the taboo against respecting employees’ privacy was not forgivable.

“I didn’t protect myself,” was all Miki would say at the time, given the “non-disparagement” agreement she had signed. Miki’s second book, Disrupt-Her, will be launched January 29, published by Hay House. The “manifesto for female entrepreneurs” does not address her professional or personal passage since the scandal.

The media today is rife with “cancelling” notable people, usually for disappointing fans’ expectations. People as seemingly bulletproof as humanitarian Bill Gates, Gwen Stefani, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West met this fate. Once people are cancelled, they are victims of human boycotting; no matter what they say or do, they are virtually written off. It’s perfectionism gone to an absurd extreme. No one who dares enough to become publicly successful does so without making a stupid mistake somewhere along the line.

This story is about a tribe that has saved this flawed female entrepreneur from cancellation.

A glimmer of enlightenment came to Miki Agrawal when she dared to go to her first Burning Man festival in 2011. She was 31. The ethos of Burning Man is to live in the moment, just what she needed.

Miki and her twin sister let their natural entrepreneurial minds flip the whole scenario of late-night clubbing. The twins’ inspiration was, “What if we took all the positives of nightlife—music and dance—and did that in the morning with no drugs, no mean bouncers; instead, a welcoming committee to give you hugs?”

I first caught up with Miki in 2012 when she was she was bouncing out of her Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft at 5:30 AM to run for the subway in her four-inch high stacked silver sneakers to beat the crowd of a thousand-plus that lines up at Pier 40 on the Hudson River for the tribal dance party they call Daybreaker. Dancing at dawn? That’s the point. This sober rave was meant to convert millennial office slaves and startup entrepreneurs from drug-blasted club-goers to sunrise lovers of yoga, dance and underground music.

The twins were DJ’ing together, joining in on this ground-breaking generation of female DJs  Their athletic figures were skimpily clad; Radha’s in a sequined bustier and fishnet stockings, Miki‘s in a braless crop top stenciled with “Feminista”—or was that Radha? It’s impossible to tell the twins apart. Both sported bejeweled captain’s hats.

These days, crowds of over a thousand are happy to pay $40 to join this cool phenom and dance for two hours while being ferried past the Statue of Liberty and filmed by a drone. In its first two years, it had become an urban craze.

The twins’ mother is Japanese and was passive in the face of their domineering Indian father.  He was the parent who instilled their burning urge to compete. They were sent to French school on weekdays, Japanese school on Saturdays and Hindi school on Sundays, emerging with a polyglot identity and the ability to fit in almost anywhere.

They left home at 19 to immigrate by themselves from Canada to the U.S. and strive for the utmost reaches of the American dream. With the help of financial aid, they both graduated from Cornell University and beelined to New York, where they both began careers as investment bankers.

That safe choice was blown to smithereens by 9/11.

Never before had Miki overslept her alarm. It kept her from being incinerated in the Deutsche Bank office in Building Two of the World Trade Center. “9/11 was my wakeup call—the aha moment,” Miki says. “Do I live an actualized life, or not?”

She wrote down three things she wanted to do with her life: play professional soccer, make movies and start a business.  Her soccer career with the New York Magic was cut short by multiple injuries. Video production was too confining. She wanted to be her own boss.

The usual generational solution for millennials who feel lonely and abandoned by America’s institutions is to live at home as long as tolerable. One-third of millennials between the ages of 25 and 34 still live at home with parents. Women in their twenties and thirties flee to Facebook for friends and to Instagram and Snapchat for followers. They desperately seek to portray a dream life from carefully curated images and videos, often signing off after many wasted hours only to feel more empty.  Too long diapered in internships and haunted by college debt, they may stick with a shitty 9-to-5 rather than risk trying out different career options.

Not Miki and Radha. They took gigantic risks and had the benefit of failing early, but they still felt isolated. “We were working our asses off to do startups. We had no safety net. At the end of the day,” Miki admitted, “we felt alone and drained. We needed a community.”

Older friends told the twins that Burning Man was a utopian experience in community living, unplugged from all the electronic devices and commercial transactions that run our lives. Everybody shares. In 2011, the twins joined some 68,000 creatives for a week to help build a city from sand in the barren Nevada desert and fill that magical canvas with art installations.

“Radical self-expression” is one of the principles giddily practiced—men love to dress up in tutus; nubile women show off their pastie-covered tits; strangers exchange gifts and favors, art and music and maybe sex, all in pursuit of a higher level of happiness.

Miki met her soulmate at Burning Man. Andrew Horn was not only handsome, he was already a social entrepreneur, like her. He was only 24, but he had started two non-profits—one for children with disabilities and one for disabled adults. Actually, they had met four months earlier, but Andrew admitted to me, “Of course I was intimidated. Miki is a force of nature.”

The young man was still trying to figure out who he was and, as he told me, not ready to get involved with a formidable woman seven and a half years his senior. Andrew brought his own tent to Burning Man, determined to sleep by himself. After too many mushrooms, he could barely pitch his tent.

Miki was not nearly so restrained. “He was the most romantic man I’d ever met and we made each other laugh.” So Miki searched the desert until she found Andrew in his tent at four in the morning. Peeking inside, she was overjoyed to see him sleeping alone. She planted herself outside and debated for an hour, “Should I crawl into this kid’s tent?”

