Think for a moment of the most successful woman you know. She might be a friend, or a colleague, or someone you’ve idolized from afar. Think big, of someone you truly admire and respect.
Now take this Wonder Woman, the most successful female you know, and run her through a quick perfection counter, the kind of checklist we regularly assign to women we encounter. Is your most successful woman in a perfect relationship with the partner of her dreams? Does she have perfect children, born at carefully arranged intervals and each now ensconced in an Ivy League university? Is she at the top of her career? Is she earning serious money and investing it well? Has this woman saved the world yet, or at least made a significant contribution to ending poverty, fighting hunger, or combating global climate change? Is she fulfilled? Thin? Unwrinkled? Did she get straight A’s in college? And does her home look like Martha Stewart’s, complete with hand-crocheted table runners and organic chard growing in the yard?
I didn’t think so.
And yet, every day, in articles and blogs, in play groups and boardrooms, women (and to some extent, men) are subjecting each other to this constant stream of scrutiny; this relentless expectation of across-the-board perfection, with no quarter given for personal idiosyncrasy or the occasional mistake. Sheryl Sandberg, wife, mother, and Facebook COO, is being lambasted for writing a bestselling book that didn’t manage to solve all the problems facing women in the workforce. Marissa Mayer, trying to save Yahoo from disaster while tending to a newborn, is crushed for not allowing her employees to telecommute. IMF director Christine Lagarde is attacked for daring to wear designer suits on the job; mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, for failing to support female-friendly legislation; Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi for her supposedly strident ways and wrinkle-free forehead; and pop sensation Adele for failing to lose all of her maternity weight. All around us, women are constantly being held to superhuman standards—to a list of inherently contradictory goals that no normal person, no matter how talented, lucky, or gorgeous, can ever realistically hope to attain.
It wasn’t always this way. In the genteel days of the early 20th century, young women were expected, really, to follow only one path: to marry as well as they might and bear children shortly thereafter. Or as Lady Mary, the upper-class heroine of the BBC hit Downton Abbey, confides, “Women like me don’t have a life. We choose clothes, and pay calls, and work for charity, and do the season, but really we’re stuck in a waiting room until we marry.” Lower-class women, of course, faced even fewer options in the early 1900s, confined to a social order in which marriage was essentially their only choice. By midcentury, women like my own mother were able to attend college, earn an income, and contemplate a life outside the home. But these options, still, were few and far between, restricted to women with both the means and the will to fight convention. My mother, for example, would have loved to attend law school and clearly had the brains to do so. But she married at 21, had me at 23, and was the daughter of well-meaning parents who couldn’t imagine why any young woman would abandon her family to go back to school.
Today’s young women are bombarded by a storm of competing expectations.
I came of age, by contrast, in the early 1970s, when revolution was in the air and young girls were being urged, for the first time, to be whatever they wanted to be. “Some mommies drive taxis or sing on TV,” promised the bestselling (and Ms.-sponsored) album Free to Be You and Me. “Yes, mommies can be almost anything they want to be.” Yet quietly and pervasively, girls of the 1970s were still hearing the contradictory lures of an earlier age. Be pretty. Be popular. And never let the boys know how smart you are. The women of my generation barged across the gender divide on the shoulders of the feminists who had fought for us. Greedily we grabbed the power that they had bequeathed. But, surrounded still by more ancient expectations and stubbornly ignorant, as many of us were, to feminism’s central cry for collective action and social goals, we promptly forgot much of what they had struggled for, choosing instead to focus on our own careers, our own children, and our own intricate pathways to some sort of success.
One of the most invidious results of that forgetting is that women today spend an inordinate amount of time attacking one another. Just look at the uproar that has surrounded both Sandberg and Mayer this past year, or at the blog postings that regularly emerge any time a woman dares to publish some view of how she has chosen to live her life, love her husband, or raise her kids. Women in the workforce quietly whisper that female bosses are the worst; women on the playground indelicately dissect other mothers’ choices to return to work. In my own experience, female students are liable to be particularly tough on female professors, and female professors, especially in mostly male environments, to be particularly critical of their younger female colleagues. Whenever I relate one of these stories to my husband, he sighs and offers the same remark. “This,” he says, “is why you people will never take over.” Slightly sexist, I know. But also probably true.
To some extent, this attack-and-compare mode stems from the harsh reality that there are still so few of us in positions of power. As any woman who has ever sat around a mostly male table can attest, the presence of only one or two women around that table leaves them highlighted as “the women.” Their voices are seen as representing “the women’s position.” They are looked upon when issues of diversity arise, or when the softer side of something needs to be addressed. And, most invidious, they are implicitly but constantly compared. Did Ann speak more eloquently than Beatrice? Was Beatrice nasty to Ann? As a result, Ann and Beatrice find themselves jostling, whether they mean to or not, to become the woman at whatever enterprise they serve. And women behind them on the ladder similarly scramble to take their places, subtly aware that there are only two slots. The result is more competition than is warranted; more of a buried sense that women must fight, not just for men’s jobs, but among themselves.
If women want to raise our collective voice and consequence, therefore, we could start by imposing a temporary moratorium on shooting one another down. And then we could begin to fight—together, and in the spirit of the earlier feminists—to increase the critical mass of women in the corridors and byways of power. Because once the number of women increases beyond the token few, everything changes. The women in those token seats no longer feel either the obligation to speak for all women or the nagging fear that another (younger, prettier, smarter, sexier) competitor will somehow grab their jobs. I see this dynamic, beautifully and every day, at the women’s college where I work: when there are enough women in the room, no one has to play the part of token female any longer. And disagreements can focus on the merits of the case, rather than on the personal attributes of she who dares to make it.
