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Last Word: Are We the Women We Should Be?

Last Word Illo by Michael WertzWhen I was 6 years old, I remember defiantly stating that I wanted to grow up to be the first female president of the United States. By the time I graduated from Barnard, I was more inclined toward being the “next” Katie Couric. Today, I’m very happy as a writer, lecturer, and small-business owner. As I recently celebrated my 20th reunion at Barnard, I’m still confident that ambition is in my blood (as is a strong work ethic), but I’m wondering what these changed—dare I say diminished—goals say about me and my generation?

   At Barnard, I was consciously and unconsciously schooled in feminism—a natural consequence of studying art history with Jane Rosenthal and modern political movements with Dennis Dalton. I graduated assuming I would work for a noble nonprofit group and then head to law school. This is what I legitimately thought I wanted, but also what I thought was expected of me. Then I got hooked on organizing while orchestrating a cross-country voter registration drive and have spent the decades since making a rare living under the banner of feminism.

   My feminist education started when I was young, raised by a mother who was an early subscriber to Ms. Magazine and who, from the time I can remember, convened her monthly consciousness-raising group and still does. As I understood it, decades ago most women were trapped in the limited role that society scripted for them. To be a good woman meant mostly that you had to keep on top of the home and stay out of men’s way. Luckily, by the time my generation came of age, many women had rebelled against this duplicitous “nature” and realized they wanted and were capable of everything that men could do—albeit still too responsible for child rearing.

   Years later, it doesn’t seem that women’s lives have kept pace with the change that preceded my coming-of-age moment. As I assess my peer group, most women feel torn between two dominant possibilities: being “good” women as narrowly defined by society or being good feminists as proposed by those engaged with the struggle for women’s equality. Unlike Betty Friedan and earlier feminists, most of us aren’t unemployed and bored in the suburbs, but many of my peers are asking themselves a modern version of what Friedan and her cohort questioned all those years ago: Are we the women we were supposed to become?

   For what lies ahead, I think the biggest struggle will be to better define what it means to be successful on women’s own terms. Competing in a mainstream way, only a handful of women can win. As the last presidential election showed, there is still a woman problem. Hillary Clinton was perceived as too masculine; Sarah Palin, too feminine. In other words, being an accomplished woman is still a liability.

   Study after study confirms that women want balance, they want to plateau their careers, they want financial reward, but don’t need it excessively so, perhaps that’s because many have a wage-earning male by their side. My friends’ experiences bear this out—most want balance, career, kids, time for friends, and time to do the things they love. I initially saw this balance as a compromise, but I have come to see that it blames women too much. I think women are finally confident enough to define success on their own terms. As it is, success is especially penalizing for women, who are only rewarded for excellence. Men can be “good enough,” but for a woman’s accomplishments to be honored, she has to be another Oprah.

   I have learned to stay focused on what I love and what keeps me engaged and enraged—emotionally and intellectually. I never plan too far ahead and am not scared about failing. I’ve always sought partnerships, so the work could be more fun and the failures could be cushioned. And I made deliberate choices, choosing a partner who really does pull his weight with child rearing and household chores. Any regrets I have for steering away from my earlier inclinations are entirely about wishing, at moments, for societal approval, but that’s not a better benchmark of success. Looking ahead to my 25th reunion, I wish only to be me.

—by Amy Richards ’92

—Illustration by Michael Wertz