Andrew awoke with a yelp. “‘Oh, Miki?” And he pulled her all the way in. “We spooned the rest of the night,” he told me. After the two spent four days radically expressing themselves together, they were “Burning Man married.” Andrew wore a gifted Brooks Brothers suit over his bare chest. Miki was also transformed, a swath of sheer white chiffon wrapped around her half-naked body. The ceremony was performed by a Rev. FunkPocket on an artistic replica of an ocean pier..

But it turned out that Andrew had been addicted to porn from age 12. He’d had some 70 one-night stands but never a relationship. The next year, the couple returned to Burning Man in an RV with six of their closest friends and dozens more who were eager to bear witness to their second, more serious, “Burning Man marriage.” It was still not an official paper marriage, but Andrew whispered to me: “We feel committed for life.”

It was out there, nowhere in the Nevada desert, where apocalyptic flamethrowers set a wooden man to burn, symbolic of letting go and starting fresh in life, that Miki and Radha hit on the idea of founding their tribe. They named their communal “family” Boom Spiral.

“It’s the opposite of the Doom Spiral in economics, where everything gets worse and worse,” Miki told me. “In our tribe, we enhance everyone’s well-being and awesomeness.”

That includes the “well-being and awesomeness” of Taylor Conroy, a 26-year-old meditating zen surfer who was obsessed with building businesses that make change in the world. He was close to folding his first startup, Change Heroes. Miki and Radha heard about the company that offered a video platform for young, purpose-driven philanthropists.

Miki held a pow-wow for him, and her tribe members all insisted: “You can do this—just power through.” Shaking hands with Conroy, Miki slipped him $10,000. He parlayed that pre-investment over the next few years to raise $3 million from donors in over 40 countries to fund schools, anti-sex trafficking efforts, and water projects—before he turned 30.

The anthropological definition of tribe is “a social group consisting of people of the same race”—okay, these are almost all white, except for Miki and Radha; “they speak the same language; hold the same beliefs”—de-commodification, self-sufficiency, human connection; “share customs”—half the tribe today are repeat “Burners”; “and a common purpose”—to use their success as entrepreneurs to change the face of education, eating habits, energy production, philanthropy, music, dance, media, toilet habits, you name it.

To house some of her tribe, Miki found a handsomely renovated 100-year-old Catholic church in Williamsburg. It had been turned into mini-apartments. “Three of our couple friends all moved onto the same floor with us,” she announced. The four couples could beg and borrow from one another, talk shop, or commiserate. Andrew saw their tribe as a new version of the sixties commune. I couldn’t hold back a laugh, having been a big sister of the Woodstock generation.

“But the sixties hippies followed Timothy Leary’s psychedelic prescription: ‘turn on, tune in, drop out.’” I pointed out. “They were anti-capitalists, living off the land, making bread and love and accidental children. Isn’t your tribe using capitalism to foster your social purposes? Maybe even to justify living well?”

Their pocket duplex rented for $4,375 a month. That’s no sixties commune. Andrew acknowledged they were different: “We balance the ridiculousness of the way we’re able to live by trying to make the world a better place, and investing our time in things that are helping people.”

Tribes need rituals. I followed the couple and their tribe to their next Burn and saw them begin to invent rituals to celebrate couplings to come, conceptions, anniversaries, births—both of children and startups—and all the other passages as they grew from stage to stage into adulthood.

“This is a unique group among millennials,” says Esther Perel, a couples’ therapist and best-selling author of Mating in Captivity, who Miki and Radha invited to coach the tribe on intimacy and sex. They were most curious about polyamory, usually defined as having a deep attachment to one partner but also able to have romances with others. Lots of players in rich single precincts like Silicon Valley declare their marriages “open,” but usually end in a breakup, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher.

“Open marriage didn’t work in the sixties, or when it was tried in earlier centuries,” she says. “We are a jealous animal.”

I asked Miki how she felt about polyamory. “Andrew and I talked about it. We’re just not ready. Maybe in 15 years when we’ve tried every position, but now I’m thinking about having a baby, so I feel like ‘mine, no one else’s, he’s mine.’”

Perel quickly assessed the tribe as “warm and loving, but living in a sensory-deprived age.” The first piece of furniture Miki showed me in her new shared apartment with Andrew was a huge, low Indian bed in the middle of their living room—“a cuddle puddle.” (The twins picked up cuddle puddling at Burning Man, where people drift into parties over the course of an evening, sit close, hugging, drinking, talking, stroking in a friendly setting, going as far as their boundaries allow.)

Miki had always imagined herself marrying and having children.  She confided in me her recurrent dream:  She is  in a birthing tub in a little country house with Andrew in the water beside her. The family of their tribe is gathered around the tub. If all goes well,  Miki will enjoy an orgasmic birth. A midwife will help deliver the baby and the father will assist. The newborn will be passed around members of the tribe each of whom pledge to help raise the child.

The couple secretly planned their ritual of conception. While friends assembled for a tribal member’s birthday party, Miki and Andrew disappeared into a bedroom and Miki “pulled the goalie.” They say they felt their baby’s spirit form in the moment of joining. “It was sublime.”

