I wrote this post back in the halycon days of Obama’s first presidency and well before “lean in” became a meme and not an athletic command. I like to think that even with newborn Caleb strapped to my chest, I did a pretty good job at my job, but then I again, I was half-asleep most of the time, so I might not be the best judge. Outlaw Mama runs a great Friday series about women and work, which you might check out if either of those categories–a woman or a worker–pertains to you.
“Critics worry about academic insularity,” reads the title of an article in Sunday’s Washington Post online edition. It’s not quite a backlash – yet – but almost every day, it seems, there’s another little niggling worry posted somewhere about all the Ivy Leaguers making up Obama’s new administration.Sometimes it’s even one of the lead stories for the day.
Seems Barack has appointed people who went to really elite schools, like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford; he’s also appointed others who couldn’t quite cut the mustard and had to make do with such slacker schools as University of Chicago, University of Virginia, and MIT.
Frank Rich on Sunday sounded one such note of worry, pointing out that the phrase “best and brightest,” which David Halberstam used as the title of his book about Viet Nam, was intended ironically: a group of incredibly well-educated men (more about that in a minute) got us stuck in Viet Nam and couldn’t get us out. Other pundits on both the left and the right have sounded equally worried about what will happen when all these ivy-covered lefties find themselves in that most ivory of Ivory Towers, the White House.
The Post article comments that Obama’s team “lacks diversity in one regard: they are almost exclusively products of the nation’s elite institutions and generally share a more intellectual outlook than is often the norm in government.”
Dontcha just hate it when government is run by people who think? Of course, one needs to go back quite some time to remember when this was the case (and one wonders how to tag the Clinton administration – intellectual isn’t precisely the word that springs first to mind, alas).
As I read Rich’s column yesterday morning and then bounced over to the Post article, I couldn’t help but think about Governor Ed Rendell’s comment on Janet Napolitano’s selection for Homeland Security chief: he said that she was the perfect pick because she’s “got no life. No family. Perfect…” (See this link to The Christian Science Monitor for more about how Rendell unintentionally put his foot in his mouth about the precise conflict faced by women who want to have successful careers).
So Napolitano is perfect because she’s got no family and Larry Summers isn’t perfect because of all that Harvard in his background. Hmmm.
And yet, when I read the profiles of all the potential appointees that The New York Times has been running, I notice two things: I notice that many of these people are – gulp – my age or – double gulp – younger. And I notice that very few of the women on the list have children, while many of the men have several. I pointed this out to Husband, who said, basically “duh.”
Translated, this “duh” means what we all know but hate to say: to get to the spot on the career ladder where you can be chosen for a cabinet position is a tough climb under the best of circumstances – and those circumstances are rarely improved by having to lock yourself in your office every few hours so that you can use your Medela pump in some semblance of privacy (if, that is, you have an office and aren’t forced to stuff yourself and your pump into a stall in the woman’s bathroom and hope that no one mistakes that peculiar Medelian wheeze for you having a horrible asthma attack). It’s hard to fast-track yourself if this is what you feel like:
I know, I know, it’s better than it was, the times-they-are-a-changing, sure, okay. I know that song; I can even hum a few bars. But four years ago, right before Caleb was born, I was appointed to be the director of a program at the small college where I teach. This new position would reduce my teaching load from four courses a semester to two and I was thrilled – teaching four courses each term was killing me. (For the record: I am not a member of the academic elite. Academic, yes. But elite? The elite don’t teach four undergraduate classes a semester – one, maybe, but four? No freakin’ way). I was afraid to go on maternity leave because if someone else were appointed as director in the interim, I might never get the job back (no one wants to teach four courses a semester).
So I took a leave from teaching but not from administration and came to work with Caleb slung across my chest in one of those baby slings. And yes I locked the office door several times a day to nurse him. Students who came in to talk to me that semester were frequently startled by the sight of Caleb’s small hand emerging from the sling or by the sound of a deliciously timed baby fart, one of those long, rippling farts that you know is going to result in a diaper filled with what looks a lot like scrambled eggs.
Frankly? That’s about all I remember of the semester – Caleb wiggling and farting as I tried to help students choose their courses, review their transcripts, or talk about why they were flunking calculus.
I could get away with functioning in what was basically fugue state because – well, in part because I am not a member of the academic elite, and because college students are themselves functioning in a kind of fugue state. I’ve got no clue how more high-powered women juggle newborn hell with high-pressure jobs. Lots and lots and lots of child-care, I guess. And maybe a smidge or two of valium.
But here’s my point: what if we stopped worrying that all these Obama appointees are too intelleckshul (and let’s also notice, shall we, that most of this conversation about “too smart” centers on the men Obama’s picked to handle the exchequer). What if we started worrying with equal frequency – above the fold, as they say in newspaper-land - about why it’s so hard for women with families to climb that ladder? After all, an ivy-covered wall is still…a wall.