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Posts Tagged ‘Michelle Obama’

I had a serendipitous moment with Michelle Obama last week — just a few days before her transcendent speech at the DNC.  The occasion was an interview with the First Couple by Lynn Sherr and Maggie Murphy in Parade, the supplement that shows up in many local Sunday papers.

I almost tossed the magazine aside, but I was drawn in by the radiant cover photo of a smiling Michelle and Barack snuggling on a couch in the White House Map Room, and what I found in this exchange midway through the Q-and-A was an almost spooky resonance with what we’ve been writing about these past four years.  More about that below, but first, check this:

This year, there is once again a conversation about the superwoman.” Can women have it all? Is that even the right question?
MO:
I think that question limits us as women. I work with a lot of young women—we have interns coming in and out, and this is always one of the first questions they ask—and the thing I try to remind them is that we have fought so hard for choice and options with our lives, and we’re just getting to that point where we’re willing to embrace all the different facets of woman­hood. I know that when I came out of college, what I wanted and what I thought I wanted were very different things. Then I get married and have a career and, lo and behold, now I’ve got kids. And how you feel about motherhood when your children are small and when they’re teenagers, that’s going to change. I want to keep young women from thinking that there is one right answer. That answer is going to change every year, every five years.

Bingo.  That line about no “one right answer”?  That’s the point, isn’t it?  Young women — all women, really — need to make peace with the fact that there is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all approach to life, whether it comes to career or family or any combination of the two.  Nor, once we’ve made one choice or another, can we rely on sure-fire steps on how to get there.  Why?  Because it’s all too new. As women in transition, we’re adjusting to rapidly changing roles within a slowly changing society, and what we’ve found is that for many of us, the insecurity of making our way without a road map has left us all just a little bit, well, undecided.

But what the First Lady reminds us is that we’re all in this together. And hooray for that.

Still, the idea that there is no grand plan, no tried-and-true blueprint that can show us how to find our place in the world, is one scary thought. It’s also the idea that sparked our book — coincidentally, four years to the day before I picked up the Parade interview.  On that hot late-summer day, Shannon had talked me into tackling the notorious Dipsea Trail, a treacherous seven mile trek that ascends some 2200 feet up Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, and ends at Stinson Beach, a small town on the edge of the Pacific. The hike took all day, and later that night, over iced knees, a killer roast chicken and a few delightful glasses of Pinot, we began to brainstorm: Why was it that today’s women were so undecided?  What was the cause of the “analysis paralysis” that plagued so many young women?  The dissatisfaction that seemed to be so rampant in a generation of women groomed to have it all?  Shannon insisted there was a book in searching for the answers, and that we should do it together.

Together?  That’s all she had to say.  (Wondering what it’s like for a mother and daughter to write a book together?  Another story for another day.)

Anyway, in the process of reporting our book, we interviewed researchers, experts, counselors, coaches — and most importantly hundreds of undecided women, from their twenties to their sixties, who became the heart and soul of our book.  And what we found was shared experience, underlying issues in the workplace and the culture that have yet to be addressed, and a collective sense of growing pains.

What we didn’t find were any cookie-cutter answers.  Which actually, is the answer. In slightly more than a generation, our roles and our opportunities have changed dramatically.  And with all that change comes uncertainty.  Sure, we all yearn for those pieces of grand advice — once you do “A”, “B” will surely follow.  We want to know exactly what to expect behind Door No. 1 or Door No. 2.  But when you think about it, that’s pretty much the way our mothers or grandmothers lived their lives.  For us, however, life is much more complicated — and far more exciting.

What’s interesting is that when we speak in front of women’s groups or on talk shows, you can feel a strong sense of resonance in the audience. The women, they get it. They identify with the stories we tell of women whose lives are like their own. They get pissed off with the structural impediments that have held them back.  And yet:  there’s always at least one hand that shoots up, a woman pleading for some exact step-by steps.  And what we answer is that there are none — and that’s a good thing.

