Where the girls weren’t


A million years ago, back in 1978, I showed up at the Harvard Crimson in the fall of my freshman year to try out for a slot on our storied school paper. Joining me for the first Crimson “comp” of our college lives were maybe a dozen other eager young would-be reporters. Among their names: Bill McKibben, Jeff Toobin, Nick Kristof, and David Sanger.

I recall only two other women—though there may well have been more—and none of us would scale the journalistic heights attained by what is, in retrospect, a remarkable percentage of our male peers.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means—or doesn’t. After election to the Crimson‘s News Board, I rarely ventured back. I recall feeling generally disaffected. One of my few clear memories is of a football whizzing over my head as I typed toward deadline. I don’t recall any intentional or explicit sexism.

So what happened?

Were the women of my Crimson era victims of discrimination, of a non-congenial (if not hostile) work environment? Or were we simply less focused and ambitious or maybe less talented? Or is the whole thing a statistical fluke that means exactly nothing?

My answer: I really can’t say for sure. There are, however, clues.

As recently as 1977—the year before I entered college—two-thirds of Americans believed that “it was much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,” Stephanie Coontz wrote earlier this month in a New York Times piece on why, fifty years after publication of The Feminine Mystique, women aren’t showing more zeal about moving into the full-time workforce. It’s a cultural attitude that feels deeply familiar from my Indiana childhood and which, along with the ongoing absence of structural supports for women seeking to balance work and family that Coontz describes, likely accounts for much of the under-representation of women throughout the workforce.

That said, I’ve always been deeply skeptical about the notion that numbers tell the whole story, a skepticism honed over several years as Harvard Law School’s de facto point person on women’s issues. (I graduated from HLS in 1993 and practiced law for a few years before gravitating back towards writing, eventually winding up as then-Dean Elena Kagan’s special assistant for communications.)  A 2005 speech I drafted for the dean acknowledged the undeniable fact that “women are not assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers” but also noted some possible non-discriminatory explanations.

Most intriguing to me was a tantalizing finding by a Harvard Law School student working group that women’s reasons for choosing law as a career differed from those of men. “Compared with men, women were more likely to choose ‘helping others’ (41% v. 26%) and ‘advancing ideological goals’ (24% v. 15%) and less likely to choose ‘high salary’ (32% v. 44%),” the group concluded in its February 2004 report.

So what are we to make of this? Well, I don’t have a comprehensive answer, but I can tell you what I made of it. My main takeaway wasn’t (and isn’t) that the world needs more female corporate law partners (though I certainly have no quarrel with you if that’s what you’re after) but that we need to place a far higher value on work where the primary goal is to make the world a better place. We need to value teachers, social workers—and public service lawyers—more, not to find new and better ways to steer them towards corporate work if that’s not where they want to go.

None of this, however, really speaks to the world of writing and journalism, which regardless of your gender, has never been a route to riches. While fewer women of my era may have made it to the New York Times, I think we can safely rule out avarice as the reason.

I should also be clear that I’m not saying Crimson women of my era did not go on to be highly successful in highly demanding jobs–investment banking and corporate law being two examples. And a handful of women of my college era did go on to successful writing careers–though with once exception, more on this below, none achieved the brand-name presence of those guys I comped with in the fall of 1978.

If I were to take a stab at guessing why women of this time and place–Harvard, the late 1970s–may have struggled to gain purchase on the writer’s path, I would probably start with the unconscious belief that our concerns—and our stories—didn’t really matter, a belief no less powerful for being unrecognized. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most well-known female journalist of my Crimson generation—Susan Faludi, one year ahead of me—made her name with a book that focused on the hitherto unrecognized “backlash” against women. And just yesterday, I was struck by how Crimson classmate Nick Kristof (and his wife Sheryl WuDunn) make a related point in the introduction to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide:

“[W]hen we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear nonproliferation . . . . Back then the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for.”

That they did write the book—and that it’s become a national bestseller—is one of many heartening signs that things have, and continue to, change. The fact that I’m writing this piece is another. When I look around, I’m struck by the number of women writers with whom I’ve crossed paths, most of whom are seven to ten years younger than I, who have managed in remarkable ways to tie their personal experience to larger concerns and trends. My law school classmate Susan Cain, author of the bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is a wonderful Exhibit A.  There’s also former law firm colleague KJ Dell’Antonia, who now heads up the New York Times wildly popular Motherlode blog; cyber pal Marci Alboher, who draws on her own life experience in the just-published Encore Career Handbook; occasional New York dinner party companions Pamela Paul (a New York Times writer and editor whose first book, The Starter Marriage, grew out of her own failed first marriage), Annie Murphy Paul (whose books include Origins, which delves into the cellular beginnings of life through the lens of motherhood), and Deborah Siegel, memoirist and co-founder of She Writes, an online community for women writers. There are likely many more whose names escape me at the moment.

