'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.
"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.
Sometimes that's because they want to avoid the difficulties they watched their mothers confront.
Ms. Isaacs hopes to become a college professor or a rabbi. "These are career goals," she says, "that won't take me away from my family. My mom is a physician, and I love and respect her for sacrificing so much to help others, but I'm not sure I want to put the same emphasis on my career."
Laura Young, a junior who was hired as an extra in "Mona Lisa Smile" and appears in two scenes, has her eye on a career as a pediatrician. She was stunned to be asked in an informational interview for medical school how she plans to balance work and a family.
"I don't want to be put on the mommy track at work," she says, adding: "Women used to have to worry about breaking through the glass ceiling and now it's this balance issue."
Hertz says her students might be making some concessions to target careers that are more inclusive of family, but they are less apt to make choices like that of Julia Stiles's character in "Mona Lisa Smile," who decides to get married instead of attending Yale Law School, or Kirsten Dunst's character, who doesn't even consider a career until after her marriage crumbles.
"The choices my students make today," Hertz says, "are not black or white but more in the gray area. They might opt to go to Stanford Law School instead of Harvard so they can be near their significant other. Or they might take time off to parent full time, but they approach this with the same vim and vigor as they would a career."
Whereas inequality in the working world doesn't seem a big concern, many of these students are outraged by disparities at home. Even when both parents work, they say, women still pick up most of the domestic load.
"The social expectation," says Ms. Cho, "is you can be successful as a woman in your career, but you are also expected to raise the kids and do all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry.."
"Women and men are going to have to work together," says Elizabeth Nesoff. "Men are going to have to come into the house and build real domestic partnerships. I think this is realistic if society really wants it to happen. We walked on the moon, didn't we?"
Ms. Nesoff and her friend Tom Clarke, a Harvard senior, often talk about these issues. Unlike some of the Harvard boyfriends portrayed in "Mona Lisa Smile," Mr. Clarke says he wouldn't dare insist that his wife should get dinner on the table by 5 o'clock every night.
"I feel that I benefited a lot from having a stay-at-home mom," says Clarke, "but I wouldn't feel comfortable telling my wife that she has to do the same thing."
Chauvinism, he adds, still exists among college men, but it has become much more subtle. It's harder to hang on to limited ideas about women, he says, in the face of so many models of success in various professions.
Many of the Wellesley women say they are inspired by well-known role models. Most easily rattle off names like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Barbara Boxer, Diane Sawyer, and Wellesley alums Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton.
But one student draws a blank. "I'm trying to think of women role models who balance work and family," says Cho. Most high-profile women, she points out, "don't show their domestic sides."
Hertz says it's a shame women sometimes feel they must hide their maternal lives, likening such denials to the days when women hid their pregnancies.
In her classroom, Hertz teaches that the root of feminism is equality for the sexes at home and abroad and that there are multiple kinds of feminists. Among them, she says, are liberal feminists who want an equal place at the table with men, radical feminists who believe they want to create their own table, and even more radical feminists who want an entirely different structure.
She is bothered by the notion that feminism means choices for women - a notion suggested in the film. "To think that all women have the ability to choose is elitist because a lot of women here and in other countries don't have choices," she says.
While "Mona Lisa Smile" might feature "the beginning of choice for women," and certainly more doors are open to women today than in the '50s, Hertz urges her students to keep their eyes open to inequalities that still exist.
"Every year, my daughter and I watch the Boston Marathon," she says. "And every year, I count the number of women who run. When I don't have to count any longer, that's when I'll know we have achieved equality."