But, as the Beatles warned us, life is what happens when one is making other plans. In her fifth month of pregnancy, Miki’s other baby, THINX, was wrested from her in the space of a few weeks. Its earnings, privately held, had increased by 20 times in the first two years, according to Miki. She had fantastical plans. “I want this to be a billion-dollar brand that influences a billion lives and eliminates the menstrual taboo for a billion women,” Miki had told me.

Andrew’s startup had attracted 50,000 customers to use his Tribute platform to record eulogies for living loved ones. Among them were Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss.

In Joseph Campbell’s famous mythic Hero’s Journey, there are three main phases: The Call to Adventure, The Ordeal and the The Comeback.

When I saw Miki shortly after she had stepped down as CEO and the media had blasted out the story in every form, she was fit to be tied. Five months pregnant and swimming in hormones, she swore that she would carry bitterness to the end of her days. When I received an announcement of the birth of Miki and Andrew’s son, I couldn’t wait to hear if her dream delivery had come true. Did the tribe rally ‘round?

“Oh my god, two weeks after I was fired, they burst in here with a boom box, food and flowers and said, ‘We’re having a party!’”

Miki and her son.

The week before her due date, Miki had DJ’ed at Daybreaker, belly bouncing. When she began having labor pains two days late, Miki invited everyone over for a dinner party. It began like a big meditation circle, 15 people all gathered round the cuddle puddle chanting in unison with the birth mother’s vibrations: “Ooohhhmmm.” It helped ease her contractions.

As the pain became unbearable, Miki succumbed to going to the hospital. She was given a drug that forces contractions. Instead, it squeezed the heart of the fetus and drove its heart rate down. A vaginal birth was not safe. An emergency C-section was performed.

When I visited Miki at home three weeks after her son Hiro was born, she was still “on the hamster wheel,” as she calls her non-stop entrepreneurial quest to change the world. She had already churned out two new patents and applications for two more. Her other business, Tushy, a portable bidet for adults, had earned a million and half in revenue, she said, and her mother-in-law was encouraging her to write a book. “It’s going to be a modern woman’s manifesto called Disrupt-Her,” Miki announced.

How, I asked Miki, did she and Andrew weather the storm of such a public failure? Miki’s defiant armor loosened. “I talked like three times a day with my life coach, going through every emotion. Sometimes I lashed out. Andrew and I would go to our coach’s house for a weekend and talk through all the stuff we were holding.”

No progress can be made to restore one’s professional standing until, if and when, the “cancelled” figure can allow her or himself to be vulnerable. The inner comeback must come first. It’s a painful process of self-examination and self-correction before one can move forward without carrying bitterness or blaming others.

After the takedown, Miki immediately went to work with her Lauren Zander, the best-selling author of Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap, Face Your Fears, Love Your Life.  “Miki was a mess,” the executive life coach told me in a recent interview. “She could not breathe. She couldn’t not cry. She felt devastated in every way. People didn’t believe her; she was betrayed by her board; the media piled on and on.”

Zander does not suffer whining. She is 48, a one-time teenage hellion who is now happily married. “We’re going to begin with a long list of post-mortems,” she told her client. The old Miki had to be put to rest in order to allow a rebirth. To help her come out of her bitterness and blaming, Zander told Miki she’d have to learn to take full responsibility for everything that happened around her.

How long did it take to lead Miki to the point where she could accept the truth? “Six to eight months,” Zander said. “She had to practice talking about it, coming to own it, and not being ashamed or venomous.”

The line that Miki and Zander kept rehearsing was “You let the fox into the hen house.” Miki was strapped for cash in doing her startup. The minute she realized she could get a better deal from another manufacturer, she insisted her current manufacturer give her a better rate. That was the beginning of the end. Zander smelled it. “I screamed at her: ‘This is dangerous, Miki!’”

But Miki was desperate to make payroll and grow the business. “She had high hopes that she could straighten out the problems later—don’t we all?” This is one of the biggest mistakes that startup leaders make. They’ll deal with the culture later, they just have to get the work out: “Everybody, heads down!” Zander has seen it happen so often to her clients, she sees it as the fatal flaw in building the culture of a startup.

“She needed to realize that because she’s such a force to be reckoned with— a visionary— she doesn’t see or hear what people are whispering behind her back—and she doesn’t care,” Zander told me. “The business was growing so fast, Miki paid no attention to whether people liked her or not. She didn’t take the time to develop relationships with the people working for her.”

In reality, the culture of a company is everything: the way the CEO runs a meeting, builds a team, manages deadlines, hears grievances and builds trust. Miki couldn’t see the impact her demanding style was having. Zander admits: “If you don’t really know her, you might assume she was a controlling bitch.”

To break through Miki’s wall of denial, Zander helped Miki establish three personal laws against repeating behaviors that alienate people: I will know whoever I hire, I will never try to be CEO again, I will always respect the art of building a great culture.

Miki and Andrew went through a lot of turmoil during her work on inner change. “Miki was accustomed to not needing help or nurturing,” Zander learned. From my observation of her demanding father and passive mother, the self-starter probably didn’t get much nurturing as a child. This crisis was the first time ever that she needed Andrew to take care of her, but she didn’t know how to ask.

“What Miki really needed was for Andrew to fight for her or let her cry like a baby,” Zander said. Andrew is a warm and loving person, but, like most men, Zander told me, his approach was how to “fix” the problem—by looking at all sides.

