What Do Women Want?

This post contains an excerpt of my remarks on the acceptance of the Elizabeth Zintl Leadership Award, September 26, 2013.

I am humbled to have been selected this year for the Elizabeth Zintl Leadership Award, presented by the Women’s Center.  I have long admired the work of the Women’s Center.

The Center is an indispensable organization.  It has remained true to the originating and essential purpose of the University—the education and generation of a democratic citizenry—while evolving over time to incorporate the changing Zeitgeist, reaching out to increasingly diverse and heterogeneous constituencies. In so doing it has always maintained its bias for the vulnerable—young women or young men, of different racial and ethnic groups, and sexual orientations—trying to bring to reality a goal that is often aspired to but rarely obtained: a truly inclusive community. Sharon Davie’s leadership has been inspiring, especially in the astute way in which she understands and articulates the stresses of our society, and empowers our students to withstand and overcome difficulties that result from those stresses.

I am also honored to be joining the distinguished ranks of women leaders who have won this award in the past.  One cannot celebrate the significant role of women leaders at the University of Virginia without mentioning Teresa Sullivan, our President, and the first woman in history to be bestowed with this honor.  I am particularly grateful for President Sullivan’s unwavering commitment to our University and to the example of grace and fortitude she sets for all women, both here in Charlottesville and around the world.

Reflecting on the leadership of President Sullivan and other women at all levels, and throughout its history at the University, I cannot help but think that they exemplify a different kind of woman than that typically portrayed, and under discussion, in our society.

The timing of this award coincides with a national debate on women’s leadership, amid much handwringing about whether “women can have it all.” In the space of the past year, women of extraordinary accomplishments have come forward to debate this question, and to offer perspectives from their experience, of being women, mothers, professionals, and leaders.

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, is a woman who has it all. In a book called Lean In, she issued a clarion call for women to fight discrimination in the work place, by the means of the elbow—both greased and sharp—to attain leadership positions. (Since it came out the book has sold a million copies and topped the New York Times bestseller list: as Billie Holiday sings in “God Bless the Child,” “Them that’s got shall get.”)

A woman no less accomplished has also chimed in. In an article in the Atlantic, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter—former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department—chronicled the impossibility of “having it all.” She arrived at a point where no woman had ever been, in a post that George F. Kennan once held; from that perch she was able to hold forth on and influence issues of signal importance—from the wars and democratic prospects in the Middle East, to international human rights, youth in China, and gender equality here and everywhere. In the end, it was too much for one woman to handle. The straw that broke the camel’s back was her teenage son, who was acting up as teenagers often do, demanding her attention.

Then comes another well-publicized confessional, this week from Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College. In “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection,” she suggests a compromise, the advice that perfection is a fool’s errand, and satisfaction can be found in prioritizing women’s various commitments.

This debate on “having it all,” coming as it does after the feminist revolution seeking equal rights for women, strikes me as curiously self-absorbed. It is a debate that is largely irrelevant for most of humanity, women or men. It is a back-and-forth conversation among professionals who have reached a stratospheric level of accomplishment. Few working women are worth over $1 billion as Sheryl Sandberg is said to be; few have straddled the heights of the policy-making world and academic administration as has Anne-Marie Slaughter; only a few women lead an elite liberal arts institution like Barnard.

But this is a conversation that has drawn great national attention, and has piqued the curiosity of our undergraduate women. In bewilderment, they have asked me: “What does it mean, we can’t have it all?” This flies in the face of all their youthful accomplishments and aspirations. They have asked for conversations, which I hold in my pavilion living room, and we will continue these discussions this fall.

I am not quite sure how to understand this debate about “having it all,” except as a reflection of what the Canadian philosopher C. B. Macpherson once called “possessive individualism,” in which an individual is conceived as a proprietor of her skills and talent, acquired and traded on the open market; the more success, the more thirst for acquisition and consumption. He traced this conception of the individual through Hobbes, Harrington, and Locke, and argued that it permeated our liberal society. Such a conception, he thought, thwarts us in obtaining our full potential as rational and moral beings, and blocks us in friendship and love, which is premised in giving and sharing, not in the acquisition of advantages.

Let me take a moment to discuss women at this university who do not fit that stereotype, but instead give and share. Pamela Joseph is the research administrator in our Physics Department. For over thirty years she helped prepare proposals for external funding, going carefully over every number, every column, every punctuation mark in every proposal, so that the rewards can go to the scientists she supports. She is a woman at work, and every bit a leader without whom funding for Physics would gravely suffer. She has been doing this for 33 years.

