In her 2007 book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women, Courtney E. Martin provides a brilliantly simple explanation for my generation’s inability to be satisfied with ourselves: “We are the daughters of the feminists who said ‘you can be anything,’” she writes, “and we heard ‘you have to be everything.’”
The first time I encountered that quotation, I couldn’t wait to show it to my professionally successful and seemingly indefatigable mother; what teenage girl would miss out on an opportunity to blame her mother for her neurosis? I felt a similar sense of vindication upon reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s thought-provoking piece on the The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
Slaughter’s article is a manifesto for women who believe that the feminist rhetoric that women can balance career and family without sacrificing either goal ignores the societal and logistical obstacles that still stand in the way of female success. The article resonated with me, a young millennial who graduated from high school last week, on two different levels: I related to it both as the daughter of a professional woman and as someone who will soon be a professional woman myself.
At one point in the article, Slaughter describes Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, who is up checking her e-mail at 4 a.m. each day “even with a fully engaged husband.” My chuckle of recognition probably wasn’t the response she hoped to elicit with that anecdote, but my mother has had the same sleeping habits for years. Watching her schedule every minute of her life to make sure that no ball fell out of the air, I grew up accepting that if I want to have both a family and a career I had better be prepared to work harder than the men around me.
The myth that women who fail to achieve career success do so because “they are not committed enough” is one of the many that Slaughter attacks. Somewhat paradoxically, learning that only one out of our three female Supreme Court Justices has a family (in contrast to every male Justice) and that Condoleezza Rice was both the first female national security advisor and the first since the 1950s to sacrifice parenthood for her career made me feel that a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. If our country’s most talented women find the dual burdens of career and children too much to bear, then how can I hold myself to an unrealistically high standard?
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explained dismally low gender equity in the fields of government and business (13% and 16%, respectively) with the excuse of an “ambition gap” in a TED talk that, yes, my mother made me watch. While it may be tempting to believe that pouring another cup of coffee and dreaming a little bigger is the key to success, I find Slaughter’s suggestions of cultural changes that would enable working parents of both genders to better balance their lives to be the ultimately more hopeful view. Recognizing the difficulties that women face doesn’t make us victims, it makes us the next generation of feminists.