Friday, April 19, 2013

Who Is Elsa Walsh?

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.

Walsh contends:

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.


dragonlady said...

this represents a shift in Walsh's thinking from her earlier publish work. A good shift. But she did her share of harm earlier on.

Dennis said...


Isn't this true of most feminists? It is immature, unthinking and driven by an ideology that has no time for other than "ME."
I would posit that is why as women mature, learn a little about real life and begin to ask themselves "Who do I really want to be and what is important to me in the long run?,"they begin the trip away from radical feminism. We all say a lot of things that we later wish we had not.

Sam L. said...

I had no idea Woodward is her husband. I'm in flyover country.

Ann Althouse has a different take on this.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Althouse did not take some of it seriously, but she was also seven years older than Walsh. I doubt that Walsh was a nitwit, as Althouse calls her... and the truth of the matter is, an awful lot of women took Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem very seriously, indeed. Perhaps women who were serious intellectuals preferred Simone de Beauvoir, but most women did not.

David Foster said...

“Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” writes Sandberg. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”

If this is true, then her management skills are in serious need of upgrading. Sure, there will always be the occasional crisis that can be handled only by top management...but if a crisis like that is happening every single weekend, then something is wrong.

If Sandberg has to be available basically 24x7 to run a basically simple business such as Facebook, what on earth would she do if she found herself running GE or the Department of Defense?

Sam L. said...

I replied to Althouse that most college age kids are nitwits (and i thought Walsh called herself that, not Althouse), and most grow out of that.

I'm not running back thru her article and comments to check.

Kristi said...

Dennis: Feminism is to young women what libertarianism is to young men. Both are self centered ideologies that are usually out grown. The problem with feminism, is that the growing out of period has been very long and drawn out.

Dennis said...

As I have stated before, I liked the early feminists and agreed with them. I thought that we would go through a period where eventually feminism would declare victory and go on to live more fulfilled lives. A man who has a happy wife is going to be a happy man. Little did I know it would morph into what it has become. An aside here. That is where I, at least I had not read it anywhere else, developed the theory that all movements eventually are taken over by the radicals, etc.
A lot of young men have immature ideas, but marriage and responsibility soon disabuses them of them. I would suggest that is why radical feminism needs to delay marriage, child birth, avoidance of responsibility,et al. It has to keep women in a constant state of pre-adulthood.This seems to be true now because we seemed to have extended childhood well past the time that one should be taking on adult responsibilities.
I had every expectation that young women would grow as they matured because they were supposed to be, I was told, more adult than young men and it did seem that way from my experiences.
Fifty years later we still have a significant number of women, and men, who have not matured and are more intent on seeing each other as the enemy instead of the partners they should be. Not an optimum environment to maintenance a healthy society that develops respect for each other's strengths, et al.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

In re: Sam L's remark. Since Althouse does not put the word "nitwit" in quotation marks, I suggest that it was not Walsh's word. Althouse also suggests that Walsh doesn't have a brain... I suppose it's her way of defending feminism.

Althouse also suggests that Walsh is disassociating herself from feminism because she has a book to promote. In fact, if you follow the link that Alhouse provides you will see that the book in question was published in 1996.

Dennis said...

For the record, when I state adulthood I mean the point where one begins to realize that there is something greater than self and that one has responsibilities commensurate with that realization.

Dennis said...


One for you. I cannot hear the name Elsa without thinking of this:

Enjoy a nice respite from all that has been going on.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Dennis. It's wonderful music.

Sam L. said...

Althouse wrote, "The author makes her college age self sound like a nitwit." I don't see this as calling her a nitwit, but that's my reading.

I didn't read Walsh's article, so won't dispute your take.

Further, deponent sayeth not.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Then, Althouse says: "If you had a brain at the time, you didn't take this stuff at face value. I don't accept Walsh's assertion that oh, if you were only there back then in the 1970s, you'd have been thoroughly intoxicated."

Millions of women took Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem at face value. Does this mean that they were all a bunch of brainless nitwits. For my part I refuse to insult such a large number of women for preferring Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to Simone de Beauvoir.

I will not dispute anyone's sense of the mind of a teenage girl, but if Walsh was born in 1958 she was in her early teens when feminism broke on the scene in the early 1970s. For all I know girls that age are easily intoxicated.

I am struck by the contempt that Althouse expresses for Walsh. It feels like a rhetorical ploy to defend feminism against someone who is very intelligent and who changed her mind about the one true faith.

Anonymous said...

I happened to see Elsa Walsh on television today and Googled her. I haven't read her article yet, nor have I read the Althouse article.

Anyone who believes that feminism then or now was simply a self-centered movement is badly misinformed. Feminism aims to provide opportunities to women as a group through broad societal change. It believes that women are individuals with the right to their own dreams and destinies and that rigid, outdated, societal roles help no one, including men.

As with most movements, young people are at its heart and as young people age and acquire responsibilities and have to deal with the challenge of interacting with the world as it is, not as they think it should be, those people modify their perspective. Some reverse their views. None of this is unusual or surprising nor deserves to be mocked.

I was a journalist and generally follow media issues and did not know that Walsh was married to Bob Woodward until it was mentioned on TV. It is a significant fact because it establishes that Walsh, like Sandberg, is another very attractive, well-educated, white woman who has had opportunities and advantages not enjoyed by the vast majority of women. (I hate to sound as if I'm diminishing either woman because of her looks, but how attractive, white women are treated in environments that still are dominated by straight white men is part of the interaction with the real world that I described.)

It's not surprising that Walsh believes that women should scale down their expectations to "A good-enough life." Her life doesn't depend on the required changes for which feminism advocates. She would have a decent life either way. Other women don't and won't without feminism.