Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Feminism vs. Reality

Just as good fences make for good neighbors, good information makes for good decisions.

One doubts that she intended to, but Sheryl Sandberg has provoked a debate that is threatening the foundations of contemporary feminism.

Sandberg’s book matters because of who she is and what she has accomplished. But, she is not a thinker and no one should expect that she can contribute substantive ideas to the current debate.

Charlotte Allen explains that Sandberg’s book is riddled with contradictions:

Here Ms. Sandberg's book dissolves into a soup of contradictions that foster a single gender stereotype: Women can't think straight. On the one hand, she argues that nearly the only biological difference between men and women is that men can't breast-feed. On the other, she insists that having "more women in leadership positions" would "create a better world." So should we presume, then, that men and women are essentially different? 

The premise of Sandberg’s book is the shopworn notion that women can be corporate leaders, great wives and great mothers at the same time.

Perhaps Sandberg can do it, but, as Anne-Marie Slaughter famously wrote, it takes a superwoman to do it all without hurting someone near and dear to her.

Now Susan Walsh responds with an account of her own experience. To her, it’s all about choice. Not about that choice, but about the important choice every woman makes when she decides where to invest her time, her effort and her energy.

In Walsh’s words:

As women, we face choices. You cannot give 100% of yourself  to a career and another 100% of yourself to your family. You cannot be a superstar in both realms, it is impossible. Over the years, I have known many women who had careers and children – hundreds. I have never known a woman who had a high-powered career and a close relationship to her husband and children. Not one.Maybe Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer will be the exceptions, but I doubt it. Every single one of us must compromise if we want to find balance in life. 

Walsh is telling young women to base their choices on a realistic sense of what is possible and what is not. I myself have heard more than a few mothers explain that a woman with a high powered career can certainly be a mother, but she cannot be a good mother.

No one can be all things to all people.

And then there is the case of Erin Callan. For every Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer there are many more Erin Callans. You recall that Callan was the CFO of Lehman Bros. before it filed for bankruptcy. A senior executive in a major financial services firm, she was a feminist heroine. Now retired, Callan explained in a recent article for the New York Times that she laments the price she paid for her career success.

She addresses her words to young women:

I have spent several years now living a different version of my life, where I try to apply my energy to my new husband, Anthony, and the people whom I love and care about. But I can’t make up for lost time. Most important, although I now have stepchildren, I missed having a child of my own. I am 47 years old, and Anthony and I have been trying in vitro fertilization for several years. We are still hoping.

Sometimes young women tell me they admire what I’ve done. As they see it, I worked hard for 20 years and can now spend the next 20 focused on other things. But that is not balance. I do not wish that for anyone. Even at the best times in my career, I was never deluded into thinking I had achieved any sort of rational allocation between my life at work and my life outside.

And then, Newsweek has just published an article by former NPR war correspondent, Mary Louise Kelly. In it Kelly describes her the moment when she decided that she could not have it all, that she had to choose between her child’s well-being and her career.

One day, when she was in Baghdad her son’s school nurse called her. He had fallen ill and needed to be taken to the hospital. One might say that a less sexist culture would have called the child’s father, but Kelly recognizes that, ideology aside, her son needed his mother. His father would not have been an adequate stand-in.

She describes her thought:

I was trying to answer her when the line went dead. The Black Hawk lifted off. My son needed me, and I was in a helicopter halfway around the world, gazing down over the snarled traffic of Baghdad. Just like that, I hit the wall.

Several months later she walked away from her career. She describes what happened then:

Seven months after Baghdad, I resigned from my job at NPR. Knowing that I was fortunate to have a choice in the first place—when the vast majority of working parents do not—still didn’t make it easy to walk away from a career in which I’d invested nearly 20 years. But the brutal truth is that I didn’t want to “lean in” anymore.

These days my typical work schedule looks like this: drop kids at school, write for a few hours, pick kids up, supervise homework and dinner, tuck kids into bed, write for another hour. On a wild day I might squeeze in a couple loads of laundry, too. The life of a jet-setting correspondent it ain’t….

… I certainly haven’t figured out the million-dollar question, Can Women Have It All? I second-guess my decision to resign all the time. And it goes without saying that many people wouldn’t or couldn’t make the same choices I have; I might have reacted differently myself at an earlier or later stage in my career.

But I must be doing something right. My healthy, thriving, now seven-year-old son walked into my study as I sat writing this, and asked what I was working on. 

“Well,” I began, “it’s an article about trying to be a good mom and be good at your job at the same time.”

He nodded solemnly. “You’d be the perfect person to write that, Mom,” he said, and then he wandered off to play with Legos. That’s enough to boost you over the wall, and then some.

Of course, no one is telling young women what to do or what not to do. A lot of older women are trying to tell younger women to think long and hard about their choices between career and family. They are telling younger women that the feminist siren song—you can have it all—looks a lot better in theory than in practice. They are telling young women that they should think long and hard before believing the distortions that have been used to sell the feminist life plan.


Zbignu said...

The debate between 'high-powered career woman' and 'good mom' seems flawed too me. I believe that everyone, regardless of sex, should strive for high goals. However, I believe there needs to be some realism about this topic. How many of the women fretting over this debate are actually going to be 'high flying/powered' Sheryl Sandbergs or Marissa Mayers? The reality is, most of these women who will sacrifice family for career will be middle-management at best. Perhaps the lure of a corporate jet and power over millions of dollars and thousands of employees is enough to get some to forsake their families but pulling all-nighters away from home in order to finish up a powerpoint you will present to 25 HR weenies doesn't seem worth it.

Anonymous said...

There is no one univocal meaning or message of "feminism." There is no big head of OZ behind it all. "Feminism" is a vast plurality of DIFFERENT ideas and opinions, with a long, diverse history. To say otherwise is to live in a Wizard of Oz fantasy land with no basis in reality.

The way you speak about feminists and femimism, is like someone who trolls the univserse looking for Jewish-sounding names, finds a few, and then goes on rants about "what JUDAISM thinks." In fact every time you use the word feminism, just replace it with JUDAISM to see how it sounds.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Of course, there are different branches of Judaism, but there are not different Judaisms.

Somehow everyone who is writing about Sandberg and Mayer seems to understand that there are some basic beliefs that found contemporary feminism. No one is suggesting that the women who, like Sandberg, adhere to feminist beliefs do not represent feminism. In fact, some writers have even suggested that feminism is a label that should be dispensed with. If you don't agree, then please enlighten us.

David Foster said...

As the late and very great Neptunus Lex wrote, in connection with some personal decision points:

"I’ve often wished that you could split at each important choice in life. Go both ways, each time a fork in the road came up. Compare notes at the end, those of us that made it to the clearing at the end of the path. Tell it all over a tumbler of smokey, single malt.

But you only get to play one quarter, and you balance what’s wanted with what’s needed. You do the best you can."

Anonymous said...

Warren Farrell wrote The Myth of Male Power as a response to what he regarded as a response to early ideas called Feminism.

It appears that as Women take some of the positions of social power and authority, or accumulate wealth, women as a group must now grapple with the same ideas, or what we might call the Myth of Female Power.

J.J. said...

The irony is striking. As some contemporary feminists ushered in an era of breaking traditional gender roles, it has evolved into "Lean in, we need more women at the top." As more of these women realize that there is very little equilibrium in pursuing career, life, and family simultaneously, the group of young women they've left in their wake are stuck wondering why they have trouble maintaining relationships, raising children, etc and they are still clinging to these beliefs and passing them on. For what? The good feelings of saying/hearing them? Is it worth it? Hope so.