Anything Is Possible
Erin Wilson kicks off her sensible low-heeled pumps and stretches her legs. At twenty-four, Erin is a junior account manager at a large New York City advertising agency in whose conference room we are sitting. She has jaw-length wheat-colored hair, which she absently tucks behind her ears whenever she starts a thought, and is dressed conservatively in a short-sleeved yellow sweater, a dark pleated skirt, and nylons. She is one of five young womenincluding a social worker, a budding playwright, a finance associate, and an administrative assistant in an architecture firmwho have agreed to meet me here tonight for an evening of frank conversation and soggy deli sandwiches. She leans back in her chair as she speaks, expanding into the space around her as if to physically illustrate her point: that she, like many young women today, feels her potential is limitless. "When my mother graduated from college, the only careers that she thought were available to her were teaching, nursing, and maybe being a flight attendant," she explains. "For me the world is totally open. If I want to run a company, I can do that. If I want to stay home, I can do that. If I want to work in a corporation, if I want to be an entrepreneurI can do anything that I want to do."
Jennifer Lyle, twenty-five, au courant in a beige sundress and small oval glasses, her blond hair long on the top and shaved up the back, bobs her head in agreement. "My mom has told me, 'God, you are so independent. I would never have done what you've done at your age.' I've lived in Europe, I moved to New York. She went from college straight to getting married to my father. She interviewed for a job once, and when they asked her what her biggest accomplishment was, she said, 'raising my three children.' There are just more options for us now."
My Mother Is Not Myself
Daughters are notoriously unreliable narrators of their mothers' lives, but their beliefs about the previous generation of womenand in particular its deficienciesare the backdrop against which they measure their own greater expectations. If their mothers were thwarted by circumstance (although, the truth is, Erin's mother went back to graduate school when Erin was thirteen and became a successful architect), today's young women feel redeemed by possibility. Feminism has been passed down to them as an ethic of personal potential. They were weaned on the mantra "you can be anything you want to be." "My parents told me I could be president of the United States," said a twenty-seven-year-old district attorney in Chicago. "My parents always said I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do," proclaimed a twenty-five-year-old website designer in San Francisco. They graduated from college feeling entitled to the same opportunities as their male classmates. Nothing about their lives felt predetermined; marriage and motherhood seemed one among a menu of options rather than inevitabilities. Even the most conservative among them expects to take advantage of this period of unencumbered time, until recently enjoyed solely by men, in which to live independently, explore career opportunities, enjoy friends and lovers, establish the self.
But talk a little longer, cut a little deeper, and these same confident young women express something else tooan anxiety about the consequences of their new freedom. A few days after my conversation with Erin and Jennifer, I sit across town in another conference room, of a publishing house, with a different group of twentysomething women. All are ambitious, have come to the City to pursue their chosen careers. Leslie Elder, twenty-nine, who works in finance, wears a business suit and carries a briefcase. Claire Ricci, twenty-eight, an assistant editor at the publishing company, has accessorized her outfit with ice blue nail polish and eye shadow to match. Like Erin and Jennifer, these young women believe that the essential difference between their mothers' generation and theirs is the wide range of "choices" they have. "But it's kind of a double-edged sword," says Abbey Green, twenty-six, who recently moved here from Houston to work in sales. "The good thing about being able to do anything is that you can, but you could also be overwhelmed by the buffet style. There's so much to choose from that you could be totally paralyzed by it."
"Yes!" exclaims Claire. "I've got this absolute phobia about looking back and thinking, 'Shit, I picked the wrong one.' Like, I don't want to be married now, I don't want to have a baby now, but I don't want to be eight years down the road thinking, I blew it! I had every choice in the world, I could've done anything, been anyone, gone anywhere, and somehow I still managed to be thirty-six going 'I didn't get what I wanted!' "
"You know," says Leslie, "sometimes I wonder if we'd be happier living in a society where there weren't so many choices."
Among young women like these I found a longing, not so much for an oppressive past as for a guide to a murky future, a road map to contemporary female life. They may have more opportunity in terms of self-expression, lifestyle, and financial gain than women of any previous era. They may have never known a time when it was legal to discriminate against women in education and employment or illegal to get an abortion. In college at least half of their classmates were female; for those who have gone on to law school, medical school, or for graduate degrees in such fields as journalism and psychology, the same is true. Yet, beneath their boundless optimism lies a sneaking suspicion that the rhetoric of "choices" is in part a con job, disguising impossible dilemmas as matters of personal preference. As these young women look forward, they see "choices" threatening to morph into cruel trade-offs: double binds, which, along with their own subtly dual expectations have already influenced their decisions regarding ambition, sex, love, marriage, and motherhoodand could ultimately trap them in the narrow roles they're expected to escape.
