Originally published 10/05/12 in The Forward.
This past summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter shook up the national feminist conversation with her provocative Atlantic piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Writing about the challenges she faces balancing her role as a mother and a professional, she argued that systemic changes must be made in both the workplace and society for women to finally achieve equality with men. Her piece sparked a wide debate, naturally, and as I begin my junior year of college at Johns Hopkins, I can’t help but ask myself, where do I fall in all of this? What choices do I face as a 20-year-old Jewish American female student?
In one of my sociology classes this semester, we began to analyze the concept of “family through a post-modern perspective.” As a history and sociology major, I have encountered post-modernism many times, yet this was the first time that the theory struck an incredibly personal note.
Post-Modern theorists embrace the notion that the world has changed so much from previous eras, that today individuals must make choices about virtually all aspects of their lives. Before, choices were limited and one’s life was generally pre-determined from history, tradition and custom. Now, when it comes to questions of self-identity, we increasingly rely upon our own construction of reality to dictate who we are. These choices range from big life decisions about relationships, religion and careers to the most trivial questions — what should I tweet? What should my profile picture be?
In all of my years of schooling, and now in my time at college, I have been taught to work hard for success, to learn avidly, and to not settle for anything less than what I’m capable of achieving. I have been raised to respect those who use their talents to improve the world.
And like Ms. Slaughter, I also recognize the significance of where I stand in this moment of women’s history. First wave, second wave and third wave feminists have all fought for girls like me to vote, to be able to attend institutions like Johns Hopkins (a school without women until 1970), and then upon graduation, to compete in the job market with men. Even in 2009 with the signing of the Lily-Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law that helps women fight against gender-pay discrimination, I am reminded that women out there are continually making political sacrifices so that I can do more and be more than they once had the opportunity to be at my age.
I was also raised in the American Jewish community. I have been to Holocaust memorials in America, Israel and Germany. I write this piece cognizant of the fact that many of the Jewish people who lost their lives never even imagined there could be a world where they could live as freely and confidently as I do today.
The struggle to make sense of what I want to do in the future comes in part from knowing that these different identities are not always so compatible. It does not escape me that “continuity” is an oft-stressed priority of the Jewish community, including “marrying Jewish” or at the very least, “raising your kids Jewish.” And as Ms. Slaughter recognized, creating and raising a family often can come at the expense of an ambitious adult career.
Will I marry Jewish? I don’t know. Do I want to eventually start a family? Yes. Do I want to continue to help the feminist cause? Yes. Do I want to chase my professional dreams? Yes. Do I want the existence of the Jewish people to continue? Yes. But I have not figured out what all of this means for me personally.
In many ways, I know that these challenges are a blessing, a gift and a privilege. This confusion is something many have only wished to have. But I think it is important for people to try to understand how many girls my age are feeling — to realize that simply because we understand that having choices is a “gift” does not really make it easier or less confusing.
Many girls today are unsure about which path to take, nervous to let people down, and anxious about living up to our own potential because of the costs our dreams might have on our future families. We are nervous to not live up to our own potential.
Every day I continue to explore my options and choices. But often the process can seem all too intimidating. And when it does, I retreat to my safe, imaginary realities of fiction, Netflix and Facebook — avenues where the cost of a “wrong choice” comes with far less significant consequences to my future.