Women Can Do It All: For Better or for Worse?

May 25, 2010 | NeW Staff

Women can have it all and do it all today thanks to the advancements made for women over the last century; however, is this necessarily a good thing?  That is what Lisa Belkin recently asked in The New York Times.  Taking a sample of the women who have served on the Supreme Court and the current nominee, Belkin compares and contrasts two generations of women.  Although the younger generation certainly had greater career options open to them, did this necessarily yield greater happiness and fulfillment?  Maybe not.

Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor did not have much in the way of high expectations or ease of passage. Both worked hard as they raised their children.  O’Connor was even a stay-at-home mother for 5 years.  As a result, according to Belkin,

Sotomayor, who is 55, and Kagan, who is 50, have women like O’Connor and Ginsburg to thank for the open doors that have greeted them nearly their entire lives.

And this is true.  Women today ought to have much gratitude to O’Connor and Ginsburg for paving the way.  We can pursue any career we want, and we are encouraged to do so.  However, Belkin, points out some interesting observations:

But as women’s paths ascended, they also narrowed. Expectation brings obligation, and Sotomayor and Kagan were of the generation facing new tradeoffs. Pursue the career and sacrifice the family. Have the family and ratchet back the career. True, the stigma of not marrying or having children waned for this younger generation, making it more of a deliberate choice for some. But still, roads had to be chosen. There would be no taking five years off to stay home with your children if you hoped for a seat on the Supreme Court.

Today, women are presented with this choice, and while we are told that a “Career First, Family Second” mentality will get us far in life, women still face criticism when we apply this message to our lives.  Look at nominee Kagan and the response she has provoked from those on the right, and in particular, those on the left for not having a family:

“I wish she were a mother,” a feminist friend said when Kagan was nominated. “This sends the wrong message.”

It certainly seems as though there is a double standard for women today: reach the top of your career before you have children BUT somehow you must have children when you do achieve your career pinnacle.  How does this make sense? Is this the message we should be sending to young women today?  Is single-minded careerism what is really best for women, and is this what we really want?  At the same time, as college students and graduates, we are so thankful for the vast array of careers we can pursue.

I think all young women must grapple with this question and decide for themselves which path or paths they desire to take.  It is important to recognize opportunities and potential roadblocks along the way in the pursuit of either or both.  Women must decide which sacrifices they are willing to make. What we should all agree on, however, is that we should encourage each woman in her individual pursuits.  What works for some women may not work for others, and this diversity should be celebrated.  

There are so many ways that women can use their talents (and even multiple ways at the same time); we should not discourage women from pursuing their goals and when they want them.  Having a discussion like this that recognizes and addresses the messages young women receive today is the first step in supporting and encouraging all women.
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