The Yale Woman

Posted on 01. Feb, 2006 by in Personal Essays

Ken was a handsome executive- type. He drove a red Corvette and took care of Barbie, who arranged playdates for Skipper and Stacey, adored her baby, Polly Pocket, and fussed with her jumpers and up-dos at least three times daily. As a little girl, I modeled my dolls’ family after my real one. My dad is a handsome executive-type, and my mother’s a gem like Barbie, who is fun, helpful, and employed exclusively as a mother. You might call her a “homemaker,” but I prefer “home engineer.” Few of my friends’ mothers worked, and those who did were only gone during school hours. My world did not demand traditional gender roles, but they were the norm. When I played house, I identified with Mommy and Barbie. It was what I knew best.

It’s been years since I’ve played with Barbie, but I have rarely paused to reexamine the gender conventions I established as a little girl. Then, last September, The New York Times published Louise Story’s now notorious article, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.” Story, a journalist and student at the Yale School of Management, conducted surveys via e-mail to compile a controversial statistic stating that 85 out of a random sample of 138 females at Yale, or 62%, responded that “when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely.” The result was billed as a glimpse into the future of smart young women: At a certain point, a majority will probably want to be mothers, not moguls. The ensuing media frenzy on campus and off saw the article as a setback for women. But for the questions it raised about whether a Yale education entails a professional imperative that stay-at home-moms fail to meet, I thought it was a lead.

For me, this article touched on a particular anxiety that may be personal to my generation—an anxiety prompted by cultural issues that spanned our childhoods in the 1990s. Between Diane Keaton’s fitful exit from corporate America in Baby Boom (1987), the frequent news hour segments that profiled the quickening tick-tock of a woman’s biological clock, and interviews of so and so, a female Fortune 500 powerhouse who still felt unfulfilled, from a young age we were exposed to worrisome press about women in the workforce.

It stirred my fears about the correlation between the privilege and investment of a Yale education and an obligation to society that motherhood alone fell short of. What I was searching for was a Yale-approved paradigm: a model of the modern woman I may want to be.

Yet the University’s generally laudable blindness to its students’ sexual orientation and gender leaves it largely unable to address issues like maternity relevant to only a subset of the population. As Yale has constructed valuable genderless stereotypes for me—scholar, leader, citizen—I have to wonder how neatly a woman who wants to have children can fit into Kingman Brewster’s vision of a Yale class as a “thousand leaders of their generation.” I have a feeling a mother can be what Brewster would agree is a leader. I just wish the option was a more visible.

At Yale, discussions about Story’s article were primarily theoretical—and frustrating. The points related to junctures the students had not yet confronted, choices we had not yet been faced with. Around the nation, dialogues amongst all generations of alumnae reproduced the sentiments on campus, tempering surprise with reflection. But alumnae discussed these issues based on decisions they already made. Instead of turning to current students to gauge the cultural meaning of motherhood in an Ivy League setting as Story had, I turned to women among Yale’s alumni who had already made the choices that female students interviewed in the article could only imagine.

It took me a while to realize that the story I was pursuing was my own. I have not planned the next thirty years in the way the article suggested some Yale students have—most of us probably haven’t—but we have all envisaged glimmers of our future, if only the Barbie-doll dreams of white-decked wedding days. It is easy, however, to imagine ourselves in the contexts we’re accustomed to, reproducing the choices our parents made to get us here. Unlike me, some girls I spoke to said they could not fathom not being working moms; their moms (and Barbies) had worked every day of their lives. In the article’s aftermath, I tried to assess how I would have answered Story’s survey. As vivid, forthcoming, and certain as my professional aspirations are, I would have answered in the only way I can envision. Finding other molds, I knew, would require finding other women to look to as models—women related to me not by blood, but by the shared experience of four years at Yale. My mom is my best friend and biggest role model, but I feel trapped by my inability to picture myself transcending the limitations of her mold.

In a November 2001 article for Yale Alumni Magazine, Cara Worthington Fekula Hyson ‘77 questioned whether a liberal arts curriculum should be responsible for giving women a crash-course in life: “Who was going to prepare them for what was ahead? Did they know it wasn’t a clear shot to the top? Did they realize that life is full of heartaches? Did they have any idea of what would bring the greatest joys? Did they realize how many personal decisions and compromises would influence that career they were preparing for? Were they prepared to face the personal and professional challenges?”

