Samantha Sharf | The ranks of wives and mothers
Elements of Style | How should we interpret women’s marital and maternal status?
October 5, 2011, 12:26 am·
Elements of Style
I am a single female without any children.
If you find this fact interesting, I am flattered. If you were, however, to use this knowledge to form a judgment on my accomplishments, I would be considerably less thrilled.
Forbes magazine thinks you might be interested in this information. Not my marital status, per se, but the marital and maternal status of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.”
Like any proud Penn student, I was excited to learn that Forbes magazine included alumna and former Penn President Judith Rodin as number 71 on its eighth-annual female power ranking. On Rodin’s Forbes.com profile I learned that she is 67, received her doctorate from Columbia University and that she is married.
One of these things is not like the others. In addition to vital stats about education and citizenship, the list includes marital status and number of children in each woman’s profile. What does Arianna Huffington, number 31, being divorced and having two children have to do with her selling The Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million earlier this year?
Similarly, I am impressed that Nancy Pelosi, number 52, was able to become Speaker of the House and raise five children. But such statistics can be deceiving. Pelosi didn’t enter politics until her children were mostly grown. And media mogul Oprah Winfrey, number 14, is listed as single although it is common knowledge that she has been in a relationship with Stedman Graham for 26 years. Pelosi and Winfrey’s accomplishments are no less impressive because their personal lives don’t fit the narratives these facts suggest.
But these examples show us how little such facts actually teach us on their own — to the point of being deceptive.
Looking at the list as a whole tells yet a different story. You find women from a diverse set of countries, industries and generations. But in relationship status, the women are strikingly less diverse.
Forbes lists 78 of the women as married, 10 as single and 12 as divorced or widowed. (Readers are told that Angelina Jolie, number 29, has six children but there is no mention of her non-marriage to Brad Pitt.) They are listed as having 194 children among them, and 22 of the women (including Rodin) are not listed as having any children. The mothers have an average of 2.49 children. (Although the ratio will change slightly when Beyoncé Knowles, number 18, gives birth to husband Jay-Z’s baby later this year.)
“Attention to marital status and children by Forbes magazine sends the message that it is possible for powerful people, women as well as men, also to have family lives,” Lynn Hollen Lees, vice provost for faculty, wrote in an email. “This is an important message to send to young people.”
I agree; the numbers do suggest that balance is possible.
Nonetheless, for me, these statistics simultaneously contradict and confirm the complex story I have long heard about females in power. I have always been told I could do it all, but the question of having it all has always been thorny. So should I pick a career that will allow time for a family? Or should I try to fit family into a high-pressure career?
The media loves to point out that Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, number 15, is single. But it is also impossible to escape the notion that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, number 2, might not be in her current position if she was not married to a former president of the United States.
As I mentioned, I would hate my work to be judged by my relationship status, even if it does someday change. Every story has multiple layers, if the facts are laid out responsibly the personal and the professional can work to tell a more complete and interesting story. But, as currently presented by Forbes, these facts are little more than trivia.
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.