By Alexandra Schwartz ’09
When I was little, my mother gave me a book called “You Can Be Anything!” It had a charming gimmick: Two glossy cardboard cutouts of smiling children — one boy, one girl — were attached to the cover and could be inserted into specially made slots on each page. On the first page, the figures fit into mail carrier costumes as they delivered letters to the houses on a street. On the second, they morphed into doctors. Over the course of the story, they became policemen, teachers, artists, lawyers, you name it — those children tested every possible profession side by side, working together the whole way through.
A few years later, I received another, similar picture book from my mother: “Girls Can Do Anything.” It followed the story of Janie, a young girl who comes home from school one day, distressed after being mocked by her male peers for wanting to take on a traditionally male role in a game they played. Given the circumstances, her parents do what any decent parents of the early ’90s would: sit their daughter down and present her with an abbreviated history of powerful professional women worldwide. The book provided me with my first exposure to the likes of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, and, like Janie, I came away exhilarated with a sense of the possibilities that life held, eager to grow up and choose a challenging but satisfying career that would silence any naysayer who came my way.
My mother was born eight months before Hillary Clinton. Like Hillary Clinton, she grew up in the ’50s, attended a women’s college in the late ’60s and entered the professional world during the heyday of the early ’70s feminism. My mother’s effort to raise me on feminist picture books with strong female role models stood in contrast to the world that she had known while growing up. These idealistic visions of women achieving an equal status to men in the workplace served as primers for the children born into the would-be post-feminism generation, children whose mothers looked forward to a time when their daughters would inherit and take for granted a vastly expanded professional landscape that they themselves were still charting.
Certainly, women in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s could rise to distinguished and powerful positions in a variety of fields, but those who reached the top were few and far between. It was inconceivable in the professional world my mother and Hillary Clinton knew that a man and a woman could exchange jobs as easily as the cardboard characters of my book could slip into each other’s places. The great hope was that things would be different by the time that my peers and I graduated from college and struck out along our own professional paths — different for us, but also different for the older generation of working women as well.
This is simply still not the case. As the competition heats up between Hillary and Obama in the wake of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, race and gender have at last come head to head in a battle of comparative oppression. Without having given much of a damn much about blacks or women in the politics in recent years, America now apparently finds it necessary to figure out once and for all which group continues to suffer the most from its dismal, centuries-long abuse. What should be an important (and long overdue) discussion has instead become obscured by a perverse contest in which the loser is somehow entitled to be the ultimate winner (of a national election, at least.) And so we get statements like Lorrie Moore’s on the op-ed page of The New York Times: “In my opinion, it’s a little too late in the day to become sentimental about a woman running for president. The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by.” Moore suggests that women as a group have become so professionally powerful as to not need any strong females to admire and emulate. Forget the continuing discrepancies between men’s and women’s salary and job selection (just compare the number of female professors to male professors at Yale). Our token women in powerful places must really mean that girls can, at last, do anything. Onto the next disadvantaged group!
I’m still undecided as to whom I’ll vote for when my primary rolls around, and I doubt that gender or race will ultimately play much of a part in my choice. But whatever happens to Clinton over the next months, it would be foolish to pretend her political success has been just another routine achievement for feminism. Women are still moving forward in the professional world one step at a time. At least those steps seem to be getting quicker.