margaretAll the markers tell us that we women have indeed “come a long way, baby.” For the first time, a woman is running for President of the United States on a major party ticket, and a North Carolina woman is poised to unseat an incumbent United States Senator. Women lead major corporations, direct films and television programs and blossom in entrepreneurial startups. More and more of us are stunningly successful, and the rest of us of all ages are watching and taking notes.

It is all good, but there is no question we are also conflicted.

Deborah Spar, president of Barnard, the women’s college associated with Columbia University in New York, wrote a column last month about women “of a certain age” fighting back through plastic surgery. Cosmetic plastic surgery is an option for relatively few of us because it is expensive and rarely covered by insurance, but for those so inclined and willing and able to pony up, Spar’s column is making big waves among both the pros and cons of cosmetic surgery. She lays out the dilemma this way: “Like most women in my liberal, feminist-leaning, highly educated peer group, I am ideologically opposed to intervening in such a natural and inevitable process as simply getting on in years.

 “But like many of my peers, I am also a two-faced hypocrite, at least when it comes to parts of myself that may well benefit from a twinge of not-quite-so-natural intervention. Almost every woman I know colors her hair in some way, whether from a box or at a pricey salon….Does a little face-life along the way constitute treason, or just a reasonable accommodation. I don’t know.

 “What I do know, though, is that for women in certain professional or social circles, the bar of normal keeps going up. There are virtually no wrinkles on Hollywood stars or on Broadway actors; ditto for female entrepreneurs or women in the news media…women in Congress and even fewer on Wall Street….Just saying no — to chemical, peels, lasers and liposuction — becomes harder under these circumstances, even if no one wants to admit that’s the case….”What is more, as with so many issues that surround women and beauty and aging and sex, there is a paradox today that seems to strike women of the postfeminist generation with a particular force.”

Weighing in about women on another front is Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In, her bestseller encouraging women to tackle both our public and private lives with gusto, energy, and enthusiasm. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Sandberg acknowledges pushback against women’s advancement in the workplace, with words like “bossy” and “aggressive” tossed around when women ask for responsibility and promotion. She also points to an annual study from Women in the Workplace, which found that women are still a century away from gender equality in corporate suites.

Not surprisingly, Sandberg urges women to keep negotiating and pushing —t o keep “leaning in,” and to do so until the day that it’s seen as perfectly normal, and even expected, for women to ask for more.”

Says Sandberg, “These things matter — not just for women, but for all of us. Research shows that gender equality is as good for business as it is for individuals. Diverse teams and companies produce better results and higher revenue and profits, which lead to more opportunity for everyone, not just women.”

Sandberg and Spar address different aspects of the nearly two-century long struggle for gender equality in our country, and both acknowledge that women of all ages have work to do both in the workplace and in the many ways we see ourselves and allow others to see and judge us. They — and I —would love all of us, both men and women, to be aware of stereotyping of women in daily conversation, including some of the conversation in this year’s political campaigning.

Speaking of cosmetic surgery, Spar says this, and her words go to the heart of how women both perceive ourselves and the costs of advancing in our culture:  “…an entire generation of feminist and post-feminist women who stormed the barricades of the American workforce, planned their reproductive destinies, and even got their partners to fold the laundry occasionally, are now engaged in an odd sort of collective self-delusion. Everyone….is doing it, and very few are confessing, a fact that in some ways is more disturbing than the surge in the surgeries themselves. Because not only are we nipping, suctioning and using hormones, but we’re also feeling embarrassed about it, and lying. Neither of which was really the point of women’s liberation.”


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