Women Should Refuse to Choose Between Family and Career

Jeane Kirkpatrick | 2000/09/15

Jeane Kirkpatrick (pictured at right with CBL president Michelle Easton) delivered a special speech for the Luce Policy Institute's Conservative Women's Network in September of 2000. Below is the transcript.


Back before the thought was enveloped in political correctness-before that noxious notion had even been coined-I was interested in women's roles in society. Over a period of about five years, I spent almost all my time, professionally speaking, doing research and writing on women. I produced a couple of books, one called Political Women, which was the first serious study in the modern period of women who entered the political arena, and stayed in it long enough to become influential in their legislatures.

In the same five-year period, I became deeply involved in studying the political behavior of both women and men, because whoever studied men would be studying women; otherwise, you wouldn't know whether anything you're studying is relevant specifically to women. That study, The New Presidential Elite, was about the women and men who were delegates to the 1972 Democratic and Republican conventions. It was fascinating because 1972 was a fascinating year in American politics. It was the year that George McGovern ran and split the Democratic Party. I was myself a Democrat in those years, and part of a movement in the Democratic Party called the ABM movement, which meant Anybody But McGovern.

That year, 1972, split the Democratic Party to a degree that it never recovered. The full consequences of it were not clear until Ronald Reagan provided a viable, attractive alternative for everybody, including a good many Democrats, in 1980. The Democratic Party was especially interesting to women that year because the Democrats had adopted a quota system--the rule that there must be as many women delegates to the Democratic Convention as there were male Republican delegates to their convention.

You have to forgive my archaic use of such terms as women and men, male and female. I only learned yesterday, from one of the representatives of the Holy See to some current UN conferences, that it has been recently decided that there are at least five genders. Designation of any of those genders by such terms as male and female, women and man, is passe, uninformed, and insulting to everyone, of whatever gender.

The world has changed a great deal since 1972. It's changed more rapidly and more dramatically than any of us fully realize. I have a favorite feminist classic, an essay by Virginia Woolf. In it Virginia Woolf undertook to explain to herself, as well as her readers, why women had achieved so little in certain fields. Why, for example, there had never been a great female writer or a great female composer or a great female scientist in centuries past.

She began by noting that it would have been completely and entirely impossible for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare, in the age of Shakespeare. And she explained why. Suppose, she said, Shakespeare had had a wonderfully gifted sister, Judith. What would have happened to Judith Shakespeare?

Well, Virginia Woolf said, Brother William was sent to school, where he learned Latin, grammar, logic, and read the masters in world literature. He lived adventurously, shot rabbits and deer, fathered a child while he was still quite young, and soon thereafter set off to the city to seek his fortune. He promptly procured a low-level job in a London theater, and set about learning the terms of his craft.

But Judith? Her life unfolded very differently. Judith was not sent to school, and had no chance of learning grammar, or logic, or coming to know great literature. When from time to time she picked up a book, she was probably interrupted by a request that she mend socks or do some other household chore.

When Judith was only sixteen, her parents contracted a marriage for her, and she resisted. For this, she was beaten and shamed. Nonetheless, in an act of extreme disobedience, Judith Shakespeare ran away to London. She, too, wanted freedom, but her efforts met with only scorn, until finally, she met a sympathetic stage manager, who befriended her. He was also attractive, and by him she soon became pregnant.

Not long thereafter, finding herself abandoned, disgraced, penniless, and jobless, Judith Shakespeare took her own life, leaving no trace of her extraordinary talent.

Of this scenario, Virginia Woolf wrote: “Any woman born with a great gift in the 16th century would certainly have gone crazy, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked."

Of course, Virginia Woolf intended Shakespeare's sister to stand for a long line of heroines who, abused and abandoned, strayed too far off the narrow pathway of one prescribed world onto the next. Undereducated, credulous young women in search of autonomy, they ended sooner rather than later, seduced, pregnant, abandoned, dead by their own hand.

That sounds dramatic, but it is also the truth. And the truth that's important is the narrow, narrow, narrow constraints in which almost all women, in almost all history, have lived their lives.

In today's world, in the Western world, at least, this seems incredibly far-fetched. But in a good many Moslem and Hindu areas, even now, women not only have difficult lives, they have virtually unbearable lives.

In 1975, during International Women's Year, the State Department asked me to lecture in West Africa. It was the year that my book Political Women appeared, and I spoke French. It was a searing experience for me. I didn't really realize until that trip that Africa was overwhelmingly polygamous. Typically, their men have four wives, and typically, girls are virtually sold into marriage; they are given or committed to marriage at very young ages--eleven, even nine.

And they have literally no rights. In many Moslem areas they had no right to own property, no right to inherit a portion of their husband's or the family's goods when the husband dies. In a number of countries (men commonly have four wives) the widow--rather, all the widows--inherit together one-fourth of the total goods of the family. They basically live by begging, or by attaching themselves to one or another of the brothers. This is incredibly painful to watch.

I don't know whether you recall the refugee camps in the Khyber Pass during the period when the mujahideen in Afghanistan were fighting the Soviet invaders. About a million and a half, largely women, peopled those camps, because most of the men had been killed, lost in the fighting, or captured. The women were without a man to protect them. We in our "enlightened" Western culture had decided that we wanted to respect traditional cultures, and so we followed the traditional path of recognizing only males as legal persons. Therefore, only males were registered to get ration cards. Without which, you didn't get food. And only males were educated in Koranic schools like those that trained the Taliban, who went on to abuse women and girls in a systematic fashion. In those camps, and under our very eyes, they denied rights to females, all rights, including any kind of privacy. This was a harsh and terrible situation.

