Last week a smart and interesting young woman contacted me asking if WE accept unsolicited submissions for WE Magazine for Women. I said that my team and I would be happy to review her work and let her know if it was something our readers might be interested in.
This essay, entitled WE Girls touched me as it made me remember what it felt like to be 21, in school and with the whole world before me. Most days I still feel that way (maybe not 21, but I am always in “school” and I still feel as if the whole world is before me). Get ready for a little inspiration…
WE Girls By Jen Kellogg
Yes, we girls are fair and witty. We take most everything seriously, including our vocabulary words and our workout and diet regimens, our relationships with our parents and our friends, and for the fortunate many it seems, our relationships with our boyfriends. We prioritize our studies over our social lives; except of course on Thursday nights, when we straighten our well-conditioned and highlighted locks, apply our eye shadow and lip gloss with an expert and subtle hand, and dress ourselves for the men and women in our lives, all the while appearing comfortable and confident in our own skin. Most of us were raised in households where every opportunity, every desire, and every whim was afforded to us. I, too, took the mandated piano and art lessons, played soccer and ran track, spoke three languages before graduating from high school, and volunteered weekly at the local homeless shelter. It was never doubted or debated whether or not I would attend a four-year college, or a private one at that, though of course, any institution where I believed I would flourish most was both encouraged and already paid for. We came from families, from mothers in particular, who wanted us to have everything they did not. We were bred to eventually become the women who have it all.
And yet, as I look around my less-than-spacious room, decorated to feel more like a cozy and sunny reading room than the attic in the student house it really is, I agonize over how at twenty-one, I am predicted to know how to choose the path that links my privileged upbringing with the charmed adult life that is expected of me. It is common knowledge, at least amongst us girls, that the decisions we make in our twenties will impact us for the rest of our lives. The first job we hope will become our career, the city we decide to relocate to, the man we meet in the used bookstore who just might become our husband—these are the things we young twenty-somethings fantasize about. We straddle that white-picket fence between adolescence and adulthood, fantasy and reality, while simultaneously striving to heed our mentors’ suggestion to celebrate who we are in this exciting chapter of our lives. And while this is certainly sage advice, the girls we know ourselves to be are oftentimes a far cry from the women we envision ourselves becoming.
I am not sure if across generations young women have always felt this way. Surely, when our grandmothers became mothers at the very age I am now, or our mothers received engagement rings and college diplomas on the same day, they must have felt pressured to be far more mature than they actually believed themselves to be. So it is not this societal or inherent pressure I question has always been present, it is the plethora of options available to us that is enormously overwhelming.
Because our mothers and all the women who came before us worked so hard to ensure these manifold choices existed, it is not at all with an ungrateful heart that I bemoan the expectations of young women in today’s society. And convincingly, while our manicured and polished angst-ridden teenage years were anything but easy, they prepared us for the stresses we now face. According to a New York Times article in 2006, women now make up 58% of those enrolled in two-and four-year colleges and are, over all, the majority in graduate and professional schools, as well. Furthermore, women are excelling at higher rates than their male counterparts with the vast majority of honors degrees being awarded to them. And while I do not at all pretend to be a sociologist or an expert in educational trends, for surely there are innumerable factors which have led to the dramatic increase in women receiving college degrees, I think so much of our success has to do with our capacity to multi-task without compromising our focus and precision.
In high school, we girls were expected to excel in the classroom, on the athletic field, and on the stage while still maintaining our youth and our lightheartedness. This is not to say, of course, that our male peers were not equally pressured to thrive in all of these arenas; the difference, I believe, is the paramount role our mothers played in our upbringing. The role of women, what is expected of them, what is discouraged of them, their so many opportunities and so little limitations, has drastically changed in the last half century. No longer are women relegated to the home (noting of course that there is absolutely nothing wrong with women who choose this role for themselves), but we are expected to compete with men in the classroom and in the workforce while ensuring our partners and children have home-cooked meals to look forward to. So it is this example, I think, the example our multi-hat wearing mothers set for us, that predetermined our desire and our need to multi-task in order to keep up with our growing number of responsibilities in our ever-changing world.
And while women’s roles have so significantly altered, men’s roles have, by and large, remained the same. Men have always and probably will continue to see and value their primary role in society as the breadwinners. And again, there is nothing wrong with this chosen path, as indeed, it has been one traveled down by most throughout history. The problem, and truth be told, I’m not even sure it is a problem, is when a woman yearns to obtain this same primary role. What happens, then, when both men and women are competing for identical positions within society? What happens when men see no other ways in which to improve, no other ways in which to support themselves and their families, than by doing that which they’ve always done? And women, who because of the examples of strong women set before us, and the guilt we would otherwise feel should we not take advantage of everything society now has to offer, are simultaneously basking in our newfound freedom and floundering amidst our many, many roles.
I am not sure when exactly the notion of “having it all” became vogue or even feasible, but alas, it is an idea we girls continually grapple with as we best determine how to make it a reality. Forgive me too, to those men who might be reading this, for perhaps in my narrow-minded, ever-so-focused female mind, I have overlooked the possibility that you all struggle with this concept as well. Nevertheless, I believe this is a primarily female-driven belief—the confidence we can graduate from the same universities as men (with oftentimes better grades), be hired from the same desirable employers as men (although women still only make $0.77 to the man’s dollar, young women between ages twenty-two and thirty are earning more than their male counterparts by 8% on average), marry the man of our dreams (presumably the one we met at the used bookstore), move to a house in the suburbs which, under our care, would be beautiful enough to grace the cover of Home and Garden, and bear and raise perfect children—daughters who would strive to emulate their “have it all” mother, and sons who would appreciate and strive to marry such a woman. It is no wonder our society has become a pressure-cooker for women!
I don’t know which question is more fascinating: one, why on earth do all women assumedly desire all of these things or two, why oh why do we believe all of this is achievable? The answer to the first question has plagued many women and me for a long time, and still the best answer I can proffer is because our modern-day society scoffs at the notion that women should desire anything else. Which woman does not want to have a wildly successful career, a stunning home and a loving family? I would imagine there are very few of us. As for the second question, well obviously, because we all know at least one woman who ostensibly does have it all. Needn’t matter if behind closed doors she is a nervous-wreck and habitually wants to pull her hair our, so long as she maintains her equanimity and picture-perfect life to all those eager women desperate to learn her secret, she will forever embody the every-woman and perpetuate this confidence that everything we should have, we can have.
And so, here I am at the humble age of twenty-one, with one more semester to go before I graduate from my first-choice university, in all likelihood with honors, toying with the indistinct line between girl and womanhood. I’m not sure how much good it does me or any other young woman to dwell on such thoughts as mine; but alas, I’m just here, in my student’s room adorned with mock-antiques, trying to find my way amongst a generation of accomplished women.
Lewin, Tamar. “At Colleges, Women Are Leaving Men in the Dust.” Www.nytimes.com. 9 July 2006. Web. 28 Nov. 2010.
McDermott, Alice. “Our Girls.” The Hopkins Review: 363-75. Print.
“USATODAY.com – College Gender Gap Widens: 57% Are Women .” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – USATODAY.com. 19 Oct. 2005. Web. 28 Nov. 2010.
“Young Women Outearn Men By A Mile For Awhile – 24/7 Wall St .” 24/7 Wall St. – Insightful Analysis and Commentary for U.S. and Global Equity Investors. Web. 28 Nov. 2010.