Back to that interview with the Obamas, the beauty of there being no one sure answer is the freedom that comes with it: The permission to engage in some trial and error, to define ourselves apart from the shoulds, to lead a life that is true to type, and to jettison once and for all the idea that we can have it all.

Sure, it’s hard.  Sometimes it’s scary.  But the good news is, we’re in it together.  Even the First Lady.

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I woke up this morning to a message from a former student who’d sent me a link to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the new Atlantic.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a brilliant piece that lays out the reasons why women still can’t have it all — and what we as a society ought to do about it.  Within a few hours, links to the story were bouncing around the internet (not to mention my Facebook page) including an excellent recap by HuffPost columnist Lisa Belkin.

Slaughter, who gave up a prestigious State Department post in DC — her dream job, in fact – when she realized her family needed her more, starts the piece by recalling a conversation with a friend where she confessed that, when her time in Washington was up, she was going to “write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”  Her friend was horrified:

“You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

Something struck me when I read the piece and started parsing it out for myself.  And that’s whether there’s another question we ought to be asking here.  It’s not simply whether we can have it all (like Slaughter, I agree: we can’t, at least given current workplace inequities and societal structures) — but what the pervasiveness of that myth has done to a whole generation of women whose expectations are out of sync with what awaits them out there in the real world.

Back when Undecided was just a twinkle in our eye (fueled, no doubt, by a frosty beer or two after a grueling hike on a hot summer day), the question that kept coming up in that initial bout of brainstorming was whether we as women had been sold a bill of goods.  And what we found in the two years of research and interviews that followed was that this idea of having it all, the mantra so many of us assumed was our birthright, had led to a world of grief.  Because when you’re led to believe that you can have it all — or worse, that you should have it all — you feel like you’ve done it wrong when things don’t measure up.  You are to blame.  Somehow, you’ve failed.  When the truth is that reality — workplace structures, public policy, the culture itself — has not kept pace with our own expectations.

One of the things that gets lost in the “you go, girl” rhetoric is what economists call opportunity cost.  As Stanford economist Myra Strober, who founded  Stanford’s  Center for Research on Women back in 1972, told us, “If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.  If you’re playing basketball, you can’t be reading Jane Austen.” In other words, unless and until we can clone ourselves, we’re stuck trying to balance a bunch of trade-offs.  Don’t get me wrong: This is not another salvo in the Mommy Wars or a knock on feminism. Or even a suggestion that life choices are an either/or proposition.  The point is not that we have to choose between family or career — but that we’re going to have to make peace with the fact that if we want to both raise a kid and run a company, it’s not only going to be hard but there are going to be challenges that are greater than we have been led to believe.

Despite our best intentions, very little in either realm is going to be perfect. We may have to compromise. And when we’re raised to be empowered, to believe that we can have it all, that’s one tough pill to swallow.

It’s a hard lesson, made harder by the fact that there aren’t a lot of role models out there who can show us how to navigate the trade-offs.  We were discussing this issue last year on a talk show, in fact, when the host brought up Michelle Obama and Oprah as powerful women who seemed to have it all.  And what we said was that in the traditional definition of having it all — fabulous career, fabulous marriage, parenthood — neither qualified:  Oprah has no family and Michelle, for obvious reasons, has given up her career. Likewise Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Sheryl Sandberg.  Incredible role models, to be sure. But, in a way, scary ones, too.  Because for the for the vast majority of us, despite our own aspirations, if they are held up as the ideal, we are bound to feel that we have fallen short.

One of my senior journalism students this year wrote her capstone on the lack of women atop the corporate ladder and what younger women should do to get there.  In reporting the story, she interviewed women in leadership positions across the country, essentially digging for tips that would help her generation make it to the C-suite.  What she found, good and bad, was a lot of the stuff we write about here.  But the thing that struck me was her solid conviction that, when all was said and done, having it all was indeed a possibility.

Which is, I guess, is the right way to think from inside a college classroom: More power to her for her optimism — and her sincere conviction that her generation will be the one to make things work. But still, the question nags.  It’s not whether or not we can have it all — but why we saddle ourselves with the expectation that we should.

