You have probably already seen Arianna Huffington’s commencement speech at Smith College. In her speech, she encourages the women graduating from Smith to seek out a “third way” to define success, looking beyond the two current measures: money and power. While I agree in principle with much of what she is saying (well-being, wonder, wisdom, and willingness to give back are the “secrets” to achieving a “new” kind of success), I found myself more frustrated than inspired by the end of it, in part because of who was delivering it, and in part because of who it was being delivered to.
While Huffington boasted about the nap room she provides for her employees, I can’t help but think of all the writers who aren’t getting paid a single cent while she cashes in through the sale of her site to AOL. It has been argued that the blogs don’t really make the site much money to begin with but they certainly add value and are the result of the very real labor of the bloggers themselves (full disclosure: I had a blog post there one time). I wonder how one can care for their own well-being when they don’t have health insurance, can’t make their student loan payments, can’t buy healthy foods because they live in a “food desert” or can’t afford it even if they don’t, because what they do for a living hasn’t been deemed “valuable” enough for a living wage. Arianna Huffington is speaking from a place of incredible privilege, having already amassed a great amount of wealth and power. But some of that wealth and power comes off the free labor she has appropriated from people trying to make it in the new so-called knowledge economy.
But I suppose we shouldn’t worry too much about the women who are graduating from Smith College. It is one of the few schools whose tuition has decreased, even though the average student still graduates with more than $20k of debt. Smith also seem to be more than generous with their needs-based aid. So these students will probably have the luxury of indulging in wonder while not worrying about crippling student loan payments.
That this was an entire group of women being told to “think differently” about success, a group of smart, capable, well-educated, potentially well-connected women rankles. Women, largely, are already consigned to accepting a different level of success than men, evidenced through the massive pay differences that still exist. Women, largely, already “give back,” over-represented in fields that demand a large amount of emotional labor and are lower-paying: child-care workers, educators, nurses, social workers...We have been repeatedly told that we get into these jobs not to “get rich” but instead to help others and gain that sense of fulfillment, the psychic capital that Huffington points to. And even with the same levels of education of men in the same positions, women still make less money.
Huffington’s speech seems to perpetuate these ideas of different definitions of success for women. It is not the women of Smith College who need to hear the message, but the men who will be hiring them, their male peers who will probably end up in positions of power, deciding how much the women’s work will be worth, encouraging the men, perhaps more so than the women, to seek a “third way.” As long as the “third way” is populated with women, it will be seen as third-best, and treated thusly. It is a harsh truth, but one that plays itself out every day in America.
Morehead, Kentucky in the US.
Lee Elaine Skallerup has a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an edupreneur. You can visit her blog at College Ready Writing and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.