Miki has made great strides in how she handles talking about the takedown. Today, she is even able to bring it up: “If you Google me, you’ll read articles that say when I was four months pregnant, I was sexually harassing a woman I had fired.”

For all their work together, Zander knows Miki is still afraid that people won’t see her for who she is now. “I wish she loved her scarlet letter more— that she understood how special she is. She truly believes in changing the world, but she’s still afraid people won’t understand that about her and like her for who she really is.”

It had taken two years for Miki to help Andrew give up his porn addiction and fully enjoy their sexual intimacy. The couple had then begun pursuing what I call “slow love,” as opposed to the popularity of hookup culture and dateless sex. At every significant moment of their relationship, these two create a ceremony to deepen their commitment, which is witnessed and affirmed by their tribe.

Andrew designed her gold engagement ring with a space in the center to reflect their agreement to choose each other, over and over again, but also to maintain their separateness as individuals. Their deepening love and trust was endorsed by their tribe in many memorable rituals.

“When I think about my relationship with Andrew and all the obstacles we have overcome together, “ Miki said softly, “in business, in life, even in the sexual space—I’m so deeply proud of our partnership.”

On a visit to Miki, in June 2018, I caught her dashing in from a barre class in a running bra and biker shorts—still running. She summoned her babysitter to bring her infant son straight home. From the moment the nine-month-old baby boy appeared, Miki lit up as little Hiro pulled down her bra top to have a snack.

“If bad things hadn’t happen to you…” I began.

“…I wouldn’t have been able to be here for my baby,” Miki finished the sentence. “I was in the hamster wheel running so fast, I would never have been able to stop.” But stop she did, and her new M.O. as a calm and present mother was a stunning contrast to the driven disrupter of her first 35 years.

She cancelled 15 speaking engagements after being fired. She was now working from home, but on a book that could be set aside for Hiro’s dominant needs. The cuddle puddle was now a playpen strewn with toys.

And Miki herself looked different. A band of grey hair was showing. (She corrected me:  “Silver hair, I’m rebranding.”) Allowing her natural color to take over is another part of the passage into one’s late thirties—one day desperately wanting to look younger again, then embracing the reality of what I call not aging, but “sageing.”

“Silver connotes hard-earned wisdom,” she commented. “We should be proud to show it off.”

Miki’s dream now is to continue to break taboos through innovation. She hopes her book, Disrupt-Her, will expose the many ways in which women are indoctrinated to act out in business and life according to pre-prescribed behaviors.

In the afternoon, three of her male employees from Tushy dropped by to show her prototypes of a portable bidet. Her new CEO is Jason Ojalvo. She hired him away from Audible where he was head of the content production division. She doesn’t have to change her clothes or leave her baby.

I asked Miki if she still believes that it is possible to run a profit-making business in America’s market economy and at the same time pursue a social justice movement. “I absolutely do.” She spoke as an entrepreneur in the taboo-breaking business. “You weather the storms in business. But what’s most important is that you have people who love the shit out of you.”

Miki and Andrew moved into their new, fully grown-up home a month before their official marriage and seven years after their first Burning Man marriage—a testament to slow love. A gigantic sectional sofa sits in front of their new fireplace.

What happened to the cuddle puddle? Appropriately, it was moved upstairs to their new boudoir.

I asked Andrew how the usual distancing from friends once a couple has a child had affected the old closeness of their tribe. He barely grasped my point. “Miki and I exist as a central unit with a core orbit of about 80 tribe members around us,” he replied. “Concentric orbits of people in other cities and countries number, maybe 200.”

Being the romantic, Andrew had taken the last year to plan a DIY wedding where everyone would contribute to the tribal ceremonies. He found a rent-a-wreck boy’s summer camp near Cold Spring, New York—deep, really deep, in the woods of the Catskills. A private bus hauled the revelers up from Brooklyn and deposited them by dorms with wood-slatted camp beds. Most were then dressed in overalls and ready to prepare the outdoor dining area, bar and a stage in the amphitheater for a talent show of odes to love. Andrew had spent the last year planning it down to the yurt where wasted guests could get away from it all. I found him in his cabin writing his wedding vows.

Miki and Andrew at their wedding.

He showed me Miki’s wedding ring. He had designed it to slip into the space left between the two halves of her engagement ring. “That was when we wanted to be joined but separate. Now the wedding rings lock us together.”

That night, after a musical meditation and a buffet dinner, guests dressed in elegant versions of Burning Man outrageous picked up popcorn, Kombucha drinks and craft beers and disported themselves on blankets to watch a talent show. The twins put on an hilarious performance of a song they wrote together at age ten, constantly interrupting each other, ever the competitive performers, to the delight of their audience.

Saturday was the scene of two wedding ceremonies—one Indian, one Japanese—and a final inter-galactic joining, with Andrew in all white and Miki in sheer chiffon over a sparkly leotard with her signature Panama hat.

A couple of weeks before Miki’s book tour, I interviewed Miki and Andrew in the house the couple bought just before their marriage last September. It’s now the new HQ of the tribe with friends dropping in and out and an extra bedroom for out-of-town members to crash. Their son Hiro is center stage, a year and a half and kicking a soccer ball the length of the living room with his dad when he’s not racing toward Miki—squealing “Mama! Mama!” to jump into her arms and go dancing.