Years before I turned to blogging and writing essays like this one, I had a reasonably successful, if short-lived, career as a suspense novelist.  Getting a book deal was a huge thrill and yet, when I was honest, I had to admit that the actual writing of these books wasn’t all that thrilling. For years, I took this to mean that I wasn’t really cut out for writing. And then a chance remark turned everything around. I’d just described my “ideal day” as part of a small group exercise at a Harvard Business School program for women. This vision involved waking up in the country, having coffee, then turning to my writing.

“But I had that day, and you know what? I wasn’t all that happy,” I concluded.

One of my listeners gave me a reflective look: “Maybe you were writing the wrong thing.”

Note: This piece was revised on March 8, 2013 with the addition of paragraph 12, intended as clarification. 

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “Where the girls weren’t

  1. Provocative and resonant w/me. I partic. like the call for valuing “helping” professions more seriously. Also agree on the nature of the stories that matter – for whatever reason women writers often lead into their most powerful work … from a personal experience. Which isn’t the same as weighing in on nuclear capacity – a topic I simply can’t get excited about, but which dominates the oped pages in DC. Not saying women are micro-focused, just find I respond to women writers more often, b/c topics usually more engaging to me … And they are still ranked as of lesser import. That’s one reason I think for the explosion of female voices on blogs — a new and mostly unpaid medium, but clearly a huge audience that appreciates having their concerns argued, validated, debated.

    • Excellent points! Also worth noting is the fact that women seem to face similar challenges in the fiction arena, with women’s writing & themes often not getting the same respect that men’s do. (See comments from my writer friend Cathi Hananuer (Gone, The Bitch in the House) below. This dates back to Jane Austen (at least) . . .

  2. Great piece. I love the comments, too. You know, not too long ago, I pitched an article to my city’s paper about the reasons women give for not reaching for those top leadership positions. The paper turned me down, saying this was old news. Then Anne Maria Slaughter came out with her Atlantic article. Ha.

    What you write reminds me of something I wrote about on my blog – the sense of being irrelevant, perhaps. (I don’t want to overstate.) Just the failure to see myself as on the same footing with others, and therefore a tendency to hold back. I’m a few years younger than you, and I hope that now there’s enough bedrock of empowered women to help my daughters see themselves as players at whatever levels they choose.

  3. Hey Amy! Interesting column, as usual. Much to say, but let me just start with this: I still maintain that things almost always change dramatically in terms of ambition (or at least the ability to fulfill that ambition) once a woman has kids. The combination of natural, biological differences (we are the ones pregnant, nursing, taking baby–and ourselves–to doctors, shown to respond faster to a baby’s cries–all of which are intense, long-term jobs that set up hard-to-break patterns for parenting) plus society’s continued roles of mother as primary parent, reinforced in schools, neighborhoods, etc etc (i’ll never forget going to my kids’ first nursery school “parent meeting”–held in the middle of a weekday morning, mind you–and finding it comprised of ALL women except for ONE (gay) man)–make it that much harder for a woman to juggle the insanity (time commitment, energy requirement, time away from home…) of high-powered jobs these days with that of having a family. Yes, it can be done, but i see the cost in many of my friends in high-powered jobs, who, despite husbands who “help out” and full-time nannies, are stressed, exhausted, burnt-out. Most (not all, but most) men in these positions, in contrast, have a built-in support network, someone (generally managed by someone else, usually a woman) taking care of the home and the kids, at very least. Also, need i point out that there’s never, but certainly not now, been the same pressure for men in high positions to maintain a youthful, slim, attractive appearance that there is for women, a pressure that these days means everything from finding time to color your hair, hit the gym/pilates/personal trainer daily, shop often and carefully, get your “face done” (whether that means makeup or far more)…it’s just not the same time commitment/expense/level of energy and investment. I know, i know, we smart women are way past that, bla bla, but really, how many women do you know in high-powered positions who don’t look mostly great most of the time (compared to their male counterparts)? How many do you know who aren’t running their households (or running the running of their households) and managing the lives/education/ extracurriculars/health of their kids? Oh i know, these are old arguments, but they just seem so obvious to me about why there aren’t more women in high-powered jobs, and why the ones who are tend to be the ones without kids.
    I’ll leave it at that for now. Feel free to respond or not, but please, keep writing!

    • Cathi! Thank you so much–I didn’t see this comment, only the short one below. Wow, that’s a lot. Not having kids myself, I can’t speak from personal experience, but what you say makes total sense.

