By Shelley Gao
The past weekend was a celebration of women. Sunday, which was Mother’s Day this year, also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill. The Food and Drug Administration’s announcement of its intention to approve the Pill on May 9, 1960 was a tremendous step forward. Despite the complex social changes that resulted from introduction of the Pill, it fundamentally allowed women to have control over their own bodies and destinies. But, the Pill served only as the means. As Elaine Tyler May, author of “America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation” argues, the “revolutionary” potential of the Pill was achieved only when coupled with the opportunities that resulted from women’s activism. It was the amalgamation of means and opportunity that enabled women to reexamine their roles and reconstruct their lives.
At Stanford, we are privileged to access an elite education that opens the door to our aspirations and to study in an environment that encourages women to succeed. On Saturday, Cap and Gown, Stanford’s 105-year-old Women’s Honor Society, hosted a luncheon for its actives and alumnae to honor women’s service to the community. Actives President Ellen Cerf ’11 spoke about the women in her life who “rock it”–her grandmother overcoming gender barriers, her nanny making a life for herself and her mother as a model of service. A recipient of the Cap and Gown’s “Take Action” Scholarship, Sarah Mummah ’10, discussed how her founding of DreamCatchers, a program that addresses education inequality by helping underserved middle school students in Palo Alto, has allowed her to discover meaning in her college experience. Surrounded by so many talented female peers, professors, researchers, administrators and professionals at Stanford, it is expected that women can achieve anything.
However, this does not mean that we have any less doubt about our future. Given all these resources available to Stanford women, what exactly should we aspire to be? How much do conditioning, societal expectations and plain biology influence our decision-making? How do we deal with entrenched double standards? Can we be both feminine and intellectually aggressive? How do we reconcile ambition and domesticity? What are the tensions between our roles in the “public” and “private” spheres? Is it possible to rise to the top of our fields while at the same time fulfilling traditional family responsibilities? Books, like the recent bestseller by Lori Gottlieb ’89 titled “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” do not making it any easier. We are the generation that is supposed to have it all. But is it all actually possible?
Sure, there are role models who make it seem so easy. I was fortunate to spend some time with a friend in Philly whose mom is the epitome of the successful modern woman. She is an incredibly gracious and caring individual who seamlessly merges her identities as a radio show host, producer of techno music, doctor and mother to three wonderful kids into unified coherence. While there are certainly examples of inspirational women in our lives, it is difficult to gauge just how much compromise was involved in their choices.
Interestingly, questions confronted by women 40 years ago, in the 1970s, resemble the ones being asked today. Remarkable parallels can be detected in the uncertainties entertained by the contributors to “Working it Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists and Scholars Talk about their Lives and Work,” edited by Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels. While advances like the Pill and transformations in the intellectual establishment have profoundly altered the experiences of female scholars today, there is at times a common sense of anxiety, paralysis and isolation felt by the contemporary generation of educated women. Concerns about how to lead an integrated life, incorporate autonomous creative work and reconcile the conflicts and joys of “having a room of one’s own” are still relevant today.
As Stanford women, we have the responsibility to grapple with these challenges as private individuals and future global leaders. The privilege of our education demands that we make compromises to achieve greater goals on behalf of women everywhere. So, here’s to celebrating our achievement and, more importantly, our potential.
Shelley Gao ’11 writes weekly about campus issues. She cannot wait to hear Ambassador Susan Rice ’86 speak at Commencement. Preventing nuclear proliferation and raising two kids = amazing. Contact Shelley: [email protected]