Is honesty a feminist virtue? Most of the time, the answer is no. Feminists like to pretend that women are both more powerful than men and at the same time oppressed, that they are constantly subject to discrimination in school even though they are graduating from college at higher rates than men, that female Marines are just as good as male Marines, that girls like playing with trucks just as much as they like playing with dolls. The list goes on, but last week CNN’s Dana Bash, host of a series called Badass Women of Washington displayed the kind of brutal honesty that we almost never expect from self-described feminists.
In an interview with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Bash acknowledged having to fight back tears. Chao said:
We were taught that we can have it all. And so it was thought, Well, you have a career. And then, you would, you know, have your family and, well, there’d be no problem. Well, it doesn’t work like that…. So I try to counsel young women that they will have to be—regardless as to whether they want it or not, there are tradeoffs and sacrifices in life. And it’s important to know when those points occur because it would be a regret if you didn’t know you were making that tradeoff and it happened. And there was no chance to go back.
Chao did not have children and from the comments in her interview, it was clear she has real regrets.
The typical response of most media to this kind of advice is to brush it off. Why are you suggesting women have to be the ones to sacrifice? Why can’t men stay at home? What about IVF treatments? Why can’t women just freeze their eggs? Are you suggesting that women should just settle for guys they don’t love just to have a baby? Aren’t you happy that you got so far in your career?
But Bash had a different reaction. In a piece for Cosmopolitan she writes:
My heart ached for her because I had come perilously close to making that same tradeoff. For lots of reasons, including working crazy hours and having a job that required significant travel, I did not start trying to have a baby until I was in my late 30s. My experience is hardly unique. I am one of countless women who almost waited too long without realizing it. I went through years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, first in my hometown of D.C., then in New York City, where it finally happened—I got pregnant with my son, my miracle boy.
Bash is not naïve about the typical responses to these revelations, but she also believes it is important to make sure that women have all the information they need to make good decisions.
The blanket advice that women should “lean in” is not particularly helpful because each woman is going to need to look at these tradeoffs for herself. Maybe given your chosen field and your spouse it is possible for you to spend plenty of time with your child and also be highly successful in your career, but for many women that is not the case. Maybe there is a particular time in your career when things at work will slow down and having a baby will become feasible. But for many women, there is no logical stopping point. Instead, women need to create that for themselves. They need to be able to stop and ask themselves whether they are making decisions today that they will regret tomorrow.
Bash, unlike many of her peers, sees this honest assessment as a feminist act. “Our bodies are our bodies. And the younger women are when they realize what that means, the more empowered they can be to make these monumental choices in their lives.” Can’t argue with that.