Where the girls weren’t

Writing

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.