Feminism, Social Justice and Career Ambition

Feminism, Social Justice and Career Ambition

A few days after my last post I had one of those moments where you slap yourself on the forehead with a big old Homer Simpson “Doh!” — I’d forgotten to take into account the gender and class issues inherent to my anti-ambition/anti-career screed.

Staying home is a totally different issue if you haven’t had, or haven’t felt you’ve had, the opportunity to go out into the world, to become what you want to become, and to throw yourself whole-heartedly into the thrill of building a career.

At the Montana Book Festival this summer, Kate Bolick and Sarah Hepola gave a terrific talk about their respective books, Spinster and Blackout. On the surface they might not seem to have that much in common — but both books are, at their cores, portraits of the fight it takes to become an authentically adult woman while struggling with the external scripts that are laid upon us — the wife & mother script, the carefree single-chick script, the woman writer script — and all the others we feel coming at us from the outside.

I’m at least a decade older than both of them, and as someone who has really come into her own since turning fifty, who feels absolutely liberated from so many things including the questions of who and if I’ll marry (no, but I have my Himself and we’re very happy), whether I’ll have kids (no, but I have my tribe of borrowed children) and just What Will Become of Me? hearing the two of them was an interesting reminder of how terrifying those decades of early adulthood were. I didn’t marry right out of college as girls of my social class and home town did, nor did I go to law or business school and go make a fortune (as those who didn’t marry early did). I was broke and flailing for years,  just as I was single single single for years. I went nearly a decade without so much as a second date. A decade during which all I really had was my nascent literary career, and my nice little high-tech career which has supported me, paid for my house, and allowed me the modicum of financial success I’ve had. I am deeply grateful for my day job, and not only for the paycheck — I love that I’ve worked with people from all corners of the globe, that I’ve been a part of this technological revolution, and that I have a thorough working knowledge of what it means to work in a corporate environment. Those are not experiences I would have had if I’d been single-minded about my literary career, or had I stayed in academia.

But I also remember well the heady thrill of being young and running work errands in Midtown Manhattan on a weekday afternoon. The thrum of business and commerce, that sense that you were at the center of the world, the sheer energy swirling around, remains one of the peak experiences of my adult life. It wasn’t ultimately an environment I wanted to live in, but the key is that I had the choice.  I went to New York right out of college, and with a tiny bit of help from my father, and another tiny bit of help from the boyfriend I was breaking up with, and with a few family and college connections I managed to get myself a job in publishing, one that led to an offer at a major magazine a couple of years later. I ultimately turned it down because it wasn’t going to lead where I wanted to go, and because I couldn’t see New York working for me in the long term, but the key here is that I had that choice. I went to New York. I had the kind of social background and college degree from a nice liberal arts school that meant I got the first job at all, and that a couple of years later, I saw the next rung on the ladder open up to me. I saw what that life could have/would have been. I don’t have to wonder what if about that part of my life.

I suppose what I meant to rail against is the sort of mindless careerism that values hours in the office over actual work accomplished, that expects round-the-clock connectivity, that feeds the narcissistic impulse in all of us to believe we are Very Important and that we have Urgent Things To Do. I stand by my belief that a more humane society would drop the dog-eat-dog competitive model for one that is more flexible, more inclusive, more thoughtful about what roles people in organizations can and should play and that allows those roles to shift and change over time. We’re currently mired in such black and white thinking about work — that working more is always better, that more money is always better than less, that faster is better than slower, that a person’s worth is determined by their productivity (a metric originally developed by Southern Plantation owners to determine the economic worth of slaves).

I go on and on about staying home — it’s there in  my tag line for goodness sake — but what I’m trying to articulate is a vision of the world where more of us have the social and economic capital to make actual choices about our lives. Where we can choose, despite gender or social class, to pursue work ambition with all the energy we have, or to choose to put our energies into alternative venues — including the domestic sphere. What I keep groping for is a world in which social and economic inequality has been equalized to the extent that people have actual choices about their lives. Because as it stands, too many do not.  It shouldn’t be a luxury to choose to live smaller.


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