Elsa Walsh is not a feminist icon. Yet, she could have been.
Growing up around San Francisco during the early days of second wave feminism Walsh became a true-believer. Naturally, she attended Berkeley.
In a recent lecture she explained:
So, when I enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1975, I held three truths to be self-evident: I would never marry. I would never have a child. And I would have an interesting job, as a writer or a lawyer.
As with any other ideology, the important point about feminism is not what its theorists say, but what women understand.
Perhaps feminist leaders never told women not to marry or to have children. If young feminists come away from their consciousness raising sessions swearing never to marry and never to have children then that was the subliminal, and more important message.
In her lecture Walsh addressed what she calls the “public and heated discussion about women and feminism, work and family.”
She has not found the discussion to be very useful or encouraging because it caricatures women. .
Feminist ideology tends to reduce the complexity of women’s lives to feminist talking points. That means, it sees success or failure in terms of work and career.
In Walsh’s words:
Yet, I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.
Parenthood and family are much more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead, let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?
It helps to take a longer view of a woman’s life.
Keep in mind, Walsh herself married up. She married a renowned journalist who was nearly fifteen years older than she. Perhaps because it is common knowledge, but she does not mention that she married Bob Woodward.
She underscores the fact that her choice of husband has given her advantages that most women do not enjoy. She does not have to work to support her family and she has a great deal of household help. But, marrying up, as opposed both to marrying down and marrying equal, also gave her an important career advantage.
Walsh and Woodward never competed with each other. Woodward acted as her mentor, offering help and encouragement with her career. Today she is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Then, Walsh joins the numerous commentators who have pointed out that only a miniscule number of women can have a life like Sheryl Sandberg’s. Sandberg has the resources to combine a high-powered career with family life. Most women do not.
First, Sandberg does not seem to get just how hard it is to have a demanding job and a meaningful family life if you cannot afford child care and other help.
From reading Sandberg’s book Walsh came away thinking that the Facebook COO defines her life almost entirely around her work:
There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work. Even sex is framed as something that men will get more of if they pitch in and help their working wives.
To achieve Sandberg’s level of success a woman is obliged to spend an enormous time outside of home. Surely, a woman can be a mother and hold a demanding job, but, Walsh implies, how good a mother can she be?
In Walsh’s words:
Success, particularly the kind Sandberg calls for, requires ever more time at the office, ever more travel. It requires always being available, always a click away. Sandberg is almost giddy when she describes getting up at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails before her children wake up and getting back on her computer once they are asleep.
“Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”
For Walsh it is more important to be a better mother to her child. She describes the epiphany that led her to decide what was best for her child and what was best for her.
In her words:
When my daughter was 4, she came up to my home office one evening around 6:30. I was on a deadline and had been for days. She had two big bags filled with her stuff, her pajamas tucked in her backpack. She declared that she was not leaving the room until I came downstairs and played with her. I was frustrated and told her I was never going to be able to finish unless she left, and then I marched her down to her father.
This caused her to change her priorities:
It did not matter much to the greater world when my next article appeared, but it did matter to my daughter that I was nearby. And it mattered to me.