Renowned journalist Cokie Roberts asks a simple, but complicated, question in her new book: Just what is a woman's place?
And while "Our Mothers' Daughters" may not give a definitive answer, it does explore the different facets of women including sister, activist, aunt, soldier and mechanic.
Read an excerpt of her book below and click here to visit HarperCollins' Web site where you can learn more about the book.
What is woman's place? That's been the hot question of my adult life. From the boardrooms to the bedrooms of the country's companies and couples, the debate over the role of women has created enormous upheaval for society and for the family. For women like me, who grew up and graduated from college before the revolution, it's all gotten a little exhausting. We were the vanguard, not necessarily in philosophical terms but in practical ones.
Most of us weren't engaged in fighting for the feminist cause, but we were busy— unbelievably busy— living it, either consciously or unconsciously. We went with our shiny degrees pouring into the workforce as the first generation of women with the law on our side. When I graduated from Wellesley in1964 it was perfectly legal to discriminate against women in the workplace. Help Wanted ads in the newspapers were divided into "Male," "Female," "White," "Colored." When we applied for jobs, the men we were applying to regularly and with no embarrassment told us, "We don't hire women to do that." But the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed that summer and, though it took a while for any of us to realize it, the workplace terrain underwent a seismic shift. (The men who wrote the Civil Rights Act had no intention of changing the lives of women, and therefore men, so dramatically, but that's a tale for another place in these pages.)
We were the pioneers — or so we thought. And in many ways we were. We were the first women at almost everything we did, and most of us often had the experience of being the only woman in the room. Unlike the few women who preceded us in the world of work, who in most cases were singular obstacle- leaping females, we arrived as an entire generation of educated and, in our minds at least, equal-to-men women.
We have the scars to show that we knocked down barriers rather than jumped over them, making it easier for the women who followed us. (We've been known to grow a little grumpy over the ingratitude of young women, for their sometimes smug assumption that all that "woman stuff" is passé, ancient history. We find ourselves muttering, like the Wicked Witch of the West, "Just you wait, my pretty.") The brave new world we were forging took its toll— many of our youthful, preliberation marriages didn't survive. The rules changed so fundamentally from the ones in place on our wedding days that it took more than the usual amount of adaptation to make those unions work. I'm one of the lucky ones.
At the age of eighteen I spotted the perfect husband, and finally convinced him to propose when I was an almost- over- the- hill twenty- two. With good senses of humor, and incredible generosity on his part, Steven and I have happily managed for more than forty years to make it over the shoals of constantly shifting expectations.
Now here's our generation, women in our sixties, with grown daughters faced with the challenges of work and family. There's a lot of reassessment going on, and a lot of rewriting of history. There's also a lot of foolish rehashing of old debates, as privileged women who have the choice of whether to earn a paycheck engage in finger- pointing at women who make different choices than they do. I must admit this often vituperative argument— the so-called mommy wars— about staying home versus going to work makes me nuts. It's not men who are doing this to women; it's women who are doing it to one another, trying to validate the decisions they make by denigrating the decisions of others.
Over the decades, as I witnessed and participated in this great social movement of the twentieth century, I had only one real fear for women: that we would lose our sense of perspective. Our great strength, in my view, has been our ability to see beyond the concerns of the day. As the nurturers, the caregivers, we have always worried about the future— what it will mean for the children— and as the custodians and carriers of the culture, we've carefully kept alive the past.
I was afraid that we might become so involved in the daily demands of the world of work that we would break that thread of connection to generations of women before us. I greatly admire the way men seize the moment, take on the tasks of the day with single- minded purpose. But that is not for us; women have traditionally been multiple- minded. And so we still are, thank God. We, of course, do what the job—whatever it is— requires, but often with some other concern nagging at the backs of our brains.
Instead of this being some early twenty- first-century definition of life on the distaff side, I would argue that it's always been this way— that women have always played many roles at the same time. For years my mother kept telling me that it's nothing new to have women as soldiers, as diplomats, as politicians, as revolutionaries, as explorers, as founders of large institutions, as leaders in business; that the women of my generation did not invent the wheel.
