Early in her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama shares questions that she had asked herself in a journal she kept throughout her twenties. After working hard and dutifully climbing an educational and professional ladder through Princeton and into a leadership role at a highly regarded Chicago law firm, she realized: “I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it.”
At the same time, she was newly in love with a man whose personality became a powerful presence in her life:
“I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine. … I wasn’t going to get out of its path – I was too committed to Barack by then, too in love – but I did need to quickly anchor myself on two feet.”
Enter the journaled reflections of a twenty-something Michelle Robinson:
“One, I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? Two, I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I need to get a better handle on myself.”
For younger people especially, it is in these formative phases of life when a professional self begins to take shape and a personal life emerges. Those things often happen in relationship with each other, insofar as the profession a person inhabits affects their personal life and vice versa. And for women in particular, the inception of a romantic relationship with a man can be powerful enough to sweep her into his vision for life. The ability to pause, take stock, anchor oneself, and stand for who you want to become and with whom you want to become is essential.
Much of our collective reflections on vocation in higher education focus effectively on the first category of discernment: What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? That focus often rightly centers on career and community leadership and the many facets of one’s public life. How might we also develop vocational reflection on questions of personal import that encourages a young woman in particular to take seriously “getting a better handle on myself” before sweeping into a romantic relationship, particularly when that relationship is with a man in a culture that continues to be shaped by heteropatriarchal norms?
Much of the literature to which a person might turn when wrestling with these questions comes from patriarchal religious traditions and a heteronormative culture that champions roles for women that are typically secondary to those for men. When Michelle Robinson stopped and took a moment to “anchor herself” before marriage, she was working against a dominant culture which rarely makes room for such independent reflection.
It may be tempting to think that such forces toward women’s second-class status are irrelevant in 2019, given the high profile of the number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people elected to office in the midterm elections. Keep in mind, however, that that number still only amounts to a U.S. House of Representatives that is 23.7% female and a U.S. Senate that is 25% female. Despite the fact that these are record high numbers, it is still only one-quarter of each “representative” body for a population that is one-half female.
This is coupled with rates of intimate partner violence, sexual harassment and assault still far worse than they should be: One in four women experience severe intimate partner violence. And, the wage gap persists as women on average earn 80% of what men earn, with more recent analysis suggesting that the reality may be even worse when women’s tendency to take more time away from a profession to tend to family obligations is factored in.
Significantly, in these and other statistical realities, rates for women of color are worse: less represented, higher rates of violence, lower wage earning. The evidence that we are far from a culture in which women and men have equal access and opportunity is plain.
Given all of this, the ability for a young woman to carefully assess her professional goals and her personal life path continues to be impacted by forces beyond her control. Structural inequalities and cultural norms influence all of us even and especially when we don’t make them visible. Michelle Obama’s narrative gives us a window into the importance of moments like this for young women in particular. Here, she was well-served by an education, a family, and a community that empowered her to discern who she was becoming, and to articulate who she actually wanted to become, even in relationship to a delightfully compelling man who had already made history once before the age of 30.
In the 1976 choreopoem “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf,” Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) weaves women’s voices and stories together, through struggle and pain toward survival, ending with the refrain initiated by the Lady in Red:
“i found god in myself & i loved her / i loved her fiercely.”
Vocational discernment must empower women and men to find strength and life within themselves so that they too might navigate the swerves and pressures of structural inequalities and daily injustices with dignity and success.
[For more on the wage gap, see the American Association of University Women’s report, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap” at https://www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap/. See also “Still A Man’s Labor Market: The Slowly Narrowing Gender Wage Gap” (2018) at https://iwpr.org/publications/still-mans-labor-market/. For updated statistics on domestic violence, see the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Statistics.” https://ncadv.org/statistics].
Caryn D. Riswold is Professor of Religion and serves as the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Before joining the Wartburg community in 2018, she taught Religion and Gender & Women’s Studies at Illinois College for sixteen years. She is the author of “Vocational Discernment: A Pedagogy of Humanization” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2015) where she considers the intersection of vocational discernment with issues of race, class, and gender identity alongside a discussion of gender roles that she updates with this piece. She has previously written for blogs like Patheos and you can now find work at Medium.com.