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The day after classes started last fall, the New York Times published an article that made waves on campus. Headlined “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” the story purported to explore a growing trend among female students at Harvard, Yale, and “other top colleges” to forgo ambitious career plans—or any career at all—in favor of raising children and running a family. The article noted that “young women today” are increasingly seeing their role as mothers as paramount, exploring flexible or scaled-back work schedules to reflect these priorities. Although the article was widely discussed on campus, it was hardly original. In truth, rarely does a week go by without a new newspaper or magazine story on what “young women today” are doing.
Unlike many of my peers, I have no objection to the opinions of the women expressed in the New York Times article or others like it; my personal views about balancing a career and a domestic life are quite conflicted. But my belief about the right of each woman to make her own individual choices—about career path, family life, or what clothes to wear tomorrow—without the responsibility or the constraint of her gender is steadfast. And the effort to contextualize, and thus compartmentalize, every action a woman makes within the broader framework of “women’s roles” often obscures this individuality.
It seems that the tendency to see any action taken by a female as indicative of some broader assertion about women in society comes from two main sources—the need to add a broader point to news stories and thus give them more impact, and the focus on the female sex as a whole triggered by the women’s rights movement.
After four years on The Crimson, I understand the desire to try to explain subtle social changes to readers. One of the jobs of a journalist is to identify and explore societal undercurrents, especially if they are difficult to discern. But overzealously applied, this aim leads to the inflation or wholesale creation of trends in an effort to make individual incidents have some broader social significance.
These trend stories are notoriously difficult to substantiate—for every 10 anecdotes pointing one way, one can easily find 20 the other. This particular New York Times article—based on 138 interviews with freshman and senior women at Yale, and supplemented by some conveniently-interpreted results from university surveys of Yale and Harvard Business School graduates—was unusually rigorous for the genre.
At one time, during the rise of the women’s rights movement in the 1960s, the drive to look at women as a whole was a necessary part of progress toward equality. It was more justified then: in Betty Friedan’s time, fewer people were aware of the widespread frustration and discrimination affecting most women. It was “buried, unspoken,” as she famously wrote, and writing about the role of women in society was necessary to make people more conscious of the issues arising from gender inequality.
But now, several decades later, it seems that this focus has led to an unintended consequence: a tendency to see everything in the context of women’s roles—how they are changing, progressing, regressing, or stagnating. And as a result, actions taken by women as personal decisions are generalized as evidence about broader social trends of “women in society” rather than recognized as choices made by individuals who happen to be female.
This confining focus on “women” rather than “woman” often becomes clear when someone who happens to be female ascends to a new position, as occurred with Katie Couric’s recent promotion. Couric was widely lauded for being named the first solo female anchor of an evening news program—not the first woman to anchor an evening news show (in 1976, Barbara Walters became the first female co-anchor), nor the first to do it alone (which happened all the time when male anchors have the night off). Every news source leapt to proclaim Couric’s new position as a shining sign of the general progress of women’s roles. And this limited the acknowledgement of her accomplishment. Rather than discussing her reporting experience or ideas for the nightly news, the focus was often exclusively on her gender.
Closer to home, when The Crimson elected a female president, managing editor, and business manager in 2004, Glamour Magazine ran a short piece on the appointment of women to the top three positions of what was supposedly a traditional bastion of the old boys’ club. Never mind that the first female president of the Crimson took office in 1977, and numerous women had held each of the positions since then, just not all at the same time. This particular coincidence exemplified yet another step forward for women in society.
But every time a woman’s accomplishment is used as an example of some broader breaking of barriers, it implicitly circumscribes her achievement within the confines of gender. She is important as a woman before she is important as an individual. The idea of a “role” is strange in that way—it literally means representing something else beyond oneself. And so appropriating actions by individuals as exemplars of some broader change in women’s roles can take away from the personal agency and uniqueness of those women.
When I graduate tomorrow, I’d like to be seen as a friend, a journalist, a leader, and, yes, as a woman, too. But I hope that my actions in future years, whatever they may be, will not be seen through the lens of gender, but rather as the decisions of one individual.
Katharine A. Kaplan ’06, who was a Crimson associate managing editor in 2005, is a history concentrator in Mather House.
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