The recent spate of female-authored articles and books on the advances and challenges of working women in the U.S., along with the voluminous response they’ve garnered from men and women alike, has led me to think more broadly about the gargantuan subject of gender and labor.
The pieces which feature more personal reflection than journalism come from superwomen like Anne-Marie Slaughter, previously the first female director of policy planning at the State Department and currently a professor at Princeton, and Debora Spar, previously a professor at Harvard Business School and currently president of Barnard College. These women heeded the 1960s clarion call for smart, ambitious and dedicated women to break the glass ceiling, and they soared through it.
To their credit, they do not rest contently on the beams they’ve risen to but humbly and frankly acknowledge the physical and emotional toll of paving new ground in their careers while simultaneously retreading the old paths of marriage and motherhood. In “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and “Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect,” Slaughter and Spar (the tonal parallels in titles and names are amusing) issue a new call for women to strive for balance rather than perfection and for support from society, employers and each woman’s partner and network of friends.
Writing about the gender dynamics of the nation, Spar and Sandra Tsing Loh (in the shockingly privilege-deaf and male-objectifying article “The Weaker Sex”) both decry quinoa, an Andean seed crop often mistaken as a grain. In Spar’s words, the “Tiger Moms who prepare organic quinoa each evening after waltzing home from the IPO in our Manolo Blahnik heels.” I conclude that this is not a coincidence, but this topic is a real source of stress. I get it — quinoa is nutritious and trendy; it’s also a pain to clean out of your strainer and to find a sauce that pairs well with the nutty flavor. Just say no to quinoa then. Jests aside, “just say no” is a point that Spar does not make strongly enough when counseling women to lead balanced lives.
Anyone who’s bothered to scan Gannett’s inanely obvious tips for stress management knows that they call for doing more or doing better: sleep more, seek out healthier food options, exercise more or spend time with loved ones. Tell me, what is it that I’m supposed to cut out to achieve this student life balance? Class readings? Campus events? Job applications?
At the end of her article, Spar again stresses not going it alone but advocates for women to build nearby communities of (presumably female) friends to step in when they have a work emergency or business trip. This too takes more time and energy — for women — to sustain. I want conversations on efficiency and work-life balance to be about seriously paring down the things you feel obligated to do rather than finding ways to do more.
In short, these articles do not go unappreciated, but to me they do not voice the frustrations of all or even most working women, but rather those of high-achieving individuals in general. Slaughter at least fully acknowledges her socioeconomic standing and in a reply to her piece, even nods to Touré, who writes in “Men Never ‘Had It All’” that by feeling pressured to choose work over family, men historically have faced considerable physical and emotional tolls as well.
What I find more interesting is writing like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women and “Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?” She covers less-educated women who started off in low-paying government, hospital and service positions and who have made burgeoning careers for themselves as those sectors grew in recent years. The women of Alexander City, Alabama are also going it alone because growth in the industries they dominate has been coincident with the collapse of the out-sourced textile industry which employed their husbands. Without choosing to, they have joined the growing ranks of female primary — or sole — providers.
Although these secretaries-turned-managers realize that they benefited from the hiring practices demanded by “bra-burning” feminists, they see themselves as participating in a social evolution, in which they, overwhelmingly more than their husbands, possess the transferable skills to move into new workforce niches. Perhaps because they had not always strived to become equal parts career-woman and supermom, they did not constantly compare themselves to the ideals of dual perfection wrapped up in that modern image of the working mother.
The conversation on the changing tides of the gender economy has attracted fresh attention through the work of dedicated feminists like Slaughter and Spar, but I wonder what the next wave would look like if it were led by more reluctant feminists, or perhaps their daughters. I am the daughter of an inadvertent, primary breadwinner feminist, and I am lucky to have always been encouraged to be competitive and balanced but not perfect in an unrealistic number of ways.
Jing Jin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ringing True appears alternate Mondays this semester.