‘Women’s Stories’ propels author Orenstein, conference keynoter

When Peggy Orenstein – a journalist and best-selling author – delivers the keynote address at REALITY 2010: A Jewish Women’s Conference on April 25 at the Jewish Community Center, she will tell a tale she has told for years.

“All my work has been about women’s stories,” says Orenstein, 48. “There are lots of ways to look at history. When we share our stories, we can see what they say about the larger questions of who we are and how we live. Anybody’s life has that potential-we all have something in our stories that illuminates the larger questions.”


In her talk “We’re History: The Emotional Impact of Sharing Women’s Stories,” Orenstein will emphasize the importance of women’s relationships and the impact of telling stories on women’s emotional health. Orenstein also will lead a workshop at the conference on “Princesses, ‘Perfect’ Girls and Pop Tarts: What the New Culture of Girlhood Means for our Girls.”

Orenstein is the author of “Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, An Oscar, An Atomic Bomb, A Romantic Night and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother,” “Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love and Life in a Half-Changed World” and “School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap.”

A contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, Orenstein also has written for the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Vogue, Elle, Discover, More, Mother Jones, Salon, O: The Oprah Magazine and The New Yorker. She has contributed commentaries to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and Orenstein has been featured on “Nightline,” “Good Morning America,” “The Today Show,” “Fresh Air,” “Morning Edition” and Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s “As It Happens.”

A graduate of Oberlin College, Orenstein lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, filmmaker Steven Okazaki, and their daughter, Daisy Tomoko. Speaking by phone from her husband’s office late in March, Orenstein mentions she is originally from Minneapolis. “My ancestors were homesteaders, lumberjacks and railroad workers in the northern Midwest,” says Orenstein. She laughs and adds, “To Jewish people in New York, that’s really weird.”

Some years ago, Orenstein read “Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains,” about an 18-year-old Russian Jew shipped to the U.S. in 1894 as a mail-order bride. “This book was the most harrowing thing I’d ever read – it completely decimated Laura Ingalls Wilder,” says Orenstein. “Calof’s story, translated from Yiddish, comes from an oral history of a Jewish woman who was a homesteader in North Dakota. It changed my whole perspective of what it meant to be on the frontier. For me, this was a touchstone story.”

The book also confirmed Orenstein’s assertion that women’s stories were undertold then, and are undertold now. Sometimes, though, it’s our own fault. While researching her book “Flux,” Orenstein interviewed some 200 women in small groups. “Women who were living different ways, having different experiences, were reluctant to tell their stories in front of one another,” says Orenstein.

“We had the stay-at-home moms versus the working moms – they couldn’t be in a group together. Also, the women with children and the women without children -whether they were in their 20s or 40s – had a hard time talking in front of each other,” she says. “Whether they were being embattled or polite, they would not share valuable information.”

Orenstein continues: “When we are with people unlike ourselves, we don’t open up. I think the strength of that book was that you could use it as a window or a mirror, and see without judging. And I think it reinforced the need to tell our stories.”

In “Waiting for Daisy,” Orenstein told her own story about trying to conceive a child. It is a remarkable story, told with much courage and humor and emotional honesty. Daisy is now 6, and Orenstein has a new story to tell. Her next book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” will be out in January 2011. The book, which Orenstein developed after writing an article on the topic for the New York Times Magazine, is about the feminization of marketing and the media.

“There was Daisy, going along, happy as you please, interested in Thomas trains. Then we put her in preschool,” says Orenstein. “Suddenly she knew the names of every Disney

princess and she wanted a princess dress. Where did that come from? I know a lot of parents are attached to their daughters’ interest in princesses, but as a Jewish woman, it made me uncomfortable.”

By the time Daisy was bitten by the princess bug, Orenstein had already written “School Girls,” a book about girls and self-image and educational inequity. “I’ve always been interested in girls’ lives, their culture and identity,” she says. “I knew about the hyper-pink, hyper-girly culture that has come up in the last 10 to 15 years, and I knew that what goes on in little girls’ culture feeds into bigger girls’ issues. What I didn’t know was that there are now 26,000 Disney princess items available.”

Orenstein notes that to Disney, the princess merchandise is simply the first step in brand loyalty. “You want to trust Disney, but all this merchandise teaches girls to want to be looked at, to be valued for their appearance, for being pretty,” she says.

“Little girls as princesses are cute, and at first it’s hard to connect that to what happens when the girls are older. You don’t want it to be connected, and the argument can be made that it’s not connected. But it is.”

For more on Orenstein and her work, go to www.peggyorenstein.com. And don’t expect her to be wearing pink in any of the photos.

SIDEBAR: Reality 2010 conference focuses on Jewish women

Body, mind and spirit all are on the agenda for REALITY 2010: A Jewish Women’s Conference. “Two years ago, we held a conference on Jewish women and the arts, and this time, we wanted to focus on women’s health and wellness,” said Ronit Sherwin, executive director of Nishmah: The St. Louis Jewish Women’s Project. “We approached the Jewish Community Center, and they were on the same page.”

REALITY 2010 will take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 25 at the Staenberg Family Complex on the I.E. Millstone Campus. The conference will include national and local speakers, more than 20 workshops, health and fitness demonstrations and vendor booths. Sherwin said she expects about 300 people to attend.

Author Peggy Orenstein (see article at left) will deliver the keynote speech at mid-day on “We’re History: The Emotional Impact of Sharing Women’s Stories.” Orenstein also will lead a workshop. “I’ve been a big fan of Peggy’s writing for years -her writing is somewhat holistic – so I contacted her,” said Sherwin.

“We’re also bringing in Jodyne L. Speyer, who will speak on ‘Dump ‘Em: How to Break Up With Anyone From Your Best Friend to Your Hairdresser,’ and Judy Elkin, a Jewish educator and life coach, who will speak on ‘Your Jewish Journey: By Chance or Choice?'” said Sherwin.

Other workshops include:

* “Homeopathic Health – Remedies and Preventatives”

* “Life’s Next Step: Creating a Meaningful Retirement”

* “Live Safely: Everyday Ways to Protect Yourself”

* “Balancing the Equation – Four Worlds of Joy for Busy Women”

* “Wellness by the Decade: Q &A”

* “Living Genetics: Breast Cancer and the Jewish Family”

* “Healthy Sexuality at Any Age”

Demonstration sessions will include yoga, zumba, waltz, salsa and Pilates. A Women’s Health and Wellness Expo, with local vendors and organizations, will be held all afternoon. For details on the workshops and for biographies of the presenters, see www.nishmah.org or www.jccstl.com.

Sherwin credited the planning committee with coming up with ideas for workshops and information booths. Penny Alper, Karen Sher and Kim Wallis are event chairs.

Sponsors of REALITY 2010 include Central Agency for Jewish Education, Central Reform Congregation, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Congregation Temple Israel, J Associates, Jewish Council Against Family Violence, National Council for Jewish Women, Saul Mirowitz Day School – Reform Jewish Academy, Solomon Schechter Day School, St. Louis Chapter Hadassah, St. Louis Hillel, United Hebrew Congregation and Women’s Connection of the Jewish Federation.

Reality 2010: A Jewish Women’s Conference

WHO: Nishmah and the Jewish Community Center

WHAT: A conference on women’s health and wellness

WHEN: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 25

WHERE: Staenberg Family Complex on the I.E. Millstone Campus

HOW MUCH: $80 full day, $65 half day, $60 student or educator

REGISTRATION: See www.nishmah.org or www.jccstl.com or call 314-442-3268 or 314-862-2777