Syndicated Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, who brought 40 years of insight, wisdom and humor to her coverage of Women-with-a-capital-Dub, bid her vast audience farewell in a New Year’s Day column in which she wrote that she “was letting herself go.”
Hate it when that happens.
You can’t blame her from wanting to step back. Forty years of cranking out insightful prose without a break — 750 words at a shot, all backed by extensive reporting — is the stuff of Superwoman. But still. You have to wonder who will pick up the mantle, a rational and national voice, urging us to take ourselves seriously and to keep up the fight for change. If anyone made our struggles for equality at home and at work accessible to everyperson — even men — it was Goodman. You had to be operating with slightly less than half a brain not to recognize the sense in all she wrote. That’s how change happens.
A few days ago, she gave a thoughtful exit interview to the Poynter Institute’s Mallory Jean Tenore, who wrote about it here. Goodman, wrote Tenore, was an inspiration, “proof that the written word has power — to challenge the status quo, shape ideas and ultimately create change. ”
A lot of those ideas had to do with the status of women. In a Christmas Eve column, Goodman wrote of what she had seen in her 40 years of tracking feminism — all the while prodding us to consider how much we still need to get done. If she were to grade the movement, she writes, she’d give it an “incomplete.”
How to sum up the time and distance we’ve traveled? Advance and backlash? Forward march and stall-out?
Today, half the law students and medical students are female. But only 15 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. We had the first serious woman candidate run for president … and lose. We had a mother of five, a governor and a Title IX baby run for vice president … as a conservative.
The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated because people were scared into believing that women could end up in combat. Now nearly a quarter-million women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 120 have died, 650 have been wounded. But still no ERA.
What a story this has been to cover. Women now hold the majority of jobs … because men have lost more of them. Women earn six out of 10 college degrees … yet earn 77 cents for every male dollar.
A woman is now speaker of the House, but there are only 73 women in that House and 17 in the Senate. At 60, Meryl Streep is playing a romantic lead, yet girdles have been resurrected as “body shapers” and girls are forced into ever-more narrow standards of beauty. Young women grow up believing they can be anything they want, just don’t call them by the F-word: feminist.
My generation — WOMEN — thought the movement would advance on two legs. With one, we’d kick down the doors closed to us. With the other, we’d walk through, changing society for men and women.
It turned out that it was easier to kick down the doors than to change society. It was easier to fit into traditional male life patterns than to change those patterns. We’ve had more luck winning the equal right to 70-hour weeks than we’ve had selling the equal value of care-giving. We have yet to solve the problem raised at the outset: Who will take care of the family?
Goodman continues on the family track in her interview with Tenore, suggesting that the personal is still the political:
Goodman noted that although the surge in mom blogs has helped provide moms with a forum for discussion, they sometimes fall short of connecting the problems mothers face with potential solutions. They might, for instance, address the difficulty of balancing work and childcare but not touch upon how companies’ inflexible hours and public childcare contribute to this problem.
“A lot of women writing mom blogs are very conscious of the difficulty of balancing work and family, but a lot have been driving back to ‘my family has to solve it all on their own,’ ” Goodman said. “My generation was much more interested in figuring out a way for a public solution.”
Having raised a daughter during her years as a columnist, Goodman sympathizes with journalists who juggle work and motherhood. As a grandmother, she watches her own daughter now face the same kind of struggles that she once endured and realizes that sometimes, something has to give.
“In life you have a lot of balls in the air. You’re trying to do a good job, you’re trying to raise a family, you’re trying to take care of yourself,” Goodman said. “On any given day, you’ve probably dropped one of them. But if over the course of a long time you’ve gotten a ‘B’ in every area, that’s still honors.”
All of which brings to mind a quote from a good friend, Dr. Kathy Hull, Psy.D., the founder of The George Mark Children’s House, the first freestanding hospice and respite residential center in the U.S. for children with life-limiting illnesses. Hull was one of four winners of the 2009 Minerva Award, given to those women in honor of “their service on the frontlines of humanity.” The quote was one of 365 that appeared in “Tips for Life,” a calendar book published in conjunction with California First Lady Maria Shriver’s “The Women’s Conference 2009.” :
My mother was always quick to remind each of her six offspring that “Life isn’t always fair, honey.” I would add to her sage advice: Use your resources — intellectual, physical, spiritual and financial — to level the playing field.
A level playing field, at work, at home, in social structures. That’s all we’re after. So much to ask? Like Goodman, if we keep our eyes on the prize, I think we can do it.