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Symbolism on Board

Marissa Mayer and the lessons of Sarah Palin.

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A beloved editor long ago bestowed upon me her loathing of what she called “women who” stories. Women who fight wars. Women who fight fires. Women who accomplish anything significant in worlds once reserved exclusively for men. Nearly 50 years after The Feminine Mystique, and 40 years after Title IX, these stories should not be stories. And yet they are, and it is perhaps an indictment of feminism that when a woman ascends to the tippy top of a testosterone-drenched field and accepts a job that will require from her unending hours of work and an ability to maneuver politically and a visibility that extends far beyond her office suite, her gender remains very much notable. (See Hillary Clinton.)

Then there is the subgenre of stories populated by female leaders who take on a position at a moment when their femaleness is in its fullest bloom, when they are hormonal and exhausted from the rigors of bearing and raising children. No longer a “woman who,” no longer just a symbol of achievement, such a woman will instead incite a feeding frenzy of opinions and judgments. This is true of Marissa Mayer—37 years old, six months pregnant, and the new CEO of the foundering Internet company Yahoo. Just as it was true four years ago, when Sarah Palin agreed to run for veep while her fifth child, Trig, was only a few months old.

The common tut-tutting elicited by those two very different women shows how the debate over gender and ambition so often devolves from broad principles to personal perception. If you like the female dynamo in question—if she’s relatable, to you—then you tend not to worry about her priorities. And if you don’t, you do. Thus Mayer is heralded among left-leaning working mothers as a heroine and more: an antidote to the gloomy conclusion by Anne-Marie Slaughter in this month’s Atlantic that women “still can’t have it all.” You go, girl is the general feeling on Jezebel. Palin, for her part, was an idol to right-wing Christian women. Her life choices led them to compare her to the Bible’s bravest, fiercest female warriors, even as those same decisions were derided by the left. “You can juggle a BlackBerry and a breast pump in a lot of jobs, but not in the vice-presidency,” an Obama supporter and mother of two told the New York Times during that presidential race.

This double standard is not lost on Palin, who weighed in via e-mail on Mayer, her appointment, and her pregnancy: “There was obviously a lot of partisan hypocrisy about this issue during the 2008 election. I’ve been criticized for working with children and even having babies while serving as a city’s CEO and then as my state’s CEO. But I would have been criticized for not doing it as well.” The ambitious woman pursues her professional aspirations while having small children, or she remains childless in order to pursue her career—and either way she draws derision.

Palin’s point gets at perhaps the real takeaway from Slaughter’s ­Atlantic article and the conversation it started. In her piece, Slaughter raises high-minded calls for changes in policy that would mitigate trade-offs between family and career—and since the story’s publication, she’s been picked to death by critics calling her overprivileged, clueless, and lucky to have married an academic who could look after their boys while she was traveling the world as a State Department adviser to Clinton. Though she may not see it, her life—like Mayer’s, like Palin’s—is proof that as a woman, you can, yes, have at all. But as working mother, you just can’t win.

This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

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