As Barnard’s 2011 Commencement speaker, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and one of the most powerful women in America, catalogued the industries and positions of power in which women are severely underrepresented. It turns out, that’s most of them. She encouraged Barnard’s graduating seniors to change these troubling statistics, adding the caveat that career decisions would be difficult and come at a cost.
Then, for reasons related to the national debate over women’s reproductive rights, Barack Obama announced he would speak at Barnard’s 2012 commencement. This was a BFD. Despite DSpar’s initial, perhaps hopeful, dismissal of the comments in response to this announcement as the workings of “19 year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning,” she later addressed commenters with disappointment.
So Obama delivered some politically convenient platitudes. Summer came, and people stopped thinking about it. DSpar had more thoughts, though.
The Atlantic’s summer issue’s front page article was entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Political science big deal Annie-Marie Slaughter indicted the “fiction” she says the feminist movement sold her on—that women can “have it all.”
Slaughter’s article made the rounds. One of the many Internet commentators was Barnard President Debora Spar. DSpar’s Atlantic editorial, which ran today at a reasonable 1:20 pm, argued that Slaughter’s article provoked the response it did because women today feel guilty for their choices no matter what those choices are.
The irony, of course, and the sadness, is that two women of Slaughter and Sandberg’s stature even feel the need to speak about guilt. Did Bill Gates feel guilty as he built the behemoth of Microsoft? Was Bill Clinton racked by personal failings as he advanced his political career? Maybe, but neither of them really dwells upon these topics in public. Contemporary women, by contrast (and I count myself among them), seem positively obsessed with our own trade-offs and misgivings. We feel guilty about leaving the halls of power too quickly, or too late. About pushing our children too hard, or not hard enough. About not home-making cupcakes that are sufficiently organic, vegan, and nut-free.
A little more:
Why is this happening? Because women born in the wake of feminism—women like Sandberg, Slaughter, and me—have been subtly striving all our lives to prove that we have picked up the torch that feminism provided. That we haven’t failed the mothers and grandmothers who made our ambitions possible. And yet, in a deep and profound way, we are failing. Because feminism wasn’t supposed to make us feel guilty, or prod us into constant competitions over who is raising better children, organizing more cooperative marriages, or getting less sleep. It was supposed to make us free—to give us not only choices but the ability to make these choices without constantly feeling that we’d somehow gotten it wrong.
Calling it as she sees it via Barnard