In Newsweek’s Dec. 6, 1976, cover photo, telephone installer Joyce Kelly leaned out from her perch at the top of a utility pole, loaded with the gear of her trade and wearing the face of a woman at the top of her game. The headline, in large block letters: “WOMEN AT WORK.”
I was a sophomore in college then, and my parents were thrilled at the sight of Kelly for two reasons: Dad worked for the local power company, and Kelly looked so much like me that friends and relatives called for a solid week to ask whether I’d left college. What a hoot.
The eight-page story – reported by Susan Cheever Cowley, Mary Lord and Lisa Whitman – made my spirits soar. Starting at Page 68 – yes, I have the original magazine – it began:
“Some are ‘empty nesters’ looking for something else to do now that the kids are off to college. Some are divorced mothers forced to make ends meet on their own. Some simply need more money to supplement their husbands’ inflation-ravaged paychecks. And some, nurtured by the women’s movement, want to leave their traditional place in the home and pursue careers. Whatever the reasons, women are surging into the offices, stores and factories of America at a rate higher than in the World War II days of Rosie the Riveter.
“... ‘This may turn out to be the most outstanding phenomenon of our century,’ says Eli Ginzberg, chairman of the misnamed National Commission for Manpower Policy. ‘Its long-term implications are absolutely uncharitable.’ ”
At 19, I read that and thought American women – women like me – were unstoppable.
Contrast that story with the one running in Newsweek’s current issue, dated Oct. 1 and 8 and totaling 68 pages, titled “AMERICAN WOMEN’S BIG MISTAKE.”
The illustration alone tells you where this story, by Debora Spar, is headed: A thin, perfectly coiffed white woman sits on a sofa next to a darling little girl. The “mother” stares at the camera with a joyless face as she holds a plate of dessert. Her floral skirt matches the sofa upholstery. Even with the child at her side, she is alone.
“More than 50 years ago, the United States was roiled by the feminist and sexual revolutions,” Spar writes, “which together sought to bring women out of their household isolation and into a community devoted to achieving broader social goals. Yet far from rally around these quaint echoes of sisterhood, we seem stuck today in a purgatory of perfection – each of us trying so hard to be everything that inevitably, inherently, we fail.”
Poor striving, lonely us. Good God.
Spar’s take generated quite a buzz among my many female friends, through phone calls, emails and Facebook posts. Most of us are baby boomers; all of us are mothers and feminists; and we are so tired of depictions that cast us as ambitious and lonely except when we’re fighting among ourselves.
I can’t imagine who I would be today without all the women who have helped me, personally and professionally, over the years, particularly in my decade as a single mother. I never felt more like a member of the tribe than when, to outside observers, I appeared to be going it alone. A network of women served as surrogate aunts to my kids, and I’m a columnist because two female editors – Elizabeth McIntyre and Ellen Stein Burbach – championed my work to the reluctant men in charge.
Count me driven by gratitude for the women in my life, like so many other women I know. Do the mean girls still exist? Sure, but they’re increasingly marginalized.
Most women have moved past the tired debate over whether we can have it all and be perfect, too. I witnessed this evolution firsthand last weekend in Cincinnati, where nearly 150 women – from CEOs to women living in a homeless shelter, from teenagers to grandmothers – gathered for a YWCA “What Women Want” town hall meeting to discuss health care, the national budget, hate crimes and voting rights. We sat eight to a table, armed with opinions and hand-held gadgets that allowed us to share them with everyone, for hours.
We learned about ourselves and one another. We’re full of big ideas. Regardless of race, age or party affiliation, the majority of us want equal pay for equal work and health care coverage for addiction and mental illness. We want Congress to pass the American Jobs Act to stimulate job creation, and we want adequate funding for public schools. A good chunk of us – nearly 40 percent – said we want Congress to remove tax cuts for companies that send jobs overseas.
Did we talk about juggling family and work? Yeah, that’s always on the table. It’s just not the main course.
We ended the day exchanging hugs and business cards. Then we walked out the door and back into our lives, buoyed by the evidence that American women – women like us – are still unstoppable.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.