Andrew retreats to his study, where he’s preparing a podcast show. He launched his third social good business a year ago and now leads retreats for young men to work through a ceremonial rite of passage into mature masculinity. He’s what Miki calls a SNAG: Secure New Age Guy.

Radha drops in with her new husband. The twins live a 10 minute walk apart in Williamsburg. The uncomfortably overdo “geriatric” pregnant twin, already days past her delivery date, leaned back in a lounge chair so her beach-ball-sized belly could float up and take the pressure off. Radha talked about the greatest gift she’s had in life—an identical twin sister.

So much of our old B.S. is gone. Sharing motherhood has taken away all the silly competition we’ve had and replaced it with collaboration.” The sisters are on the phone 50 times a day, to which I can attest.

When I returned to Miki and Andrew’s place to say goodnight, they were at the kitchen island surrounded by friends all pitching in to make dinner. I had one last question: What does the couple do when they have a fight?

Andrew smiled. He will pull out the photo albums of their Burning Man experiences with the tribe. He piles them up on the cuddle puddle and waits for Miki to pore over them. It’s a reminder of all the beautiful times they have shared over the last seven years and an invitation to reconcile.

On one of the album’s last pages is their mantra: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Gail Sheehy is an icon of American journalism, a sought-after speaker and groundbreaking pioneer for women. She is the author of 17 books. Her landmark work, Passages, remained on The NYTimes Bestseller List for more than three years and has been reprinted in 28 languages. Gail was one of the original contributors to New York magazine and has been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984. She is a seven-time recipient of the New York Newswomen’s Club Front Page Award for distinguished journalism and three-time winner or finalist for National Magazine Awards. In 2013, she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Books for a Better Life.

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The Ms. Q&A: What Diane Paulus Learned by Telling Gloria Steinem’s Story

Diane Paulus has led a storied life in the arts with a distinctly feminist twist: In 2012, she became the third-ever woman to win a Tony award for Best Direction of a Musical for her gender-swapped production of Pippin; in 2015, she worked with the first-ever all-female creative team behind a musical to bring Waitress to life on stage.

Her latest project, however, is far less fictional—and much more movement-oriented.

This season, Paulus directed “Gloria: A Life,” bringing the story of one of the modern women’s movement’s most famous faces to the Daryl Roth Theatre and issuing a nightly call-to-arms in the process. Each performance follows Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem, played by Christine Lahti, as she walks, quite literally, through her own life; along the way, it provides a pathway to understanding and empowerment for viewers rooted in a corrected version of feminist history that is more diverse and inclusive than any most of us have seen before.

The play’s unusual format—there is no intermission, and the second act is an open conversation between the cast, crew and audience about the issues that matter most to them—is distinctly Gloria. But the engaging performances that fill the black-box theater have Paulus’ name all over them.

Paulus spoke to Ms. about what drew her to the project—and how it challenged and changed her.

Diane Paulus (second from the right) with Gloria Steinem (center) and actors from “Gloria: A Life.” (@gloriatheplay)

I always start with an inception story: You have had a legendary directing career. How did you become a part of this particular play—and, by extension, Gloria’s story? What drew you to this project?

Daryl Roth, our producer, reached out to me about this project initially—and it was a no-brainer for me to get involved. I’m drawn to projects that I know will expand my mind and my soul. The chance to immerse myself in this project and deepen my understanding of Gloria’s life and work has been completely life-altering.

This is such a rich and uniquely interactive theater experience. How did this play upend the typical model of directing for theater? How did you begin to approach the task of telling Gloria’s story and calling the audience to arms in the process?

The whole point of telling Gloria’s story in Act I is to transform the audience and get them to a place where they are ready to share their own stories in Act II. We created an installation in the set design that was all about the audience sitting in an actual circle, so the physical space evokes the Act II talking circle. The audience is always present—there is no fourth wall; they are included and directly involved in the theatrical event.

What was it like watching this play come to life?

One of the most thrilling aspects of watching this play come to life was to experience the meaning this story had for our cast and creative team. The artists that collaborated on this play ranged vastly in age—from our youngest directing assistant, a recent high school graduate, to women in their fifities and sixties, all the way up to Gloria herself at 84. Throughout the process, everyone shared stories of their own lives, and in this way we learned about the history of the women’s movement up to the present moment through our own personal histories.

Watching Act II come to life has been similarly inspiring, hearing the audience share their own experiences about what resonated in the play for them. There have been so many emotional and galvanizing moments.

For so many, the play is a trip down memory lane. And for younger generations, it is an informative lesson of where we came from and what our mothers and grandmothers have been through.

This isn’t your first feminist feat, on stage or on screen. Such a major part of this play is the notion, I think, that Gloria’s story is, in some ways, part of our own stories—and that we have stories just as wild and wonderful to share with the world, and which we must begin to tell to one another. How do you think the feminist movement shaped your own life, and your work? 

I went to an all-girls school growing up: The Brearley School in New York City. There was never any question that we could be whoever we wanted to be and say whatever we wanted to say. In high school, I marched for the ERA and I lobbied for Planned Parenthood in Albany. I actually wanted to go into politics—my goal was to become the mayor of New York. In the end, theater became the way for me to channel that impulse to bring people together and make change.