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Did you catch Bill Keller’s piece in the New York Times yesterday? Called “Just the ticket,” it’s a pretty compelling case for replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton for second-to-the-top job when this year’s presidential election rolls around. Now, we love Biden’s faux pas and f-bombs as much as anyone, but–hello!–how could we not jump on this bandwagon? So, without further ado, here’s our top 5 reasons why we’d love to see a Clinton-Obama—I mean, Obama-Clinton—ticket.

5. She’s ambitious. And she owns it. She wasn’t content to wrap up her time as first lady and demurely step aside. In a ballsy move, she ran for NY Senator. In a ballsier one, she ran for president–and nearly nabbed the nom. When so many of us feel our ambition is something shameful, something we should apologize for or even deny, Hillary puts it front and center. She’s taken her lumps for it, but ultimately, she’s proven that a woman can be both ambitious and liked. Which brings me to number 4.

4. We like her. I mean, we really like her. According to Gallup (by way of Keller):

Hillary is the most admired woman in America for the 10th year in a row, laps ahead of, in order, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin and Condeleezza Rice; her approval rating of 64 percent is the highest of any political figure in the country.

An ambitious woman is something to be admired?! I mean, the whole George Washington/cherry tree thing is cute and everything, but how’s that–ambition and likability are not mutually exclusive–for a lesson in the history books?

3. She’s strong enough to cry. Almost four years ago exactly, during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Clinton became emotional when answering a question from an audience member about how she’s able to deal with the madness of a presidential campaign–and it was in her answer, when speaking of how much she cares about the country, that she got choked up. Again, she took flak for it, but there’s another, monstrously important message in this for the rest of us: tears are not a sign of weakness. They’re often, as Elizabeth Lesser has told us, a sign that our heart is truly engaged. I personally know that to be the case for me, and I love to imagine what the world–not to mention the freaking workplace!–would be like if everyone understood that. Being emotionally invested is a strength; Clinton understands that. And yet…

2. She’s not afraid to laugh at herself. At one of the most humbling moments in her career–when she bowed out of the race and gave her support to Obama–the type of moment when some, um, lesser people might be reduced to temper tantrum (You’re not gonna have Richard Nixon to kick around no more! anyone?), she was strong enough to crack a joke–and not just any joke–one that poked fun at herself: thanking her supporters, whom she referred to collectively as the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits.

1. She is the total package. She has the skills and the experience, the–as Keller puts it–E.Q. as well as the I.Q. She’s already made enough of a mark that when someone describes something as Clintonian, it’s as likely they’re referring to her as it is her husband, who is, you know, a former president. She handled herself impossibly well during one of the most impossible (and public!) humiliations imaginable–and, rather than opt for obscurity, held her head high and soldiered on, right into one of the most visible positions in the world. And what a tenure: as Secretary of State, she’s smoothly handled her share of dramatic world events. As Keller writes:

She would bring to this year’s campaign a missing warmth and some of the voltage that has dissipated as Obama moved from campaigning to governing. What excites is not just the prospect of having a woman a heartbeat–and four years–away from the presidency, although she certainly embodies the aspirations of many women. It’s the possibility that the first woman at the top would have qualifications so manifest that her first-ness was a secondary consideration.

And what a first that would be.

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Weren’t we all?

I came across that line Wednesday in a piece by Maureen Dowd, who quoted Michelle Obama as saying that her husband had spent so much time alone growing up that it was as if he had been raised by wolves.

Love that phrase, don’t you?

Think about it and you realize that, in a twisted kind of way, we’ve all been raised by wolves. As women in this new millennium, most of us are going it alone right now, figuring out how to navigate new and unfamiliar turf, without really knowing the rules once we leave the woods.

