Last week I opened a new exhibition. It’s been two years in the works, and to date is my biggest curatorial achievement. People seem to like it. They’re telling all their friends and sending me nice emails. It’s bringing people together. So I’m kind of proud of it.
A friend who came to visit was kind of proud of me too, and passed my catalog onto a friend of hers who happens to be a hugely influential collector of contemporary art. He flipped through the catalog, recognized two of the significant names, and then shared his one comment on the content…
“Oh wow! She’s really pretty!”
He was referencing my head shot.
I laughed when she told me. Inside, I was rolling my eyes.
If I were a man, would he have told her I was really handsome?
There really is nothing more demeaning to a woman in a professional setting than a reference to her attractiveness. Don’t tell me I’m pretty. That’s not going to convince an artist to work with me (well, it might if that artist were Jeff Koons) or a museum to hire me. “Pretty” isn’t something I’ve worked to achieve — it’s not a professional milestone. When it comes to my job, I’d rather a criticism on the quality of my work than a compliment on the quality of my face.
About a month ago, my closest male friend from college married the woman that became his better half. They’re a lovely couple, best friends really. They’re also both smart, funny, and driven career people. I admire them.
Marriage is an interesting thing. It changes everything. About a week ago, my friend’s new wife launched a call for help on facebook:
“To my ladies: do you think it is possible to have it all, amazing career and family life? Cause I really don’t see how one or both won’t suffer. Send some tips my way if u have any.”
We’re all her contemporaries, women in our late 20s, so most shrugged but praised their own mothers for somehow managing both a career and motherhood. Someone shared the famously talked about article in the Atlantic. Appropriate. I shared some advice I had heard a few days earlier from the keynote speaker at a luncheon…
Cut to the buffet spread in an upper crust Westchester suburban yacht club. Enter Judge Judy Sheindlin.
I was at the Her Honor Mentoring 2012 kick-off luncheon. I had just re-met my mentee, a 17-year-old high school senior with a passion for all things art and aspirations to travel in adulthood. My fellow Mentors were the county’s leading businesswomen and government leaders. What was I doing there?
No matter. On to the speech:
“You may hear that you can’t have it all – a career and a family. But I’m living proof that you can have it all… if you learn how to negotiate…
In my day, you only left the house in either a white dress or a pine box. But I’m telling you that you don’t have to get married as a high school senior. Or as a freshman. Or as a sophomore or junior. Maybe, by the time you’re a senior you can start to look around to see if there’s anyone you find appealing. But just remember: you may have your act together when you’re 22, but they, well, they may not have their act together at 55.
So have your career. Set the bar for your career high and go out and achieve it. And then, and then start to look to have that family.”
It was a message I was surprised Judge Judy would share with a room full of college seniors yet to make their way and professional women who had all pursued unique paths in their lifetime. On the subject of “having it all,” it was surprisingly pragmatic. As I chuckled and applauded (I was the soul “ain’t that the truth, sister!” shouter in the room), it occurred to me that I was the youngest mentor.
Unlike the other “dynamic,” successful career women in the room, I was really just starting out.
My mother married my father when she was 17 and he was 21. Two weeks ago they celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. If you do the math, that means they were married some 24 years before I was born. Over that quarter century, my mother made a career for herself, allowing her to retire as a top banking executive when I was starting high school.
Since the Atlantic article came out, there seems to have been another resurgence of feminist talk — or maybe it’s more of another re-evaluation of feminism.
Did you catch this Sunday NYTime’s Opinion piece by Alissa Quart? The one about women hiding their pregnancies in the professional world?
What about the brief speech by a new character on the Good Wife?
I guess I never questioned the idea of “having it all.” I grew up with Judge Judy’s advice as my own game plan because it was a successful path I had watched unfold.
But then my own life began to happen.
I don’t have an answer for my Californian friend. Or for any young woman in our position. Frankly, no one really does.
Here’s what I can say…
The women of our generation are lucky because we have choices. We can choose to be career women. We can choose to be career mothers. We can choose to be both careerwomen and mothers. None of the above paths are easy — none are achieved without sacrificing or without negotiations.
As for me, well, the question of “having it all” isn’t as relevant now as it will be later. But I will say Nicole Sheindlin’s words from that luncheon have stayed with me.
A career is a woman’s insurance policy for independence and self-confidence.
Back at the end of December, the New York Times ran an article on women and post-graduate education. The piece, written by Catherine Rampell and entitled “Instead of Work, Younger Women Head to School,” offered me no new news — effectively, all of my female friends have gone on to receive/pursue Masters, Doctorates, or their equivalents within the 5 years since we graduated college, while only two of my male friends has decided to return to school for an advanced degree outside of the medical variety.
The article presented some interesting statistics but some pretty traditional explanations for the reasons why, in this particular economic climate, women might be more inclined to return to school than men.
Moments after skimming the piece, I got an email from Columbia’s Art History Department announcing a post-doc program at Duke. The following line was bolded in red:
Particular focus is on fields in which women and minorities are under-represented.
In all the studies Ms. Rampell cited, she forgot to look at the number of scholarships/grants set aside specifically to serve women who choose to pursue education beyond the college level.
I’m not going to find the numbers for you. You’re a grown up. You can google. I have bigger fish to fry…
The day after the article ran, I got an email from a friend pointing me to a Gwaker response:
“Women be schooling! [Pause for laughter.]…Which, ironically, only isolates them further from the majority of men in the dating pool, leaving them to fight over the relatively scarce (and concomitantly self-entitled) educated men of their age.”
I wish Mr. Gwaker was wrong, but here’s thing:
A graduate degree represents more than a few more years of schooling. It represents cultivated interests and a self-awareness of what things, beyond shelter, food and an income, are really important to you.
Mr. Gwaker, like the woman who told me “you’ll never find a husband, half the men aren’t good enough for you, the other half will think you’re too good for them,” you’re tragically onto something.
When I graduated from college, I would have been content saying “I do” to a sporty Wall Street type with a dog and a predilection for striped shirts and Jimi Hendrix. An MA, PhD application, and several curating attempts later, I realize he also needs to enjoy museum-going and have the “intellectual bandwidth” to discuss the merits of Braque vs. Picasso over coffee shortly there after.
So yes, splashing around in the dating pool is harder for me now than it was 4 years ago. It’s a tall order to ask for a literary, sporty, artsy, humorous, dog-loving outdoorsman with good taste in music, a joy for cooking, a sophisticated sense of style and a stable career… who likes you back.
But I’m reasonably optimistic… mostly, because I know that if all else fails, I’ve at least got my glorious gaggle of fellow over-educated females who’ll join me at MoMA for the Diego Rivera murals.