Miers Took a Nontraditional Path to Success
Harriet E. Miers is a trailblazer among women -- the first to break the gender barrier at her Texas law firm, the first female president of the Dallas Bar Assn., the first woman elected to lead the State Bar of Texas.
But in the tradition of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s latest Supreme Court nominee has climbed the ladders of power without the added responsibilities many career women face: a husband and children.
An administration that set out to be family-friendly installed mothers with young children in positions of great influence, such as confidant, speechwriter, press secretary and domestic policy specialist.
The results were mixed. One rose to become secretary of Education. Some left for more forgiving jobs. Another took a break until her son was in college, then came back to assume a powerful post at the State Department.
“It can work for everyone for a period of time,” said Juleanna Glover Weiss, who resigned as press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney for a lobbying job that allows her to put her three children to bed at night. “But it’s human nature, male and female, to want to step out of the pressure cooker for a pause, to see what the private sector is like or just to stop working, period.”
If confirmed, the 60-year-old Miers would be only the third woman to sit on the high court. But the path she took as a proud workaholic would be difficult for most working mothers to emulate, no matter how bright or ambitious: starting the day before dawn and staying until nearly midnight, never complaining of fatigue, at the ready for last-minute cross-country trips.
The round-the-clock dedication demanded by most high-level Washington jobs makes the challenge of balancing work and home all the more difficult. Even if the president himself were to call for family-friendly policies -- as did Bush early on when he asked his chief of staff, “Are you running off these mothers?” -- it is difficult to duck out for a homework session when everyone else is working 80-hour weeks.
“Leaving early is an impossibility at the White House,” Weiss said. “People rely on you to be instantaneously reachable, to have completed a letter or memo that needs to be finalized and ready for the president’s 7:30 a.m. briefing the next day.”
She said Bush and Cheney “wouldn’t bat an eye” if a family obligation called a staffer away, but that the feeling of shirking one’s duty was powerful nevertheless.
“I think the White House did everything it could, but the environment at the White House, what’s at stake every day, make the individual pressured to perform above and beyond the call of duty,” Weiss said. “You just never want to drop the ball.”
The private sector is not much different. Corporate America tends to regard flexible scheduling or reduced workweeks as more perk than policy, granting them to some while denying others. And women who take advantage of whatever flexibility is offered often fear they are not seen as serious players. Many believe they are constantly failing either on the work front or at home. And society at large has done little to lessen the burden.
“There has been no appreciable shift in the amount of domestic labor done by men,” said Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women in New York. “Women are given the opportunity to try [demanding careers], but they have to try with all the extra burdens that go along with that second shift. They are working harder than their male counterparts.”
Women have joined the ranks of men in the workforce, but they have not changed the culture, said Carol Evans, chief executive and founder of Working Mother Media, which publishes Working Mother magazine.
“Having a Condi Rice or a Harriet Miers doesn’t make it a culture of women, it makes it a male culture with a few high-profile women inserted in,” Evans said.
Mothers are staying in the workforce -- a steady 72% of them over the last 15 years. Most of them have no choice. About a third are what’s called “career committed,” meaning they work for more than just a paycheck.
But all of them probably feel the tug of working two shifts, the second one starting when the workday ends and the homework, dinner, baths and bedtime begin. And society at large has not done enough to lessen that burden, several experts agreed.
“It doesn’t have to be difficult. It is made difficult,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. “That’s the next challenge -- how can you be responsible for your family and still be part of your government, your political process, your town? It cannot be that women have to do it all.”
Bush brought half a dozen working mothers with him to Washington when he was inaugurated in 2001, with great expectations and varied results.
Karen P. Hughes, his confidant and advisor, returned to Texas when it became clear that her son was unhappy in Washington. Three years later, her son is in college and she is back as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy.
Mary Matalin was an assistant to Bush and Cheney, as well as the mother of two young girls. She left to become a self-employed GOP communications consultant.
Margaret Spellings, then the single mother of two young daughters, started out running the domestic policy shop and rose to become secretary of Education and an architect of the No Child Left Behind law. She has since married.
Lezlee Westine, mother of one, recently left her post as a deputy assistant to Bush to become chief executive of TechNet, a bipartisan political network of corporate chieftains.
Juleanna Weiss knew the time had come to go one night shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Cheney was at an undisclosed location and she was at home, caught between a crying 2-year-old and an aggressive reporter demanding an immediate quote. She stepped outside a glass door to hear better, closed it, then watched as her baby bumped into the glass and sank to the floor in tears.
Two months later, she left to become a lobbyist, as well as a hostess who networks with the highest levels of power. The celebrity parties she throws enable her to both network and tuck in the kids.
“I still have a tremendous amount of guilt for being gone so much. At every opportunity, I’ll be there after school and to put them to bed,” she said. “Everybody makes individual choices. It is a tremendous honor for me to have worked for these great and amazing public servants, and I would not have traded it.”
Weiss and others believe America will one day accept that women can follow many roads to greatness. Some, like Spellings, will get on track, balance career and children, and stay there. Some, like Hughes, will drop out and drop back in. And some, like Miers, will choose not to have a family at all.
“One thing I know for sure is we need to get used to the fact that women’s career paths are going to be nonlinear,” said Stacy Morrison, editor in chief of Redbook magazine. “What we should get used to is that there are a variety of pathways to success.”