About a year ago, I wrote a piece called A Requiem for June Cleaver, a reflection on the generational clash between me and my mother. What I had long thought were personality differences appeared to be the sensibilities of Baby Boomer and Generation X women coming to a head. It’s ironic, actually. Baby Boomer women gave us the Women’s Liberation movement and it has proven to benefit their daughters, us Gen Xers. But, Boomers were also raised on the trappings of June Cleaver and Donna Reed, the dutiful housewives who defer to the providing husband. A role that defies their actual strength, intellect, and capabilities.
Even when our Boomer mommies were liberated to enter the workforce and “bring home the bacon“, they were charged with “frying it up in a pan, ” while their spouses sat by in anticipation. We Gen X girls observed admiringly at our mothers as they tried to do and be it all with the wind of expectation at our backs as we pursued the highest levels of education, not to find a husband, but to chart our course for great personal and professional success in all fields.
In my days at Carnegie Mellon, I used to marvel at all the women engineers that I knew, taking on complex problems, bantering about their Chem-E and Mech-E course loads. They weren’t nerdy anti-social girls feeling like they needed to act like boys. These were adorable, fun-loving young women who were killing it in the classroom and supporting each other as they navigated the largely male terrain of the College of Engineering.
They weren’t alone. Math majors, architects and industrial designers alike bucked the notion that women only belonged in certain spaces. As a policy major, I, too, often found myself flanked by an abundance of men as we learned the inter-workings of how those in power make the decisions that affect our most important institutions. We were trailblazers as we were both daunted and enchanted by the 70-30 percent ratio of men to women on campus at that time.
We led the way for our Millennial baby sisters who came up more than a decade behind us. The balance started to settle in and now Carnegie Mellon boasts one of the better gender diversity averages in the nation at 54% males, 46% female. At the risk of dating myself, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”
The force and power of women is undeniable. In the face of this global pandemic, it is the women leaders in countries like New Zealand, Taiwan, Iceland, and Germany who have managed to minimize the death toll and take pragmatic, humble steps in service to their people. No one is suggesting that women are simply better leaders than men. We do not have enough historical data to make such an analysis. But, the current thinking offered by Champoux-Paille and Croteau in a recent Guardian article, Why women leaders are excelling during the coronavirus pandemic? states that perhaps the presence of these women as leaders is a reflection of a greater demand for equality in their respective societies; therefore, more women at the decision making tables broadens the perspective on how to handle issues facing their countries.
I’ll take it. The United States has been singularly led from the perspective of wealthy white men. Our institutions, including our families, are infused with the model of their values, and their motivations. There is little space for other values systems to lead, for other approaches to be welcomed at the table. And well, here we are—over 90,000 dead and no end in sight to the impact of this pandemic. Equality and diversity matter. It does not just look good on a brochure. Nor is it just some cheap gimmick to sell more shit. It can save lives.
As we lament the cluster f**k that is the handling of this crisis, we are becoming woefully aware of another issue of gender parity that is bubbling to the surface. I opened this piece reflecting on the awe of the women I have come up with as they killed it at our universities and have gone on to have a tremendous impact on their industries. They win awards, manage massive departments in critical health centers in our biggest cities. One friend ensures the removal of conflict minerals in the supply chain for Intel. These women are writing books and delivering TED Talks, teaching students from around the globe and on the frontlines of planning the distribution of a potential vaccine. They are badasses without question.
And I cannot say enough about my most cherished friend. My bestie, Alexis, has been my road dog since we were eight years old. I try not to brag on her too often as we go back to cheerleading tryouts, watermelon jolly ranchers and putting on talent shows in her basement to an audience of one, her little sister Kai. I have watched her star rise over the years with a sense of protective admiration, not wanting anyone to mess with her. She is soaring now as the acting president of the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America, fighting for women’s reproductive rights. Yet, even as she continues to broaden her influence in the hallways of Washington, DC and around the country, she always treats me to my own decaf coffee pods when I come to visit.
In spite of these women’s accomplishments and professional power, this pandemic and subsequent lock down seems to have thrust so many women I know back in time. While Alexis is fielding calls from the most important political actors in this moment, she is cooking three square meals a day and managing the distance learning for her beautiful daughters. Another friend of mine said that she suddenly feels like she is a Fifties housewife doing laundry, cooking, and her dealing with her own professional workload. I just took a virtual yoga class and as the teacher was fending off her child’s tantrum while in downward dog, I couldn’t help but wonder, Where the hell is this woman’s husband and he couldn’t spare an hour of supervision on a Sunday for her to teach this class?
Now, I know that not all the men are MIA when it comes to managing the household demands during this lock down. My friend, Vincent, posts a chef’s log every day of the incredible meals that he is procuring for his wife and children which made me wonder why none of us Carnegie Mellon girls snatched him up when we had the chance. My friend, Richard, seems to have completely taken ownership of his children’s well-being by running daily physical activities for them to help stimulate their minds while home learning.
This graphic popped up in my feed the other day and it poignantly reminded me that it is not just about sharing the day-to-day responsibilities that matter. Mothers are carrying the emotional weight of this moment as well. Even as I am nestled over 5,000 miles away from my Emmanuel, during our check in calls, I feel like I must be his emotional touchstone as his father succumbs to the financial and professional stress of the lock down. I am the voice of compassion as Emmanuel tires of online learning and the distance from friends. I’m happy to do it, but haven’t we ladies come way too far to bear all this weight alone?
As gender identity has become more fluid, I was under the impression that gender roles had followed suit. Perhaps in times of crisis, we feel compelled to do what we know. Men go off to their caves, grumpy about the work they have to do under these crazy circumstances and masking the potential fears that may reside deep within them. Meanwhile the women do it all simultaneously, pushing through until the late hours when everyone is finally asleep, and they can breathe. A friend of mine had to lobby her husband for one day off a week from tending to their two-year old twin sons. It was probably a debate she should not have had to have, but in the end, he saw that she was right and that he needed to step up.
I do not want to serve up some cliched platitudes about what we need to do for moms or any empty suggestions for self-care. I want to call our attention to the gravity of this moment. We are in an energetic soup of grief, fear, uncertainty, fatigue, despair, and hope. Now is not the time to resume our places in our typical gender corners as we ride out the storm. I believe that we are all being called to an awakened vulnerability that could potentially bring us closer as partners, friends, and human beings. Will both men and women answer the call? Is there room for conversations together about what this time is doing to us, our relationships and our homes?
Living a life under lock down untethered to a partner or my son, I observe those of you in the throes of too much togetherness with a touch of envy. It is easy to see this moment as burdensome or inconvenient. It is easy to drink one’s way out of the company of those around you when their persistent presence brings forth the deeper questions you may have been avoiding. But, trust me when I say this is a moment of gratitude and an opportunity for enrichment. The old rules need not apply if there is the courage to have the conversation.