Now, having done this project, I have an even deeper understanding of how everything that I have been able to do in my life is thanks to the efforts of the women’s movement. 

I am so grateful to have had the chance to see this play—I attended the night Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a Ms. Contributor, led the act two talking circle. It’s such an immersive and inspiring event. I’m so curious about the vision that guided everyone toward the shape it ultimately took. What impact were you hoping each performance would have on the audience? What impact has it had which made you most proud so far?

In the play, Gloria says “every social justice movement has started with people sitting in a circle—like this. We called it consciousness raising… It’s all about sharing what’s wrong and what to do about it.” I am most proud of the simple fact that we’ve created a space for people to sit in a circle and to recognize that their own stories have value. I know that audience members leave the theater newly energized and inspired to create their own talking circles.

Yes, absolutely. As the run winds down to a close this spring, I am confident a league of driven and bold women will emerge in its wake. Now, just for fun: If you could invite any five feminists—from contemporary times or ancient history, or anywhere in between—to see this play and then join you afterward for a talking circle, who would you save a seat for?

I would definitely want to include the figures in our play—Dorothy Pittman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller.

And Joan of Arc!

Ms. readers can save over 25% on tickets to “Gloria: A Life” on Ticketmaster or by calling 800-745-3000 and using the code GLP65.

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms. , co-host of TRIGGER HAPPY on Binge Networks and co-founder of Argot Magazine. Her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, Bitch, Mic, MEL, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle. Like everyone else in LA, she once had a podcast; unlike everyone else, she stays pretty zen in traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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One Woman’s Search for Herself is at the Core of “I Am the Night”

Picks of the Week is Women and Hollywood’s newest resource. We are often asked for recommendations, so each week we’ll spotlight the women-driven and women-made projects—movies, series, VOD releases and more—that we’re most excited about. Sign up for the Women and Hollywood newsletter at to get each week’s pick delivered to your inbox.

This Week’s Pick: “I Am the Night” Miniseries

For “Wonder Woman” fans, “I Am the Night” is a nice holdover until the blockbuster’s sequel lands in summer 2020, as director Patty Jenkins reunites with stars Chris Pine and Connie Nielsen. For everyone else, this six-episode TNT miniseries is an entertaining, thrilling blend of LA noir and bildungsroman.

Inspired by the life of Fauna Hodel and set in 1965, “I Am the Night” is about Pat (India Eisley), a young woman who finds out she’s adopted and sets out to find her birth mother. Her biological grandfather is Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a rich, well-regarded gynecologist with some very dark secrets. In fact, journalist Jay Singletary (Pine) torpedoed his career by reporting on Hodel’s alleged misdeeds. Jay—now working the sleazy stringer circuit to pay the bills—eventually teams up with Pat, aka Fauna, to find out the truth about her family.

As intriguing as the central mystery in “I Am the Night” is, Pat’s struggle with her own identity makes the show. She’s a light-skinned mixed-race girl being raised by a black single mother (Golden Brooks) in a small Nevada town. Like the other black citizens, she is routinely mistreated and harassed. But, for those who don’t know her, Pat passes for white. Things get even more complicated when Pat realizes she’s adopted and was born Fauna Hodel. Her birth certificate says her mother is white and her father is black. And that’s just the beginning of her journey. Each episode, it seems, Fauna discovers something new about herself.

“I Am the Night,” therefore, is the story of Fauna finding out who she really is. Hers is an extremely specific experience, of course, but it’s also recognizable to anyone who wrestled with their own sense of self as a teenager. Similar to her work in “Wonder Woman,” Jenkins—who directed three episodes and exec produces—gives her protagonist the space and screen time to pursue the truth about herself, process it and choose the best way to move forward. (Rachel Montpelier)

“I Am the Night” premieres on TNT January 28 at 9pm EST.

Women and Hollywood educates, advocates and agitates for gender diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and the global film industry. The site, founded in 2007 by Melissa Silverstein, sets the standard, defines the conversation, fuels coverage and reinforces messages throughout the specialized and mainstream media to call for gender parity on a daily basis. Follow W&H at @WomenaHollywood and Melissa @MelSil.

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We Heart: The ACLU’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg-Inspired Campaign for Workplace Equality

Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex is bringing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life back to the big screen—and with the launch of a new campaign, the ACLU is helping viewers find their own way back to the work that launched her legendary career.

Ginsburg co-founded the civil liberties organization’s Women’s Rights Project, paving the way for their groundbreaking work around issues including pregnancy and parenting, education equity and equal pay. All Rise connects that legacy to the current political moment—educating, empowering and mobilizing women to combat workplace discrimination in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

Through a series of digital tools, the campaign informs women about their rights at work and provides them with quick pathways to action. Interactive maps depict the status of legislation and policies impacting women in the workplace in every state, from efforts to outlaw pregnancy discrimination and end the wage gap to mandates for paid family leave and breastfeeding accommodations. Users can also learn in one click about federal initiatives, including the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Equal Rights Amendment, that would give women a boost in workplaces across the country.

Once they’re good and angry, visitors are then promoted to pass it on via graphics and promotional videos ripe for sharing on social media.

