It couldn’t have been more perfectly planned if they tried.
I’m referring to 3rd grade student Alajah’s introduction of President Obama at an early education summit yesterday. As part of her brief remarks, she shared some of her experiences as a student who benefited from early childhood education; but the big surprise came when Alajah revealed that when she grows up she wants “to be the First Lady” – a remark that sparked a flurry of tweets like “Girl, you could be president!” within seconds of the comment.
Before we get to the hysteria over an 8-year old suggesting she might want to be someone’s wife one day, let me suggest that – despite my at times deep dislike for both Michelle Obama’s projects and her rhetoric – Alajah has, in fact, set her sights pretty high. After all, the First Lady is pretty accomplished: a lawyer, a writer, a mother, and a devoted wife isn’t exactly a role model we should reject.
The bigger issue, however, is why are we so alarmed if a little girl doesn’t want to take center stage? Shouldn't we cheer her interest in marriage and a stable family unit rather than jeer at it?
As a working woman myself – and as the mother of two intelligent little girls – I get it. We want our girls to believe deeply that they can do anything their male peers can do. We want them to be excited about history and science and reading, and we want them to try contact sports like lacrosse and not be shy to learn how to code.
And they are. Girls and women are doing all of these things. In fact, women are increasingly outpacing men educationally, professionally, even financially. This includes areas not typically dominated by women – like computer programming – where there’s a growing female contingency that’s not always in the Silicon Valley spotlight, but is having an impact in cities like Washington, DC nonetheless.
What the alarmism around Alajah’s remarks misses is that an educated woman today has more choices and opportunities than ever before. And while many women are taking the A-Train to the C-Suite, others are not. In fact, most women still don’t want the kind of lifestyle that comes with being someone like Sheryl Sandberg, let alone the president. A Pew Research study last year found that only 23% of working mothers would choose to work full-time if they had the option.
This isn’t because women are less ambitious or less capable than men – or because we haven’t invested enough resources in women. It’s because men and women still generally have different preferences for how to spend their time, and as a result more women still would like to take time out of the workplace to raise families. We ought to be careful not to impose what we think women should be doing and ignore what they actually want to do.
Women have all the opportunities that men have today, and we want our daughters to feel like they can be independent and free to make the choices that suit their interests. But achieving those goals is often easier if you have a partner in life who supports them too.
To quote progressive feminist Mika Brezinski – co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe – “there’s nothing wrong with putting both family and work at the top of your list of priorities, giving each equal value and care, right from the start.” And she’s right. We’ve become so preoccupied with women achieving professional success, that we’ve forgotten the important role marriage can and ought to play in her life.
And how quickly we overlook such an important institution, for both individuals and society, and especially for at-risk communities, where a stable family unit has far more lasting impact than the billions of dollars poured into Head Start.
Alajah is a little girl with a lot of promise. Let’s not let our expectations for her keep her from doing the things she really wants to do.