Talking Gloria Steinem, Thinking Carol Brady
If for previous generations the "feminine mystique" surrounding marriage and motherhood was the trap, the solution for today's young womenand the object lesson drilled into their headsis financial independence, or, as Erin Wilson puts it, "The message I got was be able to support yourself no matter what." Like "you can be anything you want to be," "financial independence" is an appealing buzz phrase but oddly only half absorbed. Many of the young women I interviewed thought of economic self-sufficiency as precisely that: supporting themselves, not a family, which is a peculiar blind spot in a world where dual-earner couples and single mothers are now the norm. They spoke of the work world primarily as a means to identity, to self-fulfillment and avoiding the predestined fate of women in earlier generations. Salary and economic advancement were often secondaryI wondered how, over time, that would affect their progress in the workplace.
According to sociologist Anne Machung, who interviewed seniors on six college campuses about their expectations for career and family, young women and young men typically perceive their career paths differently. Machung found that men, for the most part, considered work as a way to earn money. They were more likely than women to pursue fields that would lead to well-paying jobs, were more conscious of entry level salaries, and were more likely to have specific titles and job structures in mind as they approached graduation.
Women, meanwhile, saw work more as a vehicle of personal satisfaction. They, too, planned ambitious careers (although they tended to be hazier about specifics, such as salary), but, unlike the men, they reflexively factored inequality into their futures: They assumed that they would move in and out of the workforce and that family responsibilities would limit both their advancement and earning potentialbut not their husbands'. Seven out of ten said, once married, they expected their spouses' jobs to take priority. So, well before they enter the adult world (and, perhaps, long before they'd entered college) young women were making decisions that would virtually assure that their careers would be secondary to men's and that their incomes would be lowerdecisions that would, in the future, profoundly affect both their options and their leverage in organizing their family lives. They would be able to support themselves, but, truly, only themselves. As Machung wrote, they were "talking 'career,' but thinking, 'job.' "1
"It's been on my mind a lot lately that I should be more successful than I am," says Lauren Miller, who grimaces each time she's reminded that her thirtieth birthday is next month. Lauren is chatting over pizza with two friends in San Francisco's South of Market district. Hers is an artsy, socially conscious group: Lauren works as an editor for an on-line magazine. Melody Yun, twenty-nine, dressed in a leather jacket and black bell bottoms, is a fund-raiser for a nonprofit organization. Becky Schumacher, thirty-one, is an independent filmmaker who just quit her day job to finish a documentary on body image that she's been filming for five years. Lauren and Melody are single; Becky lives with her boyfriend. "Recently I went back east for a family reunion," Lauren continues. "I looked around the room and noticed all my male cousins and my brothers have really good jobs and really good salaries. And none of the women do. There's one cousin, we were born six weeks apart. He has a condo in Boston, he's made it financially. I started wondering, 'What is it?' Because we grew up with the same kind of parents, very similar in their mind-set. And I realized that all the men had envisioned themselves in those places. I think I took my career less seriously. In the back of my mind I was thinking, 'I can't get too high up, I can't have too much responsibility, because then what happens if I want to take a couple years off and have kids?' "
"Well, I never expected to get married or have kids," says Melody, "I still don't. But that idea of entitlement"she pauses, her brow furrowing"I really feel like men have this innate belief that things are going to happen for them, and that gives them confidence, and then things do happen for them."
"It's like guys have some 'thing' we don't have," Becky adds. It's not that she has ever felt overtly discriminated against, she says, she just has a sense that men get better mentoring, develop a stronger sense of vision about the future.
Lauren sighs, pushing her pizza crusts around her plate. "I know what you mean," she agrees, "but I end up feeling kind of sorry for men too. I mean, we think we're so pressured. They have to become something and make all this money, and they just accept that and do it. At least we've allowed ourselves self-expression. We could choose careers that are meaningful to us. We didn't have to choose based on money."
"But I wonder," Becky counters, "if your only pressure is to satisfy for your own interests, is that enough to push you to the kind of success that knowing you'll have to provide for a family might?"
Listening to these young women, I remembered debating my own career choice in the years after graduating college: My two older brothers, who are both talented writers and musicians, had already become lawyers, probably not a profession they would have chosen if they hadn't believed they would be providing most of their families' incomes one day. My parents pushed them firmly in that direction, but when I refused to take the LSATs, saying I was going to be a writer, they let it go. I knew the latitude wasn't based so much on faith in my talent as on a kind of sexism: I could pursue passion rather than prudence, freedom rather than responsibility, because I was female, because, like Machung's college seniors, my parents believed my income would be secondary and that writing was the sort of thing you could do part-time after you had children. If I'd stopped to examine it, I suspect I would've found that deep down I operated under the same assumptions. Fifteen years later my brothers earn more money than I do, but, as it turns out, my income is just as integral to my family's economic survival. Yet I enjoy my work more. So, which path was wiser? Going for the money or going for the heart?