In praise of empty nesters

The Obama administration is full of women with grown children. But what does that mean for the next generation?

By Judy Berman
July 1, 2009 4:02PM (UTC)
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From our new, black president to the Latina he nominated to the Supreme Court, the Obama administration has achieved a slew of important firsts, writes Mimi Swartz at The Daily Beast. But, she argues, all the fanfare surrounding these accomplishments has obscured one of the most salient features of the White House in 2009: It is packed with high-level female staffers with adult children. Swartz calls the women "a pioneering generation of empty nesters who have managed that fabled work/life balance at the highest professional levels and emerged with a set of qualifications unparalleled even in such a credential-rich town."

Swartz cites Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president, and her good friend, White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, as prime examples of this phenomenon, along with Hillary Clinton and a handful of others. She makes a convincing argument that these women are consummate professionals who have also managed to apply essential parenting skills ("multitasking, time management, patience, unflappabilty") to their political careers.


"In the great boys’ club that is our nation’s capital," writes Swartz, "most professional women used to be lumped into one of three categories: the battleaxes (Helen Thomas), the courtesans (Pamela Harriman), and the unmarried, childless martyrs (Condi Rice)." She celebrates Jarrett and Rogers for flaunting their femininity in expensive designer clothing and being unafraid to indulge in a bit of off-the-clock fun. They can get away with this, Swartz concludes, because "these women are, quite simply, past the point where they need to worry about being taken seriously."

Of course, it's fantastic to see older women who are comfortable in their own skin take on such difficult, demanding and prestigious positions. But the optimistic points Swartz makes also serve to remind me of how far women at the highest levels of government still have to go. "The unmarried, childless martyrs" the author refers to really aren't a thing of the past: In fact, Sonia Sotomayor and Janet Napolitano (whom Swartz mentions) both fit this profile, as do a number of female lawmakers, such as long-serving Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski. And doesn't pointing out that women like Jarrett and Rogers are "past the point where they need to worry about being taken seriously" only confirm that younger women who aren't "frumpy" continue to face discrimination and belittlement?

Swartz celebrates these women who "never have to leave the office to relieve the babysitter. In fact, like their male counterparts of all ages, they don’t even have to think about the babysitter." And she isn't wrong; Swartz is speaking the inspiring and depressing truth. It certainly does seem clear that freedom from parenting duties has allowed this cohort of accomplished 50- to 70-year-old women to put in long hours and elevate already successful careers to an entirely new level.


But isn't it also upsetting that these women -- most of them baby boomers, who married and began to have kids at the height of second-wave feminism -- bore so much more of the responsibility for child-rearing than their male colleagues? Is it not sad that female staffers have to reach menopause before they can put on a stylish outfit and still be treated like professionals? Does the generation of women that is just beginning to have children have a prayer of raising a family without making major career sacrifices? And will their male peers finally share this work-life balance dilemma?

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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