The November 2012 elections brought the number of women in the Senate to 20. That’s the highest number of women ever to serve in the history of this legislative body. Also, women chair eight of the most important Senate committees, and half of the subcommittees in Armed Services; a first. The number of women leading Fortune 500 companies is also at a record high with 18 in 2012, six more than just a year before. Clearly, we are making strides politically and in the corporate world, but what about socially?
There remains an underlying vein of discomfort – even guilt – as we break away from long loathed limits. “Having it all” comes up often, but that isn’t the real issue. The real issue is having the freedom from cultural pressure to identify and choose what we want. Then to actually go for whatever that is without apology.
The dreams our great-grandmothers, grandmothers, and even mothers, dreamt are becoming real. We have more choices about what we can do, but not as many real choices about how we can be. There is some tension related to identity, gender socialization and life choices. For example, do we choose from the multiple roles available to us (employee, mother, leader, wife, partner, etc.) or does the cultural current simply carry us along until we settle into these roles. How do they fit together and how do we reconcile the sometimes conflicting responsibilities of each? How do we find (and use) our voices when our subconscious minds still believe on some level that women should be accommodating and made of the requisite sugar, spice and everything nice?
The next frontier we conquer must be social and cultural norms. Our job as women with more choices is to actually embrace and exercise them without regard for the cultural limits that keep us in conflict with ourselves. You know the limits. They show up in our willingness to speak up for everyone except ourselves; torment us whether we work in or outside the home, encourage us to stay in unhappy relationships, and fill us with doubt about our life choices.
The fear of cultural backlash can make it difficult for women to be honest about who they are and what they want. We worry about being perceived as a “ball buster” or a bad mom. We worry about how it will look if we are single or divorced. We worry about fitting in, about not upsetting the status quo. We’ve had a lifetime of worrying about the right way to be a woman. That will not earn you a second life. You still get only one.
I have an anonymous quote on my bulletin board that says, she who trims herself to suit everyone will soon whittle herself away. The pressure of cultural norms will always be around in some form, but you won’t. Shape your life in the way that works best for you.