“RBG is a force of nature,” Lingua Franca, a New York based cashmere brand known for sweaters bearing activist messages, said in a statement. “She reminds us all that we all have more inner strength than we may know or believe.” The design house is one of many female-fronted fashion brands doing their part to spread the word about women’s equality, including Diane von Furstenburg and Soludos. “Egalite” wrist wallets and “All Rise” sweaters are also available for purchase, providing a fashionable twist for celebrating Ginsburg’s feminist spirit.

In conjunction with the campaign, On the Basis of Sex will screen in workplaces nationwide to raise awareness around the ACLU’s gender equality initiatives, and group tickets for theater showings are also being sold through the organization’s website.

The idea behind the All Rise campaign is simple: “It takes everyone to create real change.” Click here to get involved.

Katie Stone is a Ms. editorial intern. Originally from New York, she is currently studying journalism and communication design at the University of Southern California. Katie is the editor of Spoon University at USC and has also been published on Intersections South LA.

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Golden Mermaids: Lesbian Creativity Through the Ages

I edited and compiled Sinister Wisdom 111: Golden Mermaids, and wrote the introductory “Notes for a Magazine,” in the fall of 2018—while listening to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Here is some of what I wrote.

It is early in the hearing; Dr. Ford just finished testifying. Senator Feinstein has just entered into the record one hundred, sixty letters supporting Dr. Ford from neighbors and over 1,000 letters from women physicians. The fact of these letters captures my imagination, and nearly reduces me to tears. These letters strike me as both congressional testimony and letters to the future, expressing perhaps promise or hope by women for a better future for all women. My hope listening to this hearing is that it is the last hearing needed for a Supreme Court nominee accused of misogynistic behavior. My fear is it will not be the last. Those letters, they contain the secret whispers of the future for how women will continue to speak out and resist.

Sinister Wisdom is like those letters entered by Senators as testimony. Sinister Wisdom as a journal has archived lesbian writing over the past 43 years. Lesbians write, and we enter it into the record.

Sinister Wisdom 111: Golden Mermaids, which officially published this month, offers testimony of lesbian lives today and features some of the best work from contemporary lesbian writers and artists. The words and images inside are a whisper and a promise to a future when lesbians are interested in reading the stories from these pages. 

6,000 copies of back issues of Sinister Wisdom are currently stored in the Sinister Wisdom office in Florida. I call these back issues our “vault.” In 2016, I moved over 10,000 copies of back issues from a storage facility in Berkeley, California.

Over the past two years, Sinister Wisdom distributed about 5,000 copies of the back issues to readers all over the United States and around the world, giving new voice to lesbians of yore. That work continues. 

Every year, we mail a new back issue from the “vault” with every package that leaves Sinister Wisdom. These back issues represent a vault of lesbian creativity—they are the golden mermaids of our past anchoring us as we write and envision lesbian futures.

We will continue to donate copies of all available back issues to community centers, libraries, schools, prisons and other places where lesbian readers can find and enjoy them until there are fewer than 2,000 issues of the journal on hand. (If you know somewhere we should send copies, please be in touch. Storing some back issues is an important function of Sinister Wisdom; we are dedicated to retaining our herstory. At the same time, the number of back issues stored needs to be manageable and not require a massive storage facility.)

What will Sinister Wisdom be and do 43 years into the future? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, there are issues to read.

Start with the current Sinister Wisdom 111: Golden Mermaids and then read backward. Afterward, bring Sinister Wisdom your wild ideas and imaginings! Be a golden mermaid and join us in celebrating lesbian creativity.

p1030388-150x150Julie R. Enszer, Ph.D., is a visiting assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Maryland. She is writing a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2000 and is author of Sisterhood and Handmade Love. She is editor of Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She has her MFA and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She is the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. You can read more of her work at

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Getting Closer to Cleo

Shot in black and white by one of Mexico’s premier directors, Netflix’s Roma is a visual feast and a lovingly told story.

At the center of the film, directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Gravity and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and set in Mexico City in the 1970s, is an indigenous Mixtec woman who works as a nanny for a middle-class family. Viewers follow Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, through a day in her life—one in which the family she works for falls apart in the foreground while Mexico itself experiences political upheaval in the background.

The largely autobiographical plot in Roma is simple: A physician abandons his family to be with his mistress. The family fractures. Cleo helps hold it together. What is noteworthy is that Cuaron chose to tell his family’s story from Cleo’s point of view—putting an indigenous Mixtec woman at the center of his own personal narrative.

Marina de Tavia and Veronica Garcia deliver excellent performances as similarly engaging female characters in Roma—but this is Cleo’s movie. The story belongs to domestic workers, who rarely see themselves on screen. The camera is always pointed at Cleo: Viewers follow along as she moves through her day—with her washing down the driveway at the film’s opening and her workday caring for the children and doing a myriad of chores coming soon after. Alongside her, Cuaron depicts other women doing the same, breaking Cleo out of her own silo and depicting her as part of a cohort of laborers and a class of workers.

But even though Cuaron takes exceptional care with the tone and with every detail of Roma, and Aparicio plays Cleo with sensitivity and authenticity—drawing from her own experience as a domestic worker, as well as the parallel experiences of her mother—in the end her character remains enigmatic. There are many scenes in which Cleo is largely stoic and selfless. Excepting one moment when she and another Mixtec woman who works for the same family commiserate together, we never really hear Cleo’s perspective on the labor she performs or the family that employs her, and we don’t see women like her looking accurately exhausted because of those factors. While we feel intimately acquainted with Cleo, her inner life stays mostly out of reach.

