This morning I read an editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer by Ruth Marcus, “One step forward, two steps back for women.” Marcus was recently at a Washington dinner where the genders split following the meal. The men watched basketball and the women talked politics. Some of the women there were “veterans of Geraldine Ferraro’s 1984 vice presidential campaign.” The question was raised, “Have things turned out better or worse for women in politics than we expected back then?”
The group unanimously concluded that they never would have expected that “27 years later there would not have been a woman president or vice president.”
Marcus alone “adopted the glass-half-full attitude,” giving Hillary Clinton the credit of being capable of winning the office of presidency, in the absence of the Barak Obama phenomena. She notes, ” The overt sexism that Ferraro encountered—questions about whether she could bake muffins or, alternatively, pull the nuclear trigger—is inconceivable today.” But she also notes a new report by Princeton University of the “declining number of female students serving in leadership positions there.”
The Princeton report, ordered by President Shirley Tilghman, concludes, “‘We had assumed . . .that after the pioneering years of undergraduate coeducation at Princeton, women woud have moved steadily into more and more prominence in campus leadership. . .In fact, this was true through the 1980s and 1990s. But . . .there has been a pronounced drop-off in the representation of women in these prominent posts since around 2000.”
Marcus provides the explanation that she finds the “most persuasive and disturbing” for the lack of women serving in leadership positions, “Women don’t win these offices because women don’t run for them.”
But it’s really not all that simple, is it?
In 1975 when I was graduating from high school as valedictorian and trying to decide what to do with my life I contemplated becoming a nurse. My father’s words ring as clearly today as they did then, “Don’t be a nurse, be a doctor.” Now I don’t in any way mean to belittle the nursing profession. I have had enough overnight stays in hospitals to realize who is responsible for the well-being of patients. And there were many days when I thought, If I’d only been a nurse, I could have kept my profession and still worked part time. I have friends who were able to do this. I had a friend who was a medical doctor and had decided to stay home to care for her four children. She once told me, “I feel like they sold me a bill of goods. They told me I could be a doctor and still have the family life I wanted. I wasn’t willing to make the compromises I had to make.”
It’s a complicated problem, and we’re only skirting around the edges of it with some women and some employers able and willing to work out solutions of working from home, or job sharing (did that ever really work?).
I graduated from college in 1979 as a chemical engineer with the world at my feet. In those days there weren’t a lot of women in the field. We were the women on the leading edge of the wave, they said. And the particular large corporation I worked for held meetings and conferences for the women to teach us about “the old boys network” and train us in assertiveness and how to “dress for success.” I lasted all of 3-1/2 years until my first child was born and all of my efforts to come back to work on a part-time basis failed. I couldn’t face the prospect of handing this blanket-wrapped bundle into the arms of someone else.
So yes, I dropped off the wave, I let down the women behind me, I bailed out to grasp for myself the family life I wanted to live.
But had things been different, I wouldn’t have been faced with an either/or proposition. Had our society been structured in a different way that wasn’t predicated on a five-day, 8:00 to 5:00 work week, that wasn’t dependent on a division of labor where one spouse earned the money and one stayed home to raise the children, I might have had more choices. Socially, in our family structures, we were still trying to live in the days of Ozzie and Harriet, but professionally we were trying to move on. Society had not caught up—I think it still hasn’t.
So maybe the fact that the women of Princeton don’t run for leadership positions has little to nothing to do with ambition. Perhaps the women of Princeton have watched and learned from the rest of us. Perhaps they are simply being realistic.