Female Role Models: What Year is It?

Am I wrong, or is this not one of the most taboo topics in feminism? Some professional women who don’t have children hold it against professional women who do. Or to be more exact, they expect us all to share the same understanding of what we should be putting into our jobs.

I remember one of my favorite professors in graduate school, whipping into the seminar room, often ten minutes late and almost always out of sorts. And then she would gather herself and teach a damn good class. On Nietzsche. Or Wittig. Or Benjamin. Or Musil. She graded our papers with care and detail. She challenged us. She was always physically put-together, i.e., professional. She edited books, published articles, encouraged her students, and eventually headed the department. She did all this while raising a child while her academic husband was often in Europe. She may have been harried, but she also did it with grace.

I saw her at a big conference a few years ago. I told her how at this juncture in my career I better understood (although I had never judged) what she was juggling then. She touched my arm and said thank you, as if a burden had been laid down. She was truly surprised and relieved that we students had seen a difference between what she was managing and her male colleagues, who at that time happened to be single men living the lives of single men. I wonder if these men said, why doesn’t Ursula have the minutes typed up yet from the last meeting? Why doesn’t Ursula spend the time sitting in her office talking to students like I do? Why is Ursula late to meetings? Why can’t she stay for many evening programs? You know what, while I bet they may have thought these things, they weren’t stupid enough to voice them, and certainly not to Ursula. It was the 90s, after all.

I find the problem today is that professional women without children ask these kinds of questions of other women. Or better yet, they most often simply act passive-aggressively toward them. You know if you say you have to go pick up your child, requiring you to leave an event early, you have fallen short, yet again.

What is this, 1980?

When a colleague of mine, unmarried, says that her role model is a woman without children whose publications are her offspring, do I judge that as an empty life? Then please afford me the same courtesy. I’ve earned the right to have balance in my life. I have paid my dues.

All that said, some of us come into the world with something like “love capital.” That’s a terribly awkward term, but I’m referencing the concept of social capital, the idea that some of us are born with advantages others do not have, based on nationality, race, gender, the socio-economic class of our parents, etc. Perhaps it is not much different with love. When I think of the four most difficult people I know (some men, some women), each had at least one parent, if not two, who criticised them mercilessly for who they were, rather than loving and supporting them unconditionally. Perhaps it is not realistic to expect someone raised this way to live and let live and to have the same understanding of the place where work ends and personal life begins.

Certainly, some women are fortunate to have female colleagues who either themselves respect this balance or are engaged in the juggling act themselves. For those of us who lack this understanding in the workplace, there seems to be no productive way to have this discussion. After all, it’s not the person’s fault they never fell in love, or never got married, or never had children. Maybe they would like to have, maybe they wouldn’t. Either way, how dare you offer as an excuse for slacking off (their interpretation of your prioritizing) the very things they might want but don’t have in their life. Just how spoiled are you?!

It seems to be a no-win situation. Perhaps I can only fall back on two things. First, gratitude that I was given the “love capital” that seems to have afforded me the love of many wonderful people in my life. And secondly, I am grateful for Ursula, who showed me the way. No apologies if my glaem sometimes shines through. Hers certainly always does.


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  2. Jenn says:

    You stated – “Certainly, some women are fortunate to have female colleagues who either themselves respect this balance or are engaged in the juggling act themselves. For those of us who lack this understanding in the workplace, there seems to be no productive way to have this discussion.” –

    This is undeniably true. The sad part is many times our friends/acquaintances/colleagues don’t even realize just how unempathic they are being or behaving. They truly have no idea how much having a child will change you. A male friend of mine once said that he was very happy to be childless and glad to not be burdened with the extra worry and trouble that comes with marriage/commitment and children. About two years later, a few months after the birth of his daughter, he made an offhand comment about how much his daughter means to him. How it changed his entire life and altered his perception on every thought he ever had about this earth/universe and our human purpose/role/place in this world. He was in his mid thirties when he became a parent, but he spent at least 10 – 15 years prior putting other parents down, or criticizing their judgment and priorities, before his own eyes were opened. Two years ago I ignored his comments and dropped the conversation. Today we can have conversation and even silent understanding.


    • Wanda says:

      Parenting has to be my first job, even though teaching pays the bills and it’s my chosen profession. I would most likely have a different kind of teaching position if I had decided not to be a mother, but I wouldn’t do anything differently.

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