Her name is Annette, she is 39 and the mother of two teen-aged boys, and she came from snowbound Vienna into Washington yesterday to hear six panelists talk about how tough but wonderful it is for women to leave home and return to work.
Annette grew up in the 1950s, got married in her sophomore year in college and had children, as she put it, "at an alarming rate." The most radical group she ever joined was the American Assoication of University Women.
She first went back to work to put her husband through graduate school. Then, over a 10-year-period, she got her own degree in social sciences at Berkeley. "By then," she said, "I had two kids, a degree and a lot of secretarial experience."
She ended up years later at a small college in Virginia, unemployed, a prefessor's wife. Then came the divorce, the remarriage, the move to Vienna in Northern Virginia suburbia, where she ended up unemployed, a government employe's wife. By this time she had gotten a master's degree in experimental psychology."Dumb, I know. Dumb degree, she shrugs.
So yesterday she went to a conference at American University, for women over 30 who want to go back to work. Annette has, in fact, just gone back to work and doesn't want her last name used because she's afraid her new employer would get the wrong idea. Her new job has nothing to do with her training. It never does, she said, when you get a social science or psychology degree.
Annette registered for the conference while she was still looking for a new job. "I have to work for financial stability. I have two boys headed for college," she said. "The whole business of looking for a job and taking a month to do it and writing down places in a notebook, it became almost an obsession, making it out there." She came to the conference "to see how others saw the process I'd just gone through."
There were 400 women at the conference. Most were over 30, some pregnant, one with a baby in her arms, (she got a round of applause). They saw on the panel women who had made it - women like Paula Nelson, sleek, well-groomed, the author of 'The Joy of Money" and a financial counselor on the "Today" show, and women like Louise Wheeler, who once was a writer for NBC, left work for 13 years to raise a family, and returned.
They talked of "setting priorities," "real-locating family responsibilities," hiring good help and treating "them like jewels," and of how wonderful it was to be a wife, mother and also have a glittering career.
It was, at times, a mass psychology pep talk. "Your maturity is the most impressive thing about you," Linda Wright (medical student, wife, mother, Clairol scholarship winner) told the women. "If you look around at people 10 years younger, you will see them experiencing pain you just don't have because of your maturity."
At other times it was reality, as when Louise Wheeler talked about the superwoman - you know, the one who steps out of the pages of Vogue every morning to go to work, looks immaculate all day, comes home to squeaky clean children and a gourmet meal for 12 guests. Then she told them The Truth. She told them that the real superwoman does her own hair, somehow gets her kids cared for, goes to work, shops for clothes at lunchtime and for groceries on Thursday nights and has a cleaning woman once a week. She told them that the real superwoman "is organized because that is survival," and she never has quite enough time for everyone. "Those of us who are wives, career women, and mothers, have constant conflict in our lives," she said.
And she, too, gave a pep talk. "Women believe that to do it all they must do it all well," she said. "We have to realize we can't do it all."
Annette stopped taking notes at that point and turned to the women sitting next to her. "Remember in the '60, in the early part of the women's movement, it was 'I'm woman. I'm invincible.' Women have told the world they're invincible and now they're telling themselves. But now theyr're telling themselves they don't have to be."
The panelists talked of things like "professionalizing your image" (wear dark suits, polished shoes,) how to handle the job interviewer's sexist questions ("What will you do with the kids if we hire you?), and lectured about "underselling" yourself, telling the one about the woman who got a master's in business administration from Harvard and accepted a $15,000-a-year job. They talked, again, of treasuring the help that comes into your home.They didn't really talk about treasuring the child you end up sending to an overcrowded day care center because you can't afford a maid.
When the conferece broke up, a small group gathered around a mother who works in the records room of a mental hospital. She was talking about child care, how hard it is to find someone to care for little kids, how it messes up kids when the parents aren't home and how it is always blamed on the working mother.
"You know, those people who were up there on the panel could tackle the problems with a lot more possibility than the people out here," Annette said.
"Why?" she asked, "are we pushing something and accepting a new role that 's so hard? If it's so hard for them, think of how hard it is for the other women."