I've traveled and spent a lot of time in the Third World. I remember well that in Bombay, I saw a nine-year-old girl being sold into prostitution by her own family. This puts a rather dramatic perspective on rights, on basic rights, on women's rights, and on our concept of right and wrong.

All my life I have believed that it was appropriate and right that women and girls should be able to do anything that they were able, so to speak, and desired to do. Unfortunately, the capacity to perform a task or function doesn't necessarily accompany the desire. Having a right, for example, to compose music or write great literature doesn't necessarily give one the capacity.

But what can be especially tragic is when there is a capacity present without a right, when there are non-natural obstacles that prevent the development of God-given talents.

But back to the Western world. I think that American women, and Western women generally, are still living through a genuine revolution. If you look at the statistics on women's education in the United States, on the number of females in schools of medicine, law, engineering, and business, you see that revolution before your eyes.

And if you look at the number of American women who have entered the workforce over the last thirty-five or forty years, you see that revolution. This very dramatic change has, of course, brought with it an explosion of opportunity that in turn has led to an explosion of desires and ambitions, and some confusion. Because the existence of opportunity doesn't mean that it's going to be easily utilized. And the existence of ambition doesn't mean that it's going to be readily realized.

I have been married for forty years to a political science professor. We had three sons, sadly, no daughter. Then after Political Women was published, I did some speaking. At the time, colleges were beginning to come under some pressure to provide resources for girls in the athletic programs in schools. And people would ask me if I believed that women or girls should be able to play football along with the guys. I had a standard response to that. I began by saying I believed that women should be able to do anything they desired and were able to do. Then I would tell them about my football playing son, a weightlifter, strong and aggressive, characteristics essential to the game. If a girl wanted to come up against him on the football field, I told her I thought she would be out of her cotton-picking mind.

The other point I made was that I think that all of us, each and every one of us is bound by the constraints of nature. And these constraints of nature become confused in our minds with arbitrary social constraints, which are often obnoxious; I'm in favor of eliminating them. But sometimes, it's a little difficult to distinguish between what's arbitrary and what's not. Recently, the Washington Times carried a story about an officer in the Pentagon who is seeking to eliminate urinals. This is a good example of confusion about the difference between the constraints of nature and the constraints of the Pentagon. It is terribly important when you think about women's roles.

People have often said to me, what did I do that was the most interesting thing in my life. The answer is having a baby. That was by far the most important, exciting experience of my life. Having and raising babies is more interesting than making speeches at the United Nations. Believe me.

Sometimes you can't do everything, and if you can't make speeches at the UN, maybe you have babies, and if you can't have babies, maybe you make speeches at the UN. And if you're patient, and you prepare carefully you may be able to do both. More and more, we find women who are attempting both traditional and professional roles--not necessarily at the same time, but in the same lifetime. You can make it work. It takes a little luck and a lot of work. Both are very important.

American women today are breaking all kinds of boundaries and borders, and enriching our society in the process. I would like to see more women in influential roles in our society. And although I'm a partisan and an active Republican, I was delighted when Madeleine Albright rose to the heights of leadership as secretary of state. And I'm gratified that Donna Shalala has done a respectable professional job as secretary of health and human services.

Both of them are political scientists, attaining their Ph.D.s at a time when not many women were even attempting such distinctions. There's a certain truth in Jesse Jackson's assertion that when one barrier is broken, other barriers get broken.

I like to tell this story about my own personal experiences at the White House. After I was appointed to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations, I came to realize that, not only was I the first American woman to be the U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN, but that no woman in the Western world had ever been her country's principal representative to the UN. There have been women ambassadors and representatives, but no principals, which is what we call permanent representatives of a country for the United Nations. My appointment was a big shock to most of the members of the UN because most of them came from societies that had little respect for the very concept of women's rights.

Then it dawned on me that I was the first woman who had ever been appointed to a post that put me, as they say in government, at the table where the top decisions in foreign policy and national security are made. There had never been a woman secretary of defense, or state, or filling any of the senior positions.

This still was sinking in one day when I was in a meeting of the National Security Planning Group, the NSPG. It was the most inner group of decision-makers in the Reagan administration and consisted of the president, vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security advisor, head of the CIA, and military chief of staff. This is where the big debates took place, where the biggest decisions were made. The president presided. Often he made decisions on the spot.

There were about eight people around the table, which was in the basement of the White House. The super-secure room had heavy doors and special Marine guards who sat outside with their guns at the ready. They kept the door locked and had to formally recognize you before they unlocked the door to let you in.

So there we were, sitting in this room, discussing an issue of high importance to the United States when suddenly Cap Weinberger, the secretary of defense, said, "It's a mouse!" "In the Situation Room?" said Bill Casey. "A mouse in the Situation Room?" Somebody else said, "Is it a real mouse?" And then another voice, "How did a mouse get into the Situation Room?" Well, we looked at the mouse, the mouse looked at us, and the mouse walked across the room and disappeared.

Insofar as I know, nobody ever knew how the mouse got in, or how the mouse got out.

Like that mouse, you can't tell where you may end up, if you do your lessons and you work hard.

Related Subjects:

Career Development

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