In my years as a journalist, I have written and spoken a great deal about women’s lives and struggles, and wrote a book about the conflicts facing successful female professionals. But today, 16 years into life as a working mother and 23 years into a marriage, I’ve come to question many of the truths I once held dear. The woman I wanted to be at 22 is not the woman I wanted to be at 38 — not even close — and she is certainly not who I am now at 55.
Every few years, America rightly plunges into a public and heated discussion about women and feminism, work and family. The latest round has been stoked by Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer, who have become symbols and participants in the argument over what women want. Yet, I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.
Parenthood and family are much more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead, let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?
It helps to take a longer view of a woman’s life.
I was born in 1957 and raised in a town called Belmont, just south of San Francisco. I am one of six children, five girls and one boy. My father was an engineer and my mother a housewife; indeed, growing up I had not a single friend whose mother worked. During my high school years in the early 1970s, revolution was in the air. Across the bay was Berkeley, the home of free speech. Twenty miles up the road was Haight-Ashbury, the home of free love. And almost everyone I knew was protesting Vietnam and embracing civil rights.
But what really excited me was the women’s movement. It’s hard to grasp now just how intoxicating it was as a young girl to hear Gloria Steinem tell us we could be anything we wanted to be. Or to read, during freshman year at my surprisingly progressive all-girls Catholic school, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, eight years after it was published, saying we could find meaning outside the home.
All this seemed possible because the pill had just become widely available, and for the first time women had control over whether and when they had a child. (I will never forget finding that oddly shaped, Pez-like dispenser in my mother’s bedroom right after the birth of my youngest sister; my mother called her “That’s It” for weeks before giving her a name.)
If the pill didn’t work, there was Roe v. Wade, which became law when I was 15. And I don’t know a single woman my age who did not have her first gynecological exam at a Planned Parenthood clinic — with or without her parents’ permission. It was a glorious time to be a young girl with ambition. Who would want to be a man when you could be a woman?
So, when I enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1975, I held three truths to be self-evident: I would never marry. I would never have a child. And I would have an interesting job, as a writer or a lawyer.
I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.
A year later, right after graduation, I moved to Washington and got that interesting job — as a reporter at The Washington Post. I embraced my feminism proudly. I always wore pants to work, and I swore off (stupidly, I recognize now) reading any fiction by male authors. I loved reporting. I loved working. I loved making my own money, even if, two years later, I discovered that a newly hired and less experienced male colleague was making more money. (When I quizzed him, his answer was simple: He had asked for more. No one ever takes the first offer, he said.)