Trying to find a balance

This Thursday night, around fifteen Barnard women gathered around the fireplace stark, white, postmodern wall of the Diana Center’s Judith Shapiro Faculty Dining Room to discuss whether or not women can have it all with a woman at Barnard who seems to have gotten pretty close: President Debora Spar. Bwog sent its Barnard Bureau Chief, Renée Kraiem, to brave the (lack of ) flames and (try to) figure out the answer.

This semester’s Fireside Chat with President Spar resonated with attendees as much one month later—and it probably will for the next thirty years of their lives, too. The launching pad for the discussion was Spar’s recent article in Newsweek/The Daily Beast in which she writes that women cannot, in fact, have it all, and that neither can anybody, for that matter.

It turns out that DSpar’s article is really a part of her forthcoming book, so she, unsurprisingly, has a lot to say on the subject. It also turns out, more surprisingly but slightly less relevantly, that she and Anne-Marie Slaughter (a woman with similar opinions on the subject) went to graduate school together. Bringing it back to the fireside table, though, was VP Communications Malvina Kefalas, who referenced the “dialectical shift in feminism” occurring today and questioned DSpar and the Chat’s attendees on how to move past the “maxim of having it all.”

What followed was a series of personal anecdotes about mothers. Mothers who worked, mothers who didn’t, mothers who wished they had, and mothers who went back to work. And like good liberal arts students, attendees reflected on the impact that their mothers’ choices had on the choices that they found themselves thinking about at the precipice of starting “real life.” What resonated most with everybody in the room was one student’s admission that she as a first-year she struggled with the the fear that she would “be a disappointment to Barnard, or [her]self, if [she] ended up being a wife and mother, and that was all [she] wanted to do.”

“Women are very harsh on each other about this,” responded Spar, “women of any age.” It’s “fascinating,” she continued, that “women on both sides of that question feel bad. Everybody is somewhat dismissive of the other side and feeling really guilty…and that’s a problem because guys don’t do that.” Spar also admitted an opinion that her generation had, in some sense, “blown it” in preaching and (trying to be successful in practicing) that women can, in fact, have it all. “We did kind of believe that there was a set way to advance,” she said, “and it was a very different set way than the one our mothers had walked down. It was only when we realized that was a fantasy that we started to hit ourselves over the head.”

So what are college-aged women to do with this to avoid hitting ourselves over the head (more than we do already)? Think, it turns out. Think about our choices. “You have to figure out what you’re going to do if you have to do all of these things that our grandmothers couldn’t do,” said Spar, and “there have to be areas where you can say you can’t do this.” Spar advised considering careers and sub-fields of industries in which one can make those kinds of choices; “buying flexibility is crucial,” she said. And how do that in college? “Talk to as many older women as you possibly can,” she said, “just to get a sense of all the different permutations that there are.”

And there are a lot. Some more successful than others, but “it’s kind of unrealistic to have figured out this relationship in one generation,” concluded Spar, since, you know, we’ve been doing the traditional thing for millions of years. But at least there are at least fifteen minds thinking about it, and hopefully more to come. And with that President Spar went home to make dinner, so let’s just say it seems that even if we can’t have it all, we can get pretty freaking close.