In the past women might not have had the titles, she painstakingly and patiently explained, but they did the jobs that fit those descriptions. Now I'm finally old enough, and have had enough life experience of my own, to listen to my mother. In her nineties, she maddeningly responds to almost all "new" developments with some similar story from the past, concluding with her favorite expression, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." As I've learned the stories of the women in this book, the women from our past and today's women following in their footsteps, I've come more and more to appreciate my mother's wisdom.
When we lived in Greece in the 1970s we used to go to the beach at Marathon. (We had to dodge the runners on the highway retracing the original race to Athens, blissfully unaware, it seems, that the man they were imitating dropped dead on arrival.) At first I marveled at the fact that we regularly went swimming at this place that I had read about in history books ever since I was a little girl. Looking out to sea, I could imagine the frightening Persian fleet attacking, the brave Athenian soldiers defending their democracy. A great mound that was supposed to cover the Persian dead stood as a reminder of the oft- told tales of the courageous deeds of those long- ago men. After we had been going to Marathon for a while, we found nestled in the hills another site, one that never made the history books but made me marvel more.
It dated back thousands of years earlier than the famous battle, and a tiny museum had been erected to display the findings. Here was nothing of heroic dimensions, nothing on a grand scale: in one case, needles, buttons; in another, jewelry, pots for makeup; in another, frying pans and toys. Here the objects from the everyday lives of women from thousands of years ago overwhelmed me with their familiarity. I could have opened the cases, put on their jewels, taken up their tools, and picked up where they left off without a moment's hesitation or confusion. What was left from the lives of the men? Objects of war and objects of worship, recognizable for soldiers and priests, but what of the others? That little museum has always symbolized for me the great strength of women. We are connected throughout time and regardless of place. We are our mothers' daughters.
When my older sister died she was younger than I am now. Any woman who's been even slightly close to her big sister knows what that means— it means uncharted territory. It never occurred to me that this would happen, that I'd be on my own in a way that I never expected. Until Barbara died, it had never occurred to me that I had not been on my own. I had not realized, did not have a clue, how much I counted on her to do it first.
All of my life she had been there, lording it over me and loving me, pushing me around and protecting me. Those elusive early childhood memories that shimmer to the surface when summoned all involve her. Running to her when the dog next door jumped up and grabbed my two- year- old hair in its teeth. Barbara running to our mother complaining that if I insisted on putting on doll clothes, couldn't I be confined to the backyard. Going to school where she, four years older, shepherded me from room to room. Getting her out of classes to pull my baby teeth. Huddling together against the brother between us in age, the common enemy.
She excelled at everything, always. She was the president of the class, of the school; the top student; the best writer, debater. She was also very beautiful. Every so often a thoughtless teacher would ask, Why can't you be more like your sister? But I don't ever remember being jealous of her. I just desperately wanted to please her, and I often didn't.
She had the ability to push all my buttons, the way most women (including my daughter) complain their mothers do. Because she was there between us, my mother and I never experienced the usual mother- daughter tensions. That gift lives on after her. We had such a good time together that she once said, "If we lived next door to each other, we'd never go to work." It's true that I never laugh as hard as I do with the women in my family— my sister, mother, daughter. Fortunately for her community, I never lived next door and Barbara toiled tirelessly as a public servant taking painstaking care of everyone else until the day she died.
The dying part was so profound, and so profoundly weird, that it taught me a great deal about sisterhood, in all its meanings. One fine day in October 1989 Barbara and I in our separate cities, unbeknownst to each other, went like responsible middle- aged ladies for our annual mammograms. In retrospect, it reminded me of the years when we lived in rooms next door to each other and would occasionally emerge at the same time humming the same bar of the same tune under our breaths. But this time nothing else was the same. The technician told me the usual "Check with us in a few days." The person who read the pictures of Barbara's breast clucked and sent her in for more X rays— her lungs, her liver, her bones, her brain. (She called these, plus the endless CT scans and MRIs that would come over the course of the next year, and that we carried from doctor to doctor, "The Inside Story of Barbara Sigmund.")
