Over the weekend, my husband and I had the chance to visit with a dear friend and his 16-year-old daughter. They were in town for the daughter's basketball tournament, and in-between the morning and evening games, we took father and daughter, as well as another teammate and her family, out for lunch and an afternoon in Georgetown. Amidst the discussions of favorite tennis shoes and Blackberry vs. iPhone, I peppered the girls with questions about the college campuses they'd visited, their future plans of study, and their career goals so far. Their answers were inspired, and, obviously, well thought out. One wanted to be a dentist and the other wanted a career as a speech pathologist. I was impressed and excited for these young women and their futures.
They reminded me of my friends and I as we sat around our college dorm 20 years ago spinning out what our future lives would be. My generation was really the first generation of girls raised from birth in the fires of feminist thought. We were the daughters of bra burners, or at least those who knew bra burners. Most of our moms worked outside of the home and told us to dream our biggest dreams of academic and career success, but still learn how to cook and take care of a house; while some moms railed against the feminist movement, seeing in it an attack on the traditions and norms upon which they had based their lives, while still encouraging their daughters to study hard and get good grades. The messages from our mothers were often conflicting: We were to live limitless lives in a world that seeks to limit us.
After graduation, some of us went straight to grad school, and others waded into the work world, taking the entry level gig that would get them to their dream job. We moved apartments, we moved cities and some of us moved countries, for work and opportunities. And soon, we started to fall in love. We daughters of feminism had to figure out a way to fit the institution of marriage and family to our sense of self. So how are we doing so far??? Well, it's complicated.
For those of us who chose marriage and children and work, we're living the feminist ideal of having it all. But we're paying a price in terms of sleep, sex, and, sometimes, our sanity. Life is lived on a constant treadmill and a work day that stretches far beyond office hours. That limitless life we were planning back in college has become one of endless to-do lists. Some of us decided that you may be able to have it all, but just not at the same time, and so we began a slow retreat away from the cubicle and back home to the play date. Women who had masters degrees and corporate accounts made the most difficult of decisions, leaving our feminist forebears to ask why. Why would these accomplished, highly praised and highly valued women turn their backs on all of their hard-fought success to go back to June Cleaver? And does this mean that they've rejected feminism?
For my generation, it would seem that feminism hasn't done us any favors. Heresy, I know, but hear me out. Yes, feminism's epic fights for academic and workplace equality made net gains in the number of women attending and completing college, and provided women in the workforce with far greater and better quality opportunities. But feminism also left us to fend for ourselves when it came to our intimate, romantic relationships and its by-products of marriage and family. Are we supposed to get married and have babies and then have careers? Or are we supposed to have careers and then marriages and babies? And what if we waited too long and no one's left to marry us and we can't have babies? And if I'm married and we're supposed to be equals, but my husband's more demanding eight-figure job requires that he work weekends and late nights, which forces me to work a reduced schedule in order to ferry the kids around to all of their team practices and ballet classes, then how am I supposed to live the feminist ideal? And just when am I supposed to be happy?
The two-dimensionality of nascent feminist thought has evolved to fit the various contexts in which we women live. This struggle with feminism takes feminism down to its purest form, going beyond the notion of equality of the sexes. At the core of feminism is the concept of choice: we women have the capacity to make the choices that are best for us. This is profound and essential. It unites the stay-at-home mom with the work-for-pay mom, and the married woman with the divorcee. And we need this unity now more than ever. We are living in strange and dangerous times for women and the young girls who will one day join our number. Issues around women and our health are being decided by politicians and not physicians. Thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls are encouraged by their twenty-something idols and reality TV stars to dress and act-out in over-sexualized ways. And "friends with benefits" style trysts have become a part of the normal course of a young woman's intimate history. Now more than ever, we need young women to not think of feminism as a four letter word meant to stop their fun, but as a simple question: by doing this, am I making a choice that is best for me? I'm just saying.