Margaret Brent Lecturer Focuses on Working Mothers

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Elsa Walsh, a feminist, journalist, and creative non-fiction writer who has worked for such esteemed publications as the New Yorker and The Washington Post, is the recipient of the Margaret Brent Award for 2013.  As the awardee, Walsh came to St. Mary’s Hall on Friday, April 5 to deliver a lecture entitled “Notes to My Daughter: On Being a Woman.”

The Margaret Brent Lecture is held every three years in tandem with the Margaret Brent Award, which is “the highest honor the College bestows upon a woman artist, activist, writer or scholar,” according to Jennifer Cognard-Black, Professor of English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Past winners have included such luminaries as writers Toni Morrison and Betty Friedan, and activist Rosa Parks.

This award and lecture series is named after Margaret Brent, a resident of Historic St. Mary’s City in the new English colony of Maryland. In 1648, Brent advocated (unsuccessfully) for her right to vote in the provincial assembly at St. Mary’s City as a property owner and a lawyer. The winners of the Margaret Brent Award carry on Brent’s spirit of “distinguished public service,” according to the lecture’s program.

Walsh was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her series of investigative articles in The Washington Post detailing how court secrecy affects public safety. Her bestselling book, Divided Lives: The Public and Private Struggles of Three American Women, was also highly praised for its intimate profiles of the careers and personal lives of successful women who try to find a balance between those two spheres.

Walsh’s lecture, examined her own experience in juggling her career and personal goals. She described her lecture as an exploration of “knowing when you have enough…about when truths that had seemed immutable and absolute no longer are, and what I’ve learned about being a woman,” said Walsh. “What this really is, though, is a compilation of thoughts and advice I would give to my 22-year-old self…and a love letter to my 16-year-old daughter.”

Her coming-of-age in the San Francisco suburbs during the ideological revolution of the 1970’s formed the foundation for Walsh’s feminism. “It was a glamourous — really glamorous — time to be a girl,” she said. “What really excited me — what infused everything I did, and dreamed, and wanted to be — was the women’s movement. It’s hard to grasp now just how intoxicating it was for a young girl to hear Gloria Steinem…tell women that they could be anything they wanted to be.”

As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, Walsh said she “held three truths to be self-evident: I would never marry, I would never have a child, and I would have a job — an interesting one…I wanted to be independent and self-supporting; I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.”

The advent of birth control pills and Roe v. Wade let women control when they wanted to have children, and this influenced Walsh’s outlook as it helped “women…find meaning outside the home,” she said, and added that the passage of the anti-discriminatory Title IX made it possible for women to advance unheeded in their careers.

After landing an entry-level job at The Washington Post, Walsh said that one of the the lessons she learned was that a woman should always negotiate her salary, after finding out “a less experienced man in the same position [she] was in was making more money…[because] he had asked for more.”

Walsh soon found her first self-evident truth to fall away when she married her significant other after seven years of living with him. “I was happy…instead of feeling trapped, I felt liberated and secure, and yes, protected; not by a patriarchal system, but by love,” she said.

Another seven years later, her second truth became false: Walsh gave birth to her daughter. “If I had been so wrong about getting married,” she said, “maybe I was also wrong about becoming a mother.”

Walsh emphasized the importance of letting one’s goals change. “The person I wanted to be at 22 was [nowhere near] the person I wanted to be at 38, and it certainly isn’t the person I am today at 55,” added Walsh. “I believe it is important for women, in particular young women, to take a long view of their lives.”

As Walsh studied the problem of “what women want” while researching for her book Divided Lives, in her lecture she addressed the recent book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, which suggests that so few women are in positions of power in business because, said Walsh, “women themselves hold themselves back.”

In her book, Sandberg advocated that women should “lean in” to their jobs, rather than be passive and turn down career opportunities, fearing that they would interfere with their plans for starting a family.  “I came away with the feeling that she doesn’t realize she’s going to die, because there was very little life, and very little pleasure in her book that does not relate to work,” said Walsh, who felt ambivalent about Sandberg’s message. “Even sex is framed as something men get more of if they pitch in and help their wives with their working lives.”

Walsh lamented the modern parent’s struggle to find a fulfilling career and personal life. “There is no real safety net when it comes to working mothers,” she said. “Very little–almost nothing–has changed to improve the lives of working parents and their children…and this is the most depressing measure of the women’s movement. Women like myself thought we had won feminism’s prize: equal opportunity. But in our excitement…we failed to demand structural and cultural changes needed to make it work, and in that, we have failed our daughters.”

The problem confronting young women starting their careers today, Walsh said, is that “full-time work, as it exists in America today, is for the most part not compatible with family life…We live in a culture of overwork…of five ten-hour work days a week.”

Walsh’s final advice for her daughter, and young women in general, centered on taking time to  enjoy life. “Make time for yourself; unplug from the grid; carve out space for solitude…find something you love to do that allows flexibility if you want to have children,” she said. “Making compromises is a healthy approach to living…for a woman who says ‘I am searching for a good enough life’ is not failing, but shows maturing and self-knowledge.”

Walsh’s words to college-aged women who are just beginning their career lives were of much interest to the audience. Yna Davis, a junior, said she “didn’t expect [Walsh] to be so inspirational. For someone like me who doesn’t really care to succeed, as I think success would make me distinctly unhappy (and family potentially could make me unhappy), thinking about the future, how to be happy, and making sure that you’re happy in what you do is very important.”

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