Today young women have opportunities that would have confused and confounded Lady Mary. Heirs now to 50 years of feminist advocacy, they can finally run companies like Facebook or media organizations such as Time. They can serve on the U.S. Supreme Court or direct the International Monetary Fund. They can apply to any college or graduate program in the country and, as of this year, even hold combat positions in the U.S. Army. Thanks to the pill and the patch and Roe v. Wade, they can control their sexual and reproductive lives, choosing whether and when to have children, and with whom.
But the young women I see around me each day are also being barraged by a wide and often wholly contradictory set of expectations. They are, first of all, simply expected to make it in the world of work, whether at a Silicon Valley startup or on the factory floor. Across the income spectrum, women are regularly working throughout the course of their lives (as of 2010, 59 percent of working-age women were in the labor force), usually in full-time positions ( 73 percent of working women) and even if they have young children at home. Young women no longer just aspire to work; they expect and usually need to work. At the same time, though, women are also still expected to be the primary caregivers at home, the ones who make the sandwiches and mend the fences and kiss the inevitable hurts of childhood. Some of these demands are shifting, as a new generation of dads and other partners assumes a slowly growing share of child-care responsibilities. But women still bear the brunt of the work at home, devoting, on average, 28 hours a week to socks and meals and carpools in comparison with men’s 10. Meanwhile, insofar as this generation has adopted the Tiger Mom ethos, they have also—horribly and ironically—saddled themselves with the escalating burden of hyperparenting: monitoring Charlie’s piano practice, for example, or whisking Katie every weekend to her synchronized-skating competitions. Contrast this with the women of the Mad Men era, who were generally content to leave their less-coddled offspring to play in puddles, eat the occasional Twinkie, and even do their own homework.
Moreover, even before today’s young women move into the world of marriage and children, they are bombarded by a storm of competing expectations about how to get there. The good news, once again, is that the choices are virtually unlimited: women can marry whomever they want, whenever they want, crossing lines of race and class and even gender. They can have babies without husbands and sex without commitment. The bad news, though, is that it’s not clear that all young women really want to embrace the carefree lifestyle promoted in Girls or Sex and the City. Some of them want boyfriends, now an apparently endangered species. Most want, eventually, to marry. And not all enjoy the hookup culture of casual, often even anonymous, sex. Yet these are the peer pressures that surround them. Just go to pretty much any Internet dating site or campus blog. Women are supposed to be actively sexual, skilled in the range of activities that their partners are watching online. They are supposed to look like models, drink like fish, and not care a whit if their one-night fling never texts them again. And then they’re somehow supposed to find the right guy at the right time, don an oddly virginal wedding gown, and snuggle in to a life of cozy monogamy ever after. It’s tough. Women of earlier generations were almost certainly frustrated by the long list of romantic options—affairs, divorces, same-sex partners—that remained forever out of reach. But women today face an upside-down problem: the expectation that in love, as in so many areas, they are somehow expected to have, and do, it all.
Recently one of my very best students came to see me. She is delightful and accomplished already at age 22, juggling classes and internships and three competing offers from high-tech firms. But as she reminisced about her high school and college years, she was struck by a bout of melancholy. “I have never really spent a whole day just sitting and reading on the lawn,” she confessed. “I never spent that night you’re supposed to spend in college, drinking coffee for hours and talking philosophy with my friends. In fact, I’m not sure I really ever got to know my friends that well at all.”
So what, then, does it mean to be a woman of consequence in the 21st century? And what does it take to become one?
To begin, it’s crucial to recognize—and underscore and shout from the rooftops—that being a woman who matters does not mean being a woman who does it all. On the contrary, building a life of consequence demands a certain narrowing of vision, a commitment to excelling in one area, perhaps, but not all. Men do this all the time, and we applaud them for it. Take Steve Jobs, for example, truly a person of consequence. Was he a perfect father and husband? A buff athlete who volunteered regularly at community bake sales? I have no idea, because stories about him rarely touched upon these aspects. Ditto for Warren Buffett and even Barack Obama. We know that these men have lives beyond their jobs; we know they have children and spouses and lawns that occasionally need mowing. But we don’t question their manhood when we evaluate their careers, or pry too deeply into the inner workings of their homes.
Women need to employ this same kind of focus—this same narrowed lens—when we think about both our lives and those of other women. Rather than expect Marissa Mayer, for example, both to save Yahoo and to advance workplace equity, we might allow her to concentrate on her job and then judge her for that. (I know of at least one other major corporation that recently restricted its telecommuting policy, but that one didn’t even make the news.) Rather than condemn Adele for a few extra pounds, we might just revel in her extraordinary music. (Does anyone care what Jay-Z weighs?) And rather than hold ourselves to unrealistically broad expectations, we might try to narrow our vision, identifying our individual strengths, nurturing our particular skills, and not devoting too much time or energy to things that fall further afield. There are millions of women (and men) who live lives of consequence every day. They are teaching vocational classes to at-risk teenagers; starting small businesses in rural areas; bringing hot meals to the neighbor next door. They are not famous, most of them. They are not perfect. They do not do, or have, it all. But they are building lives that matter, honing skills and nurturing talents that touch the lives of others. Which is in the end, perhaps, the best we all can do.
Spar is president of Barnard College and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. From our April 19, 2013, issue; Why Women Should Stop Trying To Do It All.