Throw out That List!

Article excerpt

Byline: Debora Spar

Why being a woman of impact does not mean being a woman who does it all.

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.

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. …