Growing pains? You bet. And you see them everywhere you look, in a variety of flavors. Here’s just a taste. In a piece in The Nation on the upcoming confirmation of Elena Kagan, Patricia J. Williams predicts that Kagan’s success as a lawyer will be characterized as “unwomanly” because, of course, success in such fields is equated with testosterone. She reminds us both how far we’ve come — and how far we’ve yet to go, noting that gender stereotyping is sometimes embedded in the language:

Forty years after the birth of modern feminism, we are still not able to think about women who attain certain kinds of professional success as normatively gendered. Officially, the English language does not have gendered nouns. Yet it seems that we do invest certain words with gendered exclusivity—nurse, fireman, CEO, lawyer—if only as a matter of general parlance. There’s a story that used to be ubiquitous about thirty years ago: a father rushes his son to the hospital after a bicycle accident. The boy is whisked into Emergency and ends up on the operating table. The surgeon looks down at the boy and gasps, “Oh, my God! This is my son!” The story would end with the question, “How is that possible?” Much puzzlement would ensue until the “Aha!” moment: the surgeon was the boy’s mother. In that era, the likelihood of a surgeon being female was so negligible that divining the answer became a kind of “test” of radical feminist sensibility.

Then there’s this, Vivia Chen’s piece from Legalweek.com that reminds us how much of our lives are caught up in trying to navigate that odious term called work-life balance. She reports on an interview with Harvard Law School grad Angie Kim whose sprint up the corporate ladder took a five year detour when her second child became sick with an undiagnosed illness. A few months back, Kim did some research and found that the majority of the women in her law school class had left the fast track. But the interesting thing (another sign of shifting terrain?) is what she told Chen:

“The ‘mommy track’ was renounced at birth for sanctioning boring flextime jobs with low plaster ceilings. But some of my not-fast-track classmates are using their clout and influence to create prestigious roles. A senior partner who brought many clients to her law firm, for example, now works 15 to 40 hours per week, mainly out of her home and on her own schedule… The author of a best-selling book on negotiations launched her own conflict resolution firm with about 15 lawyer and consultants. She works from home during school hours and after bedtime and takes July and August off.”

Kim argues that “the line between the fast track and the mommy track is blurring,” and that flexibility “is infiltrating more and more jobs and replacing traditional work values – long hours, face time – as the new workplace ideal.”

Positive signs? Could be, especially when you consider that as our workplace numbers rise — and with it our economic clout — we girls are in a better position to push for changes that work for us. Let’s look at Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic entitled “The End of Men.

What would a society in which women are on top look like? We already have an inkling. This is the first time that the cohort of Americans ages 30 to 44 has more college-educated women than college-educated men, and the effects are upsetting the traditional Cleaver-family dynamics. In 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. Now the typical working wife brings home 42.2 percent, and four in 10 mothers—many of them single mothers—are the primary breadwinners in their families. The whole question of whether mothers should work is moot, argues Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “because they just do. This idealized family—he works, she stays home—hardly exists anymore.”

The terms of marriage have changed radically since 1970. Typically, women’s income has been the main factor in determining whether a family moves up the class ladder or stays stagnant. And increasing numbers of women—unable to find men with a similar income and education—are forgoing marriage altogether. In 1970, 84 percent of women ages 30 to 44 were married; now 60 percent are. In 2007, among American women without a high-school diploma, 43 percent were married. And yet, for all the hand-wringing over the lonely spinster, the real loser in society—the only one to have made just slight financial gains since the 1970s—is the single man, whether poor or rich, college-educated or not. Hens rejoice; it’s the bachelor party that’s over.

Rosin doesn’t mention things like the wage gap or pervasive gender stereotyping (see above) that effectively quashes our numbers right now. But she does make an important point: if higher education is the “gateway to economic success” as well as a prereq for life in the middle class, clearly women in the not-too-distant future are going to be calling their own shots.

What those shots might be, however, is what’s so hard to figure out. In “Doing Grown-up Wrong” on siren.com, Allison Hantschel asks “what we do when we don’t have what the Jonese have and worse, don’t even want it?” What she knows she doesn’t want: a big house in the country, a bunch of kids, a climb up the corporate ladder. What she does want? That, she doesn’t quite get.

Which brings us back to the wolves. We’ve been raised in one world and suddenly we find ourselves in another, roadmap not included. What now? Insert howl here.

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