With thirty years between us, Hyson and I question whether Yale has a responsibility to create a particular and practical model for female graduates like myself, for whom professionalism is not innate. Cynthia Russett, the Larned Professor of History, has interacted with generations of Yale women since 1967. She told me Yale did have a gendered stereotype. He just didn’t have ovaries.

“Once upon a time,” Russett recalled, “certainly the Yale Man connoted someone who had much more of a fashion sense, who was elegant rather than scholarly looking, a fellow who might wear a camel-hair coat, who looked as if he might enjoy sports, and certainly not the kind of person to sit in a library.” Even if it is a stereotype, and a phony one at that, she thinks the Yale Man is an identifiable persona with a particular mystique. Russett’s image of the Yale man can be updated to loosely apply to my male peers, who I do not think would object too gravely to its connotations.

But even Russett, a scholar with a learned intuition of the situation of women past and present, could not conjure a comparable vision of the Yale Woman, the paradigm I was still searching for. When Yale’s first women matriculated in 1969, they weren’t concerned with the idea of creating a Yale Woman—they were concerned with making a mark at all.

“When the women first came, they felt they had to prove themselves, and if they were being admitted, they well remembered that Kingman Brewster had talked about graduating a certain number of leaders per year, and so some alumni feared that the leadership numbers might fall if women were admitted,” said Russett. “Because they weren’t likely to be the leaders, they had this sense of much to prove.” The simultaneity of coeducation and feminism was an electric combination at Yale, imbuing some female students with a greater sense of obligation. “Gloria Steinem came here to speak and I heard that she was criticized by some people because she was wearing lipstick… you didn’t care about your appearance, you had points to make, and things to do.”

I wear lipstick (and mascara, and blush), but I definitely have points to make and things to do. Contacting women from past eras at Yale helped me understand how my own experience, reproduced and contrasted with the experiences of others. I began using the Yale Alumni directory as my own personal rolodex:
Hi Ms. McGinnis,
I would like to talk to you about your experience at Yale in the early 80s and how it impacted the choices you made and the places you are going in your life. Perhaps you also have opinions about these recent NYT articles as well. Essentially, I am trying to trace the evolution (or not) of the Yale Woman…

Ellen Gibson McGinnis was a success story that I was relieved to encounter. A graduate of the class of 1982, she is a partner in the law firm Haynes and Boone, LLP, who from her Baltimore home telecommutes to its DC office four days a week. She had her first child at 37; then she had a second. Her husband, a physician, is also a Yale graduate. He does the cooking.

“We all think we can control everything. We’re Yalies, right?” she intoned sarcastically.

“If we think…students at Yale are misguided at the very least, then I think we owe it to them to talk… We had an [AYA] women’s conference two years ago where there was so much—three hundred Yale alumnae—energy. I think your generation is teachable. College students are teachable. We can serve as a resource.” Ellen makes traditional roles seem less obvious by having it all. But more importantly, she is the embodiment of what I have been unable to imagine after so many years. It was not ignorance, but the inaccessibility of a variety of real-world role models that made me so reluctant to imagine a life successfully combining motherhood and professionalism.

The alumnae with whom I interacted were lively, engaged, and enthusiastic about discussing an issue that everyone has something to say about. They talked at length about chapters, choices, and complications. My inbox, and more importantly my brain, was clogged with their responses. A clear example of the Yale Woman may not yet be in our popular imagination, but there are plenty of Yale alumnae who could serve as models to establish this paradigm.

I’m not ready yet to give up playing house in exchange for actually having one of my own, but when I do, it may be just like I always imagined it. What all of the alumnae overwhelmingly expressed was that there is nothing “unsuccessful” about being a homemaker, or as I’d prefer, “home engineer.”

Ultimately, the Yale Woman finds fulfillment by forging her own path. I’m content with not knowing what lies ahead. It would ruin the fun. Maybe I’ll be like my Barbie, or maybe I won’t. Either way, I plan to utilize my education and my experiences to delineate my own boundaries, rather than subscribing to a plastic ideal.

Romy Drucker, a Junior in Davenport College, is Editor-in-Chief of TNJ.

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