You have probably seen this photo of a hand-written school assignment floating around the Internet. Written by an 8-year-old girl, the assignment states, “Being a female is a great gift to the universe. Here are a few wonderful things about being a girl…we have veginas. We get jobs. We are creative. We have stuff that makes us preanet. We have milk in our bobes. We are smart. We have power.”
As you can imagine, every site on the Internet shared the photo of the wise girl’s homework, as it is an adorable simplification of what it means to be a modern day woman, and a budding feminist to boot. Nowhere in her response did it say, “We have stuff that makes us preanet OR we get jobs.” With endearing brevity, this little girl wrote the most important response to the “Can Women Have It All?” debate that has been torn apart, ad nauseam, across every blog on the web. If only we could all share in her idealism.
Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s newest CEO, recently announced she was pregnant. In between standard congratulations and cooing, people actually stopped to ask, ponder, opine, and discuss whether she can be a successful CEO to a major company, and a good parent at the same time. Suddenly her choices were thrust into public domain, and dissected like a TomKat divorce rumor.
Mayer is only the 20th female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. There is no doubt that she has had to work hard, compete with sexism in and around her professional life, and convince people that she is a worthy employee and leader. That she has risen to the top is a great success not only for her, but for other women who choose to follow in her footsteps and take on career paths that have traditionally only been accessible to men. As former Governor of Massachusetts, Jane Swift, points out in her July 23, 2012 Fast Company article, “Marissa Mayer. Pregnant CEO. Big Whoop”: “It’s a positive step forward in a time when only 5% of American CEOs are women. That fact, not Mayer’s pregnancy and how she deals with maternity leave, is a bellwether.”
Often times the “can women have it all?” discussion is referenced in terms of women who are as successful, status wise and financially, as their male counterparts. When women in these roles decide to have children, some people see it as a hiccup, or worse, a weakness. The idea that vaginas and periods and childbirth and the need to nature render us incapable to do our jobs is a total joke. And the notion that a woman’s career will suffer because she is a parent misses many pieces of the puzzle, such as: the person that she chose to get pregnant with in the first place, the support systems around her, and the way we, as a society, separate our family and work lives, as well as money, class, race, and a truck load of other factors. As Ann Marie Slaughter wrote in the piece that launched a thousand opinions, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All?”, “Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances. Some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs. Many cope with a work life in which good day care is either unavailable or very expensive; school schedules do not match work schedules; and schools themselves are failing to educate their children. Many of these women are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have”.
Being an adult with a career and a family, however grand or small, is a juggling act. It takes a lot of guts to say you are the best person for a job, whether that job is in an office, or in a nursery, and it takes major ovaries to always do your best at both, simultaneously. I applaud all the women who wake up every day with such chutzpah, and in those applause, there is no room for wondering if I man could do it better. We can give Marissa Mayer a hard time, and worry that she won’t make it to a very important investor meeting because she has to go breastfeed her newborn baby, or we can do what we, as capable, introspective, educated women are better at – and think bigger.
It is very important to remember that what Marissa Mayer is doing was not always an option for women. Even twenty years ago (when I was eight years old!) it would have been relatively unheard of. The movements and aggressive campaigns for equality in education and workplace, as well as standards against sexual harassment, and slowly evolving social codes has benefited my generation, and the generations after mine, in ways that we can’t even fully grasp. As Swift points out, “Her success will be our success, but not because she is a mother; rather, because she is a successful force in the tech industry who opens doors for other smart, ambitious women like herself. And that will be a big deal.”
Or will it?
Though we are at very different rungs on the ladder, my world and Mayer’s world overlap. We are both women in the tech/digital space, trying to forge ahead and work within an industry that is still largely dominated by men. Which is why my bone to pick with Mayer is not about having a child, but rather that she does not want to admit to the gender bias in the digital space, acknowledge the struggles of other women that laid the groundwork for her career, or call herself a feminist at all. As she said in an interview for the PBS-AOL Maker’s series, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word. You know, there are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.”
To me that sounds like what someone says when they want to appease the boys club, and when they don’t want to be called a bitch. Women do this all the time, and it makes me angry that someone so powerful, so smart, and so able to make choices about her future, would discount the other women that helped make everything she has possible.
As Mayer is probably aware, successful men hardly ever say they are sorry, and neither do successful feminists. But what they do say, a whole lot is “Thank You.” It would behoove Mayer to look back and thank the Susan B. Anthonys and Gloria Steinems who certainly had a chip on their shoulder, and worked tirelessly to ensure Mayer and I could have all the opportunities we take advantage of today. Without them we wouldn’t be sitting around, talking about if we “can have it all?”. We would just wondering what our husbands might want for dinner, and which dresses flatter our veginas and bobes.