Still not having it all
A new movie portrays women of Wellesley college, circa 1953.For students at the school today, how much has really changed?
'You can bake your cake and eat it, too.' That's what Julia Roberts's character in the film "Mona Lisa Smile" tells a brilliant, soon-to-wed student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. It's 1953, and Julia plays Katherine Watson, a free-thinking Californian teaching art history at the prestigious women's college. Typical of the era, most of her students value marriage and family over a career. But their hip new professor nudges them to rethink those priorities.Skip to next paragraph
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"Mona Lisa Smile," which opens Friday, depicts the "beginning of choice for women," says Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, coproducer of the film. "We thought it was time to get people talking about this issue and how women have choices today."
She needn't have worried. On the Wellesley campus, at least, this dialogue is alive and well.
Five decades may have passed, but for all the sweeping changes that have touched the campus and the world around it, certain basic dilemmas continue to perplex young women who attend the elite school.
Wellesley today is academically selective and demanding to a degree that probably would have astonished the young students of 1953. As a result, the women who attend the school today are among the nation's brightest and most ambitious.
Interviews with a number of these young women reveal that they are buzzing about their choices - eager to discuss their plans to be doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, or religious leaders. Most Wellesley students, at least 85 percent by one estimate, are confident they can manage a seamless transition from cap and gown to the world of work.
But for all their ideas and determination, these articulate and ambitious women also reveal a vulnerability one might not expect. They see how difficult it can be to balance a high-powered career and family, and they talk openly about feeling daunted by the challenge ahead.
"A lot of us have seen our mothers struggle to find a balance between a career and family, and we wonder how we're going to pull it off," says Rachel Isaacs, a junior.
"We feel a lot of pressure to succeed in the working world," says Ashley Baker, a senior, who is majoring in women's studies, "but how do we do that and also succeed at home?"
And Lina Cho, from South Korea, says she and her friends talk "all the time" about how they will juggle demands at home and work. "It's a dilemma for every woman, but especially at Wellesley."
"These women are right to be worried," says Elayne Rapping, professor of women's and media studies at the University of Buffalo, N.Y. "The notion of having it all involves a lot more than most young women anticipate. It's very difficult to negotiate within a marriage who will do what when both people have high-powered careers. I have seen many ambitious women back away from their careers once they realize this.
"Of course, the unfortunate punch line," she adds, "is that the burden of all of this is still on women."
What have changed since the 1950s, however, are ideas about what constitutes an ideal mate. Today's Wellesley students say a man's ability to provide economically is not key. Instead, they say, their ideal partner must be liberated enough to respect their careers as much as his own. He would share domestic chores and child-raising equally, and might even stay home full time with the kids.
Wellesley women today may reject the notion that wife and mother are the roles they "were born to fill" (an idea presented to their 1950s counterparts in the film). But that still leaves many with only vague ideas as to exactly what the shape of their future lives will be.
"We want to change the workforce and day-care benefits within large corporations, and have lots of stay-at-home dads," suggests Ms. Baker. Indeed, one law-school-bound friend of Baker's told her: "I hope my boyfriend is prepared to be a stay-at-home dad because I'm going to be busy as a lawyer."
Professor Watson, who, in "Mona Lisa Smile" calls Wellesley a "finishing school disguised as a college," would have been ecstatic to hear her students utter such words. They're ones that real-life Prof. Rosanna Hertz, women's studies department chair, hears often.
"The concept of stay-at-home dads is a solution and a very interesting one," Ms. Hertz says. "It doesn't change the structure of the corporate world, but it does mean that women won't have to worry about juggling everything because their significant other will do that."
But at the same time, Hertz says she has also recently noticed a shift in the career choices of her students toward professions they consider family-friendly. "More of them are pursuing careers in teaching or the nonprofit world," she says.