COMMITMENTS : Juggling It All : Between Career and Family Demands, Even Beneficiaries of the Women's Movement AreStruggling--So Says Elsa Walsh's New Book

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a reporter for the Washington Post, Elsa Walsh has gravitated toward long-range investigative projects. She spent almost a year digging through court documents to reveal ways consumer information was being suppressed and months following a group of 13-year-olds to get below the surface of being a troubled teen-ager.

"I'm an inveterate researcher," she said. "I learned as a reporter that if you continued to go back, you could get at the truth of something, and the truth is often buried."

So when she decided to write a book about contemporary women and their experiences juggling marriage and a career, she used the same approach: Talk to them until they tell the truth. The result, released in August by Simon & Schuster, is "Divided Lives: The Public and Private Struggles of 3 Accomplished Women." It is Walsh's answer to the nagging social question: Can women have it all?

"At the risk of saying so myself, I did something different than anybody else," said Walsh, relaxing in a suite at the Biltmore Hotel the other day during a promotional tour. Despite the mountain of literature on the gender gap and discrimination, she said, "I didn't think anything really spoke to the innermost voices of women."

Walsh, 38, a graduate of UC Berkeley who began her reporting career in 1980, said she was motivated by her personal search for a feminine voice on how to sort out her life. "I was seeking guidance, maybe a road map, on how a woman could lead her life," she writes in the introduction to her book.

Such classics as Betty Friedan's "Feminine Mystique" and Kate Millett's "Sexual Politics" were important but dated. Although such contemporary writings as Susan Faludi's "Backlash" provide an important basis for institutional change, Walsh said, she wanted something more personal. And she was tired of popular women's magazines with their "pat, self-help articles on '10 ways to make your life better' " or glamour features focusing on gorgeous women who "have it all together."

Taking a leave of absence from the Post, Walsh began researching and eventually immersed herself in the lives of three women: television journalist Meredith Vieira, who was a correspondent for CBS' "60 Minutes" when the interviews began; New Yorker Rachael Worby, who had moved to West Virginia as conductor of the Wheeling Symphony and married the state's governor, and Dr. Alison Estabrook, a surgeon, who is now chief of breast surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

Walsh also interviewed their friends, families and co-workers, returning again and again to her primary subjects. She deliberately chose women who were privileged, she said, knowing, correctly, that she would be criticized. ("There is something unseemly about having so much and whining about it," grumbled Detroit Free Press reviewer Linnea Lannon.)

But Walsh had a motive. She wanted women who were clear beneficiaries of the women's movement, she said. "They have parity in their marriages [two make more money than their husbands] and two didn't have children, which means they have control over their biological destiny."

If such women with all the advantages were still struggling, she reasoned, that would make an important statement about women in general. And the three women she chose were definitely struggling: Painful is the word that punctuates most reviews, partly because Walsh had entered each woman's life at a critical turning point.

What she found is that women at the top share inward struggles with women everywhere. Her book, which opens and closes with her personal notes, narrates three compelling stories with such intimate details they could be personal diaries.

Walsh chronicles Vieira's exhausting struggles, having reached her dream job at "60 Minutes," to balance a family and fly around the world at a moment's notice; Worby's attempts to accommodate her husband's campaign for reelection and maintain her fledgling conducting career, and Estabrook's humiliating battle to win a staff position at Columbia-Presbyterian that she was clearly in line for.

"Divided Lives" created immediate headlines because of the confessions of Worby, wife of West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton. The flamboyant Worby, who was already a controversial figure in the state because of her noncomformist lifestyle, opened up on everything from the backwardness of her adopted state to her sexual relationship with her husband.

"I had no idea it would cause a stir, or that the newspaper articles would be so venomous," Walsh said. "She's a very beautiful woman, and talks about feeling insecure and inadequate about her body. I felt bad she was being penalized for being so honest." Some commentators have suggested that Worby has scuttled her husband's political career, but the governor has defended his wife for being "gutsy, courageous and outspoken."

Walsh, who started her research thinking that the problems for women today are almost entirely created by sexist institutions, has revised her thinking. Women still face institutional sexism, she says. "I knew that the world of surgery would be macho, but I didn't know about the elitism of classical music. And what really surprised me was '60 Minutes.' Nobody could work on the show and have a real family life."

But Walsh now sees more clearly that women also put an undue burden on themselves in terms of domestic responsibilities. "What was especially surprising," she writes, "was how vocally they complained about the unfair burden placed upon them while nonetheless doing little to force a change."

Walsh is getting good feedback from readers and critics. She likes to quote the host who interviewed her on Berkeley's Pacifica Radio--a single mother who makes $22,000 a year and has a child with cerebral palsy. "She said she picked up the book thinking she had nothing to learn from these women and ended up seeing herself on every page," Walsh said.

And despite the pain and conflicts, she emphasized, the book is not entirely a downer. "All three women love what they do and know they are good at it. They have achieved work that is fulfilling."

She has been in contact with her subjects since the book's publication. No one has complained, she said. "I think it was very therapeutic for them. They were so busy, it helped them gain insight."

Walsh, who is married to Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, said that writing the book has helped her sort out her own priorities. For one, she is less work-driven ("I postponed our honeymoon because I was covering a trial, and I thought no one else could do it") and she's thinking about having a baby. She also wants to do more in-depth writing about women. "I think most women can gain something from these three stories, if it is only comfort and consolation that they are not alone."

Her own advice to women who feel tugged and pulled between the demands of career and family is this:

"First I would say you need to talk honestly about the dilemmas in your life: to your husband, your employers, you friends and mostly to yourself. Only by laying the dilemmas out on the table can we deal with them."

And second, she tells women, they must make demands.

It may be possible for women to have it all--both a family and a career, she said. "But we have to start doing things differently, and we haven't yet. We are still following men's rules of what it means to be a good worker. We have to demand a lot of changes, starting with ourselves."

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