Alas, the victories of feminism have granted young women, like myself, the privilege to look up to and admire other women occupying high-powered positions as we begin to forge our own careers. These women are intelligent, accomplished and have achieved a level of professional success that heretofore was once the exclusive reserve of men. Living in New York City, I encounter women who have “made it” in almost every sense of the word; they are independent, financially and otherwise, in one of the toughest, most expensive cities in the world.
I worked directly for one such woman. In her early 30s, she was sharp, hard working and attractive to boot. She managed her own team as a high-ranking VP, and she handled herself with a healthy balance of professionalism and good nature. You’d think such accomplishments would inspire nothing but awe, admiration and perhaps a little envy from the younger girls on the team. And yet, they did not; for my boss had one vice, and as far my peers were concerned it was the only one that mattered: she was single.
Perpetually, my boss’ relationship status qualified every accomplishment she made. When she worked late, it wasn’t admirable that she was dedicated, busy and important; it was sad that she didn’t have a family to whom she needed to rush home to. In fact, most of her life was framed within this context, and so the most extraneous details were made pitiable. She was labeled a “workaholic” without hesitation, a cautionary tale of what can happen to a woman when she gets too caught up in her career. After all, my boss was in her thirties and still unmarried. Gasp!
This might seem extreme or circumstantial; that I worked with unusually old-fashioned women or that they were merely jealous of their superior’s success. Maybe they were. However, I can say with 100% certainty that a not a single one of my co-workers ever looked up to my boss and said “That’s where I want to be.” It was just whispers, a mixture of pity, condescension and a slight tinge of worry that the same fate might befall them: that they’d succeed at the expense of staying single. I might also add that all these women were college-educated, living on their own in New York City and working within a dynamic industry. While I cannot judge what is at the core of one’s values, to me such conditions suggest at least a little progressivism.
It might seem strange then that disapproval was the consensus. Although there is a long history behind a woman’s relationship status being a marker of her success (probably especially among her female versus male peers), I was surprised to see such a strong cultural trace of what I thought modern feminism had made just that, history. This phenomenon suggested that although a woman might now have a career, the main goal was still to find a man. A failure to do so was a failure at large, regardless of any other strides that were made along the way. A woman’s personal life remained the reigning factor by which not just contentment but overall prosperity was judged. And so, the modern woman needed to prioritize: prioritize the domestic over the professional to ensure she did not end up alone. After all, what’s success if you have no one to share it with?
I would like to challenge this age-old adage. I would like to say that success is success, accomplishments are accomplishments, and unrelated spheres should not qualify their degree. Relationships can be great, but they are not the single requisite for satisfaction. Anyone can feel unhappy or alone. In fact, the suburban housewives (including my mother) I grew up around were among the loneliest women I have ever known; their loneliness was no less painful, just more socially acceptable.
Today, women are told they can have it all, presumably the family and the career, and that’s great. But focusing too hard on a singular and prescribed vision runs counter to my notions of feminism. I do not want another image I have to live up to (even if it is a less restrictive one); I would like to craft my own.
And so, I would like to take a moment to admire the women who are too often dismissed just because they do not meet the new notion of “having it all.” I would love to be one of those New York women who has achieved great professional feats, and if I were still single, I would hope I would not spend my time bemoaning that (like so many women we see on television) rather than relishing in what I accomplished and continuing to go after what was truly important to me. I would like to praise career women and the more domestic ones alike, anyone who has worked towards what they wanted and achieved it. There is no such thing as a perfect equilibrium. There is no such thing as perfect at all, and I am tired of that being the standard to which women are held.