Imagine All the Women

Last week, during an intimate lecture in Fong Auditorium, Dr. Ruth Westheimer brought up the popular show “Sex and the City,” only to warn her audience to be wary of Hollywood storylines: “In New York, there are not 20 men for every woman, lining up to whisk her off to Paris and buy her a mink coat.” While leaning back in my seat, surrounded by exceptional women (and some valiant young men too), it occurred to me that though daydreaming à la Carrie Bradshaw may not be so realistic in the long run, a woman’s imagination may conjure up possibilities for life that are as potentially rewarding as they are foreign.

While women at Harvard boast diversity, talent, ambition, leadership, great character, beauty, and creativity, of late, we lack a certain devotion to imagining the abundance of paths that we may pursue as women. The individual woman should dare to daydream beyond the popularly accepted ideals of what an educated, privileged woman may do with her life. Here on our beloved campus, we tend to gravitate towards two specific paradigms of a woman’s future: the “superwoman” who wants to achieve everything, and the accomplished woman who prefers to stay at home to raise a family. The superwoman intends to become a successful full-time professional in a career she loves, make money, get married, raise a family, travel, cook, host parties, and still find time to go to yoga on Sundays. The full-time mother is equally well-educated, talented, ambitious, and perhaps will also pursue graduate degrees, but she wishes to channel her time and resources into motherhood, often relying on the financial success of her husband (in a heteronormative model).

While I fully respect and admire both of the latter identities—for their contributions to both the professional world and to the health of family life— these two seemingly fulfilling options have their limits; for example, while my own mother is a typical superwoman, I witnessed firsthand the career sacrifices she made in order to accommodate her family above all else. Furthermore, even in the U.S., many families cannot subsist on one income. While the progressive agenda of America’s Second Wave feminists during the 1960s and 1970s boldly paved the way for the possibility of such “superwomen,” today, we fail to recognize the full continuum of choices and options that are open to young females. Particularly at Harvard, where we have the freedom to dream, to engage ourselves with almost anything we choose, all the while protected from many of the harsh realities of this world, we ought to be more free-spirited in the way we envision our futures.

Will being a “superwoman” really make you happy? Will you be satisfied with children and family as your sole occupation? Have you secretly wished you could apply your higher education degree(s) in an innovative way, to benefit the non-profit sector, or social justice, or domestic education? Will you think of yourself as complete without children? Would you adopt children? What if you decide marriage is not for you? What kind of doctor, lawyer, or businesswoman do you intend to be? Or is there a different job that would get you out of bed with joy every morning?

We ought to be engaging in more expansive, open, and unchecked dialogue; women, and men also, must begin to consider the infinite number of lifestyles, professions, and personal pursuits that can define a woman’s life. Of course, the journey we are taking to establish our identities as adult women must be fulfilling, otherwise we run the risk of “getting there” and finding ourselves disillusioned.

But while a serious exploration of the myriad opportunities for women in our social context is imperative, we must also remember that we need not be bound by any choices we make in college. There is no shame in not having a plan, in not continually building our resume, or in not beginning down the road envisioned for us by our parents. Fear of the unknown should excite us, not frighten us. Just as the young men around us often remain uncertain about their plans for a family or career, we women must remain free to engage with the idea that we may or may not end up satisfying the “molds” of “superwoman” or stay-at-home mom that have been laid out for us. Above all, we must become more vocal about our new ideas and hopes.

In the end, the spectrum of possibilities that we encounter is a matter of personal choice and imaginative orientation. We can only discover wonderful and meaningful futures if we get our feet wet in many realms, at least mentally. We owe it to ourselves to be honest about what we desire, what we need, and the personal necessities of which we cannot yet conceive. It is my belief that the inaugural Women’s Week was meant to capture some of this imaginative, open spirit. Both the Harvard College Women’s Center and the Seneca, Inc. aim to improve the experience of undergraduate women at Harvard; as such, the week of events was largely intended to illuminate the issues and challenges faced by women, to engage people in controversial debates, and further, to connect men and women from all parts of campus. If, by participating in such dialogue, we can think beyond the paradigms created for us, we will continue in the spirit of ever-expanding opportunity, thus opening ourselves up to rich, unexplored territory.

Darja Djordjevic ’08 is a social anthroplogy concentrator in Lowell House and serves on the Women’s Outreach Committee within the Seneca, Inc.