I longed to watch Cleo at home. If she had returned to her village—in the film, she feels she can’t face her mother because she is pregnant and unmarried—we could have seen her within her own context.

I was struck by a scene depicting Cleo in the backseat of the family’s car, gazing out of the window after everyone a trip to the beach during which she is embraced as part of their family. The beautiful and haunting shot underscored her inscrutability: What was she thinking about? Cleo is loving, and giving, and we know this about her, but do we really know her—not through Cuaron’s eyes, but through her own?

Many films about domestic workers are told from the point of view of the elite class. Too often, the character—the person—with less social status doesn’t get to tell their story from their own point of view. That echoes the status quo in our own communities, one which Cuaron took aim at deliberately by making Cleo the focus of his own semi-autobiographical film.

“I was a white, middle-class, Mexican kid living in this bubble,” Cuaron explained to Variety about the evolving view of his own rearing by a nanny in adulthood. “I didn’t have an awareness. I [had] what your parents tell you—that you have to be nice to people who are less privileged than you and all of that—but you’re in your childhood universe.”

Cuaron went to Oaxaca to find Aparicio, returning to the place where his own nanny, a woman named Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez, hailed from. His honest acknowledgement of the socioeconomic and racial barriers that he now knows were wedged between him and the woman who helped raised him is admirable—as is his intention to bring visibility to women like her.

Roma goes as far as it can to give Cleo agency; the film places her in nearly every scene. Yet she remains anchored to the middle-class family she works for, and her story remains an extension of theirs. The affection with which Cuaron took on the challenge of telling Cleo’s story, and placing her front and center in the plot of his own life, was important. It marked a major improvement, a milestone and a breakthrough.

Still, I wish we had gotten closer. I wish we had been allowed to see further beneath the surface of Cleo, into the rich and unique world she inhabits all on her own, and outside of the demands which shape her identity when she’s on the clock.

Leslie Absher is a freelance writer and journalist. She writes about women’s lives, politics and growing up with a CIA dad. Find her at

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LISTEN: Kamala Harris Sounds Off on Speaking Truth

During her time in the U.S. Senate, and as a deputy and then-elected District Attorney in San Francisco and Attorney General of California, Senator Kamala Harris has earned a reputation as a firebrand. Her direct and fierce questions for Trump appointees have gone viral, and her powerful words have inspired activists across the country protesting family separation and economic inequality.

Harris’ memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, released this week, gives readers a glimpse into the journey which shaped her career as a self-described “joyful warrior” in what she sees as a “battle for the soul of the country.” But this book is more than just a personal story. In true Harris fashion, it’s also a call to arms.

The Truths We Hold explores Harris’ own struggle to speak truth to power and spark change—in politics and in her own everyday life. In an exclusive audio clip from the audiobook for Ms. readers, the prominent politician lays out a number of critical economic issues facing our nation—including debt-free college, affordable housing and child care—and implores all of us to face down the opposition and speak up, as loudly as possible, to demand the change we seek.

“We have work to do. Hard work. Indispensable work,” Harris declares. “We have everything we need, all of the raw ingredients, to build an economy for the 21st century that is fair and sturdy, an economy that rewards the work of those who sustain it. But we have to hurry—and we have to be willing to speak truth.”

Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, by Kamala Harris, read by the author.

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms., co-host of TRIGGER HAPPY on Binge Networks and co-founder of Argot Magazine. Her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, Bitch, Mic, MEL, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle. Like everyone else in LA, she once had a podcast; unlike everyone else, she stays pretty zen in traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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Coming Together, Healing Anonymously

Ever since the #MeToo movement erupted on social media, countless heartbreaking stories of sexual harassment and assault from prominent public figures have surfaced in the media. The powerful women going public with their trauma are shining an important light on rape culture—but we must continue to think of the women who don’t feel safe coming forward, or aren’t yet ready.

There are still many reasons women who survive sexual assault and abuse stay silent. One of them is the fear of being judged, which is compounded by the pressure of keeping up appearances on social media. Women also still feel very responsible for everyone around them, and they are afraid of how coming forward would affect their loved ones—which the digital landscape further complicates.

Coverage of various #MeToo stories sometimes focuses more on the social buzz around a story than the healing of victims and building justice for survivors. This type of media coverage is harmful—it opens up victims to judgment and speculation and turns serious trauma into a pundit’s talking point. 

That’s why I started findSisterhood, an app where anyone that identifies as women can share stories anonymously.

The rules are simple: no bullying and no mean comments. I want to create and cultivate a safe space for women to talk about not only sexual assault, but about anything in their lives that compels them to call out for support and solidarity. The main goal of findSisterhood is to create a strong, empathetic support system for any women that’s available to them 24/7, right in their pocket.

The #MeToo movement is a reminder of how pervasive rape culture really is—and how critical for survivors it can be to remember that they aren’t alone. In a world where social media shapes our social lives, we need to make it possible for women to be authentic and safe. People want to connect. They want to be honest and real. With findSisterhood, women all over the world can tell the truth—without worrying about keeping up appearances.

Ana Pompa Alarcón Rawls is the CEO and founder of findSisterhood, a social network that allows women to share their stories and get advice without having to reveal their identity.

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