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. 

How blogging changed my life–and how it can change yours

I´m blogging this.

Ear­lier this month, the New York Times Moth­er­lode blog fea­tured new research sug­gest­ing that blog­ging may make new moth­ers hap­pier.

It got me to think­ing about how this is also true for us denizens of Plan B Nation—and for much the same reasons.

The cited research—a small research study by Penn State Ph.D. can­di­date Bran­don T. McDaniel—suggests that blog­ging coun­ter­acts new moth­ers’ feel­ings of iso­la­tion. It found a pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion between “blog­ging and feel­ings of con­nect­ed­ness to fam­ily and friends—which in turn cor­re­lates … with mater­nal well-being and health,” writes Moth­er­lode blog­ger KJ Dell’Antonia (who, in another life­time, prac­ticed law with me, but I digress .…)

Feel­ings of iso­la­tion are also a hall­mark of life in Plan B Nation—and one of its most dan­ger­ous poten­tial side effects. Long-term unem­ploy­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, has been repeat­edly linked to a down­ward spi­ral in per­sonal rela­tion­ships. Gallup Chair­man and CEO Jim Clifton sums this up suc­cinctly in his new book The Com­ing Jobs War: “Peo­ple who have been out of work for 18 months or longer lose engage­ment in their net­work of friends, com­mu­nity, and fam­i­lies. The worst things in life start show­ing up when peo­ple expe­ri­ence extended unemployment.”

Speak­ing from per­sonal expe­ri­ence (hello read­ers!), blog­ging can go a long way to help with such feel­ings. Two months ago, when I started Plan B Nation, I was in a pretty demor­al­ized place. I’d been un– and under-employed for more than two years and was hav­ing a hard time imag­in­ing a light at the end of the tun­nel. I didn’t really think blog­ging would help, but I’d been think­ing about doing it for a while and finally took the leap. If noth­ing else, I fig­ured, I’d at least learn some new skills.

Flash for­ward to today, and my whole out­look has changed—and largely because of this blog. Sim­ply put, blog­ging about my story has trans­formed my rela­tion­ship to it. It’s gone from being a source of suf­fer­ing to being my sub­ject. When I step back to mine it for mate­r­ial, I start to find it inter­est­ing. I start to see what it has to teach me (and how, in shar­ing it, I can maybe even help others).

And there’s a huge addi­tional poten­tial bonus to blog­ging in Plan B Nation: It can be a ter­rific source of pay­ing work. That’s cer­tainly been the case for me and—a quick Google search reveals—for many oth­ers as well.

Iconic blog­ger Pene­lope Trunk—if you haven’t read her, you should; you’ll either love her or hate her—is a big pro­po­nent of blog­ging as a career strat­egy. For doubters, she lists the fol­low­ing five rea­sons to embark.

1. Blog­ging makes career change easier.

2. Blog­ging lets you skip entry-level jobs.

3. Blog­ging opens up the world of part-time work.

4. Blog­ging makes it eas­ier to re-enter the workforce.

5. Blog­ging builds a net­work super fast.

I can’t say every­thing in this post will be true for every­one, but for me, it’s come pretty close. (For more evi­dence in sup­port, check out blog­ger Jen Gresham’s post on blog­ging as a career tool—part of BlogHer’s ongo­ing series on career rein­ven­tion.)

Will it be true for you? You’ll never know if you don’t try. (Pene­lope Trunk also offers tips on how to get started.)  You might con­sider, as I did, that even if your blog doesn’t fly, you’ll still have learned a lot.

Need more inspi­ra­tion? Try check­ing out other blogs that explore life in Plan B Nation. A few examples:

  • Brett Paesel’s darkly hilar­i­ous Last of the Bohemi­ans (about a fam­ily vaca­tion to India in the shadow of bankruptcy)
  • Whar­ton M.B.A. Sharon O’Day’s blog about women and money (which evolved from her own expe­ri­ence of start­ing over at age 53)
  • From Prada to Pay­less (“The life and times of a once glam­orous NYC fash­ion indus­try insider, to a mother of three girls, liv­ing pay­check to pay­check , fac­ing fore­clo­sure, and try­ing to find humor, and san­ity in it all, while look­ing (try­ing!) deli­ciously chic in her Pay­less shoes”)

Plan B Nation takes lots of things away from us, but it also fills our life with amaz­ing (if painful), strange, intrigu­ing, and unfor­get­table sto­ries. The trick is to see them, to lean into them. Blog­ging can help with that.

Do you have a favorite Plan B Nation blog? Please share it in the com­ment section.