Last month Debbie Best, one of the finest staff members in the College of Arts and Sciences and currently the administrative assistant at the Carter Woodson Institute, lost her 27 year-old daughter, Nicole. Nicole was a correctional officer with the state, she was exhausted after work, and her car went off I-64 near Palmyra. Amid the worst catastrophe that could befall her, Debbie was back at work to help the undergraduates at Carter Woodson—now streaming back to school and needing her attention and guidance.

I think of women, too, who have preceded me in winning the Zintl Award—women at work, whose accomplishments are measured by the durable communities that they have created at the University. Karin Wittenborg, one of the leading university librarians in the nation, has created in the libraries a magical space like none I know. Alderman and the other libraries that she supervises are beautiful, safe, free spaces. The libraries are repositories of knowledge. Thomas Jefferson famously said that knowledge is power, knowledge is safety, and knowledge is happiness. Surveying the students in Alderman, with their food, drinks, gadgets and backpacks, I can’t help but thinking that she has made the Jeffersonian dictum come to life, and especially to the last point about happiness. And she has made the scholars in the University feel like grand pashas, by delivering directly to their offices the books and documents which she lets them keep, for as long as they want and need them.

I would be remiss in not mentioning another past awardee, Pat Lampkin, our vice president for student affairs. I have often said, and will say it again, that she is the Atlas on whose shoulders rests the burden of the safety of our students. She knows more about them than even the vaunted and very intrusive National Security Agency. She is on call twenty-four-seven, knowing in her bones that the safety she provides—emotional and physical—is the space in which they can grow and thrive, as scholars and athletes and sons and daughters: and as human beings.

Sigmund Freud once famously asked, “What does a woman want?” It was the greatest question that has never been answered, he said, and one he was not “able to answer despite [his] thirty years of research into the feminine soul.” Let me furnish an answer by a woman, Hannah Arendt. A woman, like a man, is homo faber—one who does, one who shapes, one who works. She is not a women laboring on someone else’s behalf, but a woman at work. With her skills, knowledge, tools and passions, she fabricates a social world that is distinct from anything given in nature. She is a builder of things, of edifices, of communities, to demarcate a “common world” of spaces and institutions within which a shared life unfolds, thrives, and finds its own rewards.

The women at Virginia are the architects of their destiny: skilled, accomplished, and compassionate. They are, as is written in the Women’s Center mission statement, “shapers of the world”—women having an impact beyond the personal sphere. The best of them never cared much to “have it all.” Instead they have given their all for the community that I am so proud to call mine—and ours.

4 Responses to “What Do Women Want?”

  1. There is no more worthy goal than what Dean Meredith Woo identifies above for the Women’s Center: “its bias for the vulnerable—young women or young men, of different racial and ethnic groups, and sexual orientations.” That and the commitment “to give their all for the community” assures me that the University of Virginia will maintain its role as leader among its peer institutions–by giving first and not seeking just to get; by reaching out to diverse others and welcoming them in; by doing our best to make others comfortable so that they may do their best. There is plenty of competition at UVa to go around; may we always insist that we all have a level playing field to start from. As Dean Woo suggests, where we go in 2013-14 is up to you who are in the race today. Run strongly!

  2. Bob Garnett says:

    Dean Woo:
    Thank you for sharing your remarks with the University community at large. I dare say your thoughts are equally instructive for the male members of the UVa community.
    Bob Garnett
    Arts &Sciences, ’73

  3. Jennifer Goff says:

    Meredith Woo’s writing always inspires me. I look forward to reading her posts since they are smart and thoughtful. I wonder, however, why she chooses Atlas as an allusion rather than Penelope and poses Sigmund Freud’s question rather than Erica Jong’s question about what women want.

    Herein lies the precise problem: Women have framed the idea of “having ‘it’ all” around a male definition of ‘it.’ Perhaps it’s time to allow women to ASK and answer the questions for a change. Perhaps the definition of ‘it’ would embrace more than traditionally male definitions, which require “greased elbows” and “builder[s] of things.”

    Perhaps it’s time to privilege the uniquely feminine as a take on Mr. Jefferson’s sources of knowledge and happiness.

  4. Tyler Healey says:

    Hannah Arendt seems to be attempting to define “a woman,” but not what a woman wants.