  4. Well, I’ve written a short note to the author already, but this isn’t the way I remember it. We had a lot of excellent female journalists on the Crimson in the late 1970s. Alexandra Korry, who’s now one of the most feared litigators in NYC, her dad was the ambassador to Chile under Salvador Allende. She was scary in those days. Amy MacIntosh was intrepid and scary good. Sue Chira, who ended up on the NYT, was fiery and good. Cheryl Duval, who ended up with NPR, was a fine photographer and journalist. Sherri Hays was the first woman President of the Crimson. Linda Drucker. Celia Dugger, who was Ronnie Dugger’s daughter, the famed TX journalist. Celia also ended up on the NYT. The thing is I used to read a lot of these women’s bylines for YEARS in the NYT, especially Celia Dugger and Sue Chira, and I remembered them really well from the Crimson. Was it a transitional time? Was it ideal? Yes, and no, to those two questions. But was it a training ground for some of the most incredible women the planet has ever seen, including the author of this piece? Well, surely.

    • Hey there! Wrote you back on LinkedIn but will copy here too (in the event the exchange is of interest to anyone else):

      Thanks! Just a quick clarification (trying to get out of the office) — I certainly don’t mean to say that women on the Crimson weren’t super successful, just that in my particular era, with the exception of Susan Faludi, I can’t think of any who went on to high profile careers (in the same league as the guys I comped with) that involved news reporting/storytelling. Sue Chira (Crimson president) was at the Times–she’s a couple of years ahead of me. I think Celia Dugger was too. But again, not in the superstar league that four(!) of the guys I comped with are now. (Nick Kristof generously re-tweeted my piece and said he agreed with the perspective). Hope it’s clear that I really wasn’t out to “prove” anything — the piece was simply my reflections. If it sparks conversation/musing that’s great by me!

      Again, thanks so much for reading — and writing back. I love to hear from people who read what I write. : )

  5. Wow, so much to say about this essay, which covers a lot of ground. So much of what you wrote really resonated. I recently wrote about the same topic, although it was more about the downshifting choices men and women will be making as my industry contracts. I don’t have a clear reason why there is a difference between men and women’s aspirations, but we see it at the beginning of careers, at crucial inflection points in careers, and now in the bust-up. Fascinating topic which we should discuss over coffee and one of those chicken sandwiches….

    • So much to talk about–I will really look forward to it (with or without chicken sandwiches, though coffee will be necessary) And–as I said elsewhere–LOVE your Dr. H essay. Will be in touch on that. : )

  6. First – wow you know a lot of writers! Second, as I read this I thought about my own time in that HBS workshop and my own answer to “what’s your best work day.” I had no concept of what the best day was ever – or even what I wanted to do as a young child. In fact, a person looked at me and said, “Allegra, wake up you have got to be kidding. You have to have something better than what you just described.” But I didn’t. I couldn’t even see my face as a child I had so blotted it out.

    I’m much more able to see me now, though not completely clearly. What I’ve learned is this: I grew up in a stuck culture of rural Alabama, but realized it’s not so much more stuck than VC or I-banking or any number of male-dominated professions. (How do I know a culture is stuck? Read what the Onion laughs at it about. The Onion writes things about my beloved home state like “PR firm urges US to cut ties to Alabama.”) I never realized how I had so fully lived into the story of most women: “Men are in charge; women support and care; and, a Southern twist, women are to never, ever leave anyone behind – even if they are dead.” It’s the second-hand smoke I inhaled not realizing the point of breathing is to flourish. I never realized how many messages I got of “You will never, ever get out from under the weight of a man’s dutiful role to dominate and do not try because you will not do it; you are to clean up the messes men make and STAY IN YOUR ROLE.” It takes a lot of faith to say, “I know who I am; I deserve to flourish as myself; and this part about cleaning up after selfish men or burying yourself with the dead that a community can’t get over (whether or not its WWI England or the Civil War for white southerners) or the walking dead (in my world my father was broken by the Vietnam war) is not about me flourishing it’s about an unwillingness of my culture to discharge pain and that sucks for them but I don’t have to breathe that second hand smoke any more.”

    Now, this took a ton of therapy to see, accept, and mourn. Now I can focus on being my best self as long as it leads to community flourishing. (that is if my best self is someone who makes less of others, then I need to really ask myself what makes me need to do those things). In the journey I’ve had to jettison a lot of others’ dreams and my own coping mechanisms – the imaginary friends I had to cope with loneliness became projected on some charming narcissists – what a toxic mix I couldn’t see. What bad habits I had as a child do I still engage in partly as my culture dictated (don’t discharge pain – we don’t do that here) or as my child-like mind had suggested (if I’m really good and active my father will get over his PTSD mental illness and make positive choices for himself and our families; I just need to show him by example)? I offer this because these intentions, behaviors and their impacts all create this muddle of women doing the caring work in society when in fact, we should only do that work if we have a deep vocational sense that it’s right for us and not because we’re particularly good at it or because “women doing this is awesome for the rest of society.”

    • Excellent points, Allegra! Especially thinking about the caring roles — the need to interrogate that impulse. I think one of the big challenges for each of us on this journey is to recognize our own tendencies/biases and what we need to correct for. For some of us, there will be a need to relax into the impulse to give back. For others, it will be important to see that there are other options.

      Also, I love that the HBS event that I write about in this post is where we met. So glad that happened! : )

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