She phoned me the next morning. "I have cancer everywhere," she said. "You have to help me tell Mamma." I got off the phone and crumpled into Steven's arms. "We're going to lose her. Nobody has cancer that many places and lives," I sobbed. Her friend and neighbor, a radiologist, told her that without treatment she had perhaps six months to live. With treatment, who knew? Maybe miracles! She had turned fifty only a few months before. We arranged for me to go to my mother's office at a free time in her schedule, and Barbara agreed to keep her phone free at that time. (Free times and free phones are rare in our family.) The plan was for me to be with Mamma while my sister told her the dread diagnosis. This was Barbara's attempt to correct what she thought was a bad mistake seven years earlier when she had reached Mamma alone at the end of a workday and blurted out that she had to have her eye removed. That, of course, should have served as a warning to us. But the doctor at the time told us that the chances of the melanoma behind her left eye recurring were less than if she had never had cancer at all. And Barbara handled the whole thing with such incredible style and panache, sporting spectacular sequined or feathered eye patches with evening dresses, matching an outfit with a color- coordinated patch for everyday wear. She never seemed sick, just understandably tired in the middle of her political campaigns, and the famous five-year mark for cancer patients had passed successfully.
The appointed hour with my mother came at about eleven thirty in the morning. "Perfect," pronounced my Jewish husband, "you tell her and then the two of you go straight to noon Mass." And that's what happened. Then began the pathetic odyssey of people living under the death sentence of widespread cancer. First, trying to get information: What were the treatments? Where were they? What was the success rate? What we learned eventually, certainly not right away: When it comes to this highly experimental stuff, everybody's guessing.
After the initial terror, we settled into something of a routine. Barbara and her husband, Paul, would travel from their home in Princeton, New Jersey, to a hospital in Philadelphia. I would meet them there and spend the nights in her room, watching poison chemicals drip into my sister's body. Mamma would come up from Washington for most of the time as well. Then we would head back to Princeton, and Mamma or I or my brother's wife, our other sister, would stay with Barbara until she was feeling better.
In those months, circles upon circles of sisters emerged. In the hospital, one of the doctors on Barbara's team was a woman whose willingness to tell us the truth was something I will forever value. It's not that the male doctors weren't caring; it's just that they couldn't deal with what they saw as their own failure, their inability to lick the disease. Another woman doctor, a pathologist who had nothing to do with the case, adopted Mamma and me when she saw us in the cafeteria. She would come visit in the room and cheer us up— yes, a cheery pathologist!— during her time "off ." Then there were the legions of nurses, those sensible, funny, wonderful women who have the strength to deal with death on a daily basis.
Back in Princeton, the women of the town swung into action. Each gave according to her ability, to us who were so needy. People organized to cook and bring food, to visit, to run errands, to help with the mail that pours in when a public figure's illness is announced. And this for a full year! Most of the time Barbara kept working at her job as mayor, but the women in her office often had to take up the slack during the times she was in the hospital. With the attendant immune problems from chemotherapy, hospital stays became common for both of us as I took on the role of what Barbara called her "private duty sister." Again, there were a few fabulous men who gave of themselves completely, including their blood and, more important, their time. But my brother- in- law, the most giving and suffering of us all, noticed how it was women who kept Barbara and him going.
While these women tended to Barbara, others tended to Mamma and me. Our colleagues, busy professional women all, were incredibly attentive. The support systems and sisterhood of women working together had never been more important. My two closest friends arranged their vacation schedules to make sure that I would never be alone if I needed them, and they filled in the blanks that I was leaving at work without my even knowing about it. My mother's colleagues were members of Congress— talk about busy women! But they were there for her throughout that long year, and after Barbara died they came back from their campaigns—several of them were running for the Senate—to hold a private Mass in the Congresswomen's Reading Room at the Capitol (a room now named for my mother, the only room in the Capitol named for a woman).
Over the summer, as her condition deteriorated, the treatments stopped, but better therapy arrived when Barbara's three boys came home. All in their early twenties then, they found ways to be in Princeton to the utter delight of their dying mother. When the fall came, and she waved them off, she knew she was seeing them for the last time.
