I once heard a story about Michelle Obama. One afternoon, during her husband's re-election campaign, she stopped for lunch at one of those trendy up-and-coming Chicago restaurants. The restauranteur came out to greet her, and to everybody's amusement, it turned out to be a guy Michelle had dated in college, just before she met Barack. They both laughed at the coincidence. 'Just think,' the restauranteur joked, 'if you and I had continued dating, you'd now be the wife of a restaurant owner.'
'Oh my dear, you're mistaken,' Michelle responded. 'If you and I had continued dating, you would now be the President of the United States.'
That story tickles me, even though it's total horseshit. In truth, it's an old yarn that's been told about every president's wife since George H.W. Bush. It's a great story anyway, because it captures something about our culture's unspoken rebuke to ambitious women: sure, you still don't get to be presidents/CEOs/whatever, but you've been the ones with real power all along! Smart women are the secret puppet-masters behind successful men. The man is the head of the family, you see, but the wife is the neck. Isn't that enough for you, greedy harpies?!
It's a pretty weird double-think, holding to the idea that women secretly have all the power while in fact being denied any of the actual power. Even as a woman, I simultaneously love and loathe this narrative. I've found myself using it to "compliment" other women ("Oh yes, [underpaid project manager] is the one holding everything together around here!") and also gotten really irritated when other people do exactly the same thing. This story is baked so deep into our culture it's inescapable.
Some women truly are most comfortable out of the limelight, preferring the role of silent supportive partner. I recently loved this piece by John Le Carre's son about how his parents were intimate collaborators, his mother always in the background, and how happy their mutual work made them.
I suspect that others play the supportive role strategically, knowing that a woman admitting to their own ambitions can be off-putting to misogynists, so they pre-empt criticism by talking up their feminine submissiveness while conquering the world. I'm looking at you, Beyoncé, singing shit like this to Jay-Z back in 2006:
Still play my part and let you take the lead role, believe me
I'll follow, this could be easy
I'll be the help, whenever you need me
I see your hustle with my hustle, I can keep you
Focused on your focus, I can feed you
Of course women should be able to choose to be the supporting act or silent collaborator, if they want to. But these shouldn't be their only choices.
Plenty of brilliant, ambitious women did exist throughout history, of course, but most of them were defeated by the myriad of obstacles placed against them. For instance, go spend ten heartbreaking minutes reading about what happened to Mozart's equally talented sister Nannerl. See also: Zelda Fitzgerald, Hedy Lamarr, Rosalind Franklin, Marsha P. Johnson, Colette...
In recent years, there's been a welcome boom in books trying to unearth the stories of the great women who were written out of history. Some of the best are Anita Sarkeesian & Ebony Adams's History vs. Women, Elena Favelli's Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, and Lauren Beukes's Maverick (as well as Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks, a book about male role models who weren't stereotypically masculine). This is great. Kids of all genders need more diverse role models.
But there's something else we have to do, which is be honest about the obstacles they faced. Like Mileva Maric-Einstein, Albert Einstien's first wife, a great physicist in her own right who received special permission from the Minster of Education in Serbia to be allowed to attend physics lectures even though she was a girl. Albert Einstein, OG fuckboy, initially refused to marry her even though she was pregnant, and ultimately left her for his cousin, leaving her drowning in medical bills for their sick son. Long after he was dead, the executors of Albert's estate used a court order to block the publication of letters between Albert and Mileva that suggest she might have been a collaborator on the theory of Special Relativity. They wanted to preserve the myth of the sole, male genius, because there is a real financial value attached to that myth (*COUGH* Elon Musk *COUGH*).
It's fascinating to compare Mileva's story to that of her contemporary, Marie Curie. Marie Curie was also a brilliant scientist in the early 1900s who was blocked throughout her career. There was one major difference between them: Pierre Curie supported his wife's career and fought for her contributions to be recognised. You probably know that Marie Curie was the first woman to ever win a Nobel prize. But you may not know that initially, the Nobel committee tried to give the award to Pierre alone. He fought for Marie's inclusion in the award, insisting that they were equal collaborators. After he died, Marie went on to win a second Nobel Prize on her own, and inherited her husband's chair at the University of Paris, where she was the first woman professor. But none of those firsts would have happened if her husband hadn't insisted that the world saw her as he did: as his equal partner.
Which is all just to say that if you're an ambitious woman, marry well, or don't marry at all.
In the last approximately five minutes of history, it's become possible for some lucky women to make it to the top of their fields. But there are still traps along the way: more women are getting in the door, but few make it to the top. This is about a lot of internal dynamics within jobs, ranging from unconscious bias to outright sexism, but it's also about external factors like who's leaving work early if a kid is sick and who's making sacrifices so their partner's career can flourish. It was bloody thrilling watching Kamala Harris being sworn in as the first Black and Indian and woman vice-president of America, but it was equally moving for me to see Doug Emhoff (her husband) leaving his law career to embrace his role as Second Husband. When do women ever get to see that?
Here's why I think we've got to talk about the obstacles that blocked brilliant women in history (and queer people, and Black people, and poor people): there are still so many obstacles today. Role models are great, but we have to remember that most brilliant people will never get to exercise their talents. Humanity is poorer for it. As Stephen Jay Gould said:
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
Nobody's successful in isolation. Lone geniuses were never really alone. It's not just that behind every great man is a great woman, it's that behind any great piece of work, there are at least a dozen people who made it possible. Some of those people get lauded and others don't, but that has very little to do with how brilliant they were.
Whether you're a head, or a neck, or a left elbow, I wish you the chance to do the work that you love, and the support you need to do it.
Your biggest fan,
Updates from Sam-Land
- Survive the Century, the choose-your-own-adventure game about climate change I'm working on, is looking so good! We've roped in the brilliant illustrator Annika Brandow to brighten things up a bit. Please enjoy her depiction of the solid gold statue of Jeff Bezos that citizens of Rio build in the 2030s to try to convince him to set up a new office in Brazil (did I mention that the game is very silly?). We're aiming to launch in May.
- I've been doing a limited money series on Radio 702 every Tuesday at 2pm with Azania Mosaka. Next Tuesday, we're talking money and kids, and wrapping up the series the following week talking about retirement.
- I have serious lockdown brain at the moment and I was craving a lighthearted trashy read. It occurred to me that I've never read anything by Michael Crichton, the guy who wrote Jurassic Park, and figured that was exactly the kind of silly romp I was in the mood for. But when I was buying books, I momentarily confused Michael Crichton with Michael CHABON and picked up Kavalier and Clay... which is a book about the Holocaust. It's absolutely brilliant but it's already reduced me to tears about fourteen times in the first 50 pages, THANKS MICHAEL.
- I also finally read Strunk & White's Elements of Style, which is the best book of practical writing tips I've ever read. Whether you write novels or emails, it will help you to write more clearly. Highly recommend.