Then it became time for the women to gather around. And they did. The hairdresser would come to the house and regale us with stories as she tried to keep Barbara's head beautiful above her sad, sick body. My daughter, Rebecca, in her junior year at Princeton University, became her aunt's nurse of choice in those final few weeks. The Religious of the Sacred Heart, the nuns who had taught us as children and were now our friends and contemporaries and confidantes, would come by with Holy Communion and hilarious conversation. A dear friend devoted herself full- time to Barbara, defining sisterhood by action, not the accident of blood. The oncologist, a woman, visited and explained to us what to expect when Barbara died, an act of simple kindness that somehow helped. Barbara made it possible for us all to learn through her suffering, giving us mainly unspoken lessons in how to die with dignity. Some of her instructions were clearly spoken. She planned her funeral, making sure it would be right, not leaving it to chance, by which, I only half joked, she meant her family. "Let me introduce myself," I would jest, "I am Chance." She also wrote bald, unsentimental poems in what she called "A Diary of a Fatal Illness" and lived to see them published and read at the local Arts Council. Some medical schools now use her poetry to teach students about dying.
My mother had announced that she would resign from Congress at the end of her term. She didn't say it at the time, but she did it so she could be with Barbara. The cancer, with no respect for schedule, deprived Mamma of that opportunity. I had expected to take a leave of absence to care for my sister at the end— just give me a signal, I said to the doctors. They did, the day before she died. The next day, Barbara and I had a good laugh as I was combing her hair, which hadn't been colored in a while. "I think we're seeing your natural hair color for the first time since you were fifteen," I teased. But despite attempts at humor, my mother could hear a change in my voice on the telephone. She arrived that night and had a little visit before bedtime. Barbara died before morning.
The first time I picked up the phone to call her came in response to a story on page one of that day's New York Times. The subject: childbirth for postmenopausal women. The article dutifully reported the how, where, who, and when. But it left out what was for me, and I knew would be for her, the key question— why? She had a whole routine about how women she knew were producing their own grandchildren with these late- in- life babies. Ready to have a good giggle, I dialed her number before I remembered she wouldn't be there to share my astonishment. The shock of her absence made me feel very alone.
At some point during Barbara's illness I began preparing myself for a different vision of my old age. Without really thinking about it, I had always assumed we'd occupy adjacent rockers on some front porch, either literally or figuratively. Now one of those chairs would be empty. Intellectually I understood that. But every time some new thing happens that she's not here for, emotionally it hits me all over again—that sense of charting new territories without the map of my older sister.
And here's what I didn't expect at all— not only was I robbed of some part of my future, I was also deprived of my past. When a childhood memory needed checking, all my life I had simply run it by Barbara. Now there's no one to set me straight. My mother and brother can help some. My brother and I have, in fact, grown a good deal closer since our sister died; after all, without him, I would not only not have a sister, I would not be a sister. But Tommy didn't go to school with me, share a room with me, grow up female with me. Though I love him dearly, he is not my sister.
There it is. For all of the wonderful expressions of sisterhood from so many sources, for all of the support I both receive and provide, for all of the friendships I cherish, it's not the same. I only had one sister.
This is the only chapter of this book I have not revised. What more is there to say? As I write this, it has been eighteen years since Barbara died and I still miss her terribly. It's not the same acute pain, of course, as that of a new loss. But every so often something will happen to bring the full force of grief rushing right back in. One day recently in the chapel at Stone Ridge, the school we both loved, two little girls stood out from the choir to sing a duet in harmony. Unbidden, a memory of a similar duet with a terrified ten-year-old me carrying the alto part all by myself shot to the front of my brain. My big sister had made sure to position herself in one of the first few rows of the audience so that I could see her smile of encouragement, getting me through the performance. Sitting in the chapel those many decades later, I couldn't stop the tears.
My granddaughters are the same difference in age that Barbara and I were. When I was staying with them not too long ago, I was totally unprepared when something the older one said about her little sister slammed me in the back of the head with love and longing for my sister. And of course Barbara's own granddaughters— her boys produced the girls she always wanted— her own granddaughters break my heart.
Excerpted from "We Are Our Mothers' Daughters." Copyright © 2009 by Cokie Roberts. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from William Morrow/an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.