I was forty when my daughter was born. After nine months, sixty pounds, and enough water retained to fill the Los Angeles reservoir I gave birth via emergency C-section to a ball of fire. This was not entirely surprising given the journey my husband, Jerry Levine, and I took to meet her.
I had gone through a festive assortment of fertility treatments ranging from the requisite menu of drugs and procedures to an experimental medical procedure that occurred entirely by accident; Dr. Richard Paulson flooded my uterus with my husband’s sperm when one of my fertilized eggs decided to make a run for it while going through egg implantation. This was the second time I had gone through an in vitro experiment (I would remind myself periodically that I was still a lab rat). Lots of needles, lots of doctor appointments, all while climbing the high peak of Mt. Anxiety—and then seven to ten days later I got the thrill of taking a pregnancy test. Talk about torture. The wait for the results, the fantasy that I am, in the very moment I am about to take the call from the doctor, in fact, pregnant. How could he possibly give me bad news? Not going to happen, no way. I wasn’t quite sure how to process the information the nurse was giving me over the phone—she reported numbers and levels and hormones.
“Am I pregnant?” I asked.
Politely, the nurse replied, “Probably not at these levels.”
“What level do I need to hit, just give me a number, and I’ll hit it, I’m very goal oriented,” I said in my intense, type-A network executive voice. What a ridiculous thing to say—borderline crazy, I realize as soon as the words leave my mouth. The disappointment made my skin feel thick.
The following week Dr. Paulson, the kind, patient Lord of Fertility Manor, called me at home to see how I was feeling, physically and emotionally. I remember getting out of bed to answer the phone. He told me to take a break from the shots. Take a breather. Don’t think about conception, return to sex without an agenda. Just relax. Okay. I hung up the phone and started to cry.
Two months later I was pregnant. Regular old sex. I think there were some survivors from the sperm invasion waiting for the perfect egg. They found her. Or rather she grabbed one by the scruff of his collar and commanded, “You!” as if she were Diana, the huntress of Roman mythology.
Our daughter was setting the stage for her arrival into the world from, literally, Day One. She dictated the terms of her insemination, and she was going to orchestrate every detail, from the pounds I gained during pregnancy to the trauma she and I went through after an induced labor resulting in a horrific emergency cesarean delivery.
A decade and a half later, I am just beginning to understand the significance of my daughter’s creation and birth. We named her Alice Luisa after both of her great-grandmothers. Each of those women were heroes in their own right—the eldest children in both of their families, immigrants who came to the United States with little but grew up to be formidable women. We chose the name not just because Jewish tradition says naming your child for a deceased loved one allows their memory to be kept alive, but because Jerry and I hoped all the traits we admired in our grandmothers would be passed down to our daughter. It was a thoughtful and significant decision.
From the day she was born, I was committed to raising Alice as a feminist, just as I was by my mother. To me, that means understanding that women are in every respect the equals of men and should never in any circumstance be considered otherwise. I made a point of instilling these principles in my son, Matthew, when he was little. One morning on our drive to school he declared, “You know, Mom, boys are better than girls.” I pulled the car over, turned off the engine, and made sure he saw the look on my face. “No, Matthew,” I told him, “boys and girls are different but they are equal.” This is an exchange that my son remembers to this day.
That deep-in-the-bones understanding of equality comes with the acknowledgment that we live in a patriarchal society that imposes gender distinctions in so many ways—from the toys we play with as toddlers to the careers we pursue to the roles we carve out in our own family structures. As women, we have a responsibility to combat such prejudice with our words and deeds, sometimes with our feet, and with fists clenched in solidarity. We don’t need to demand equality so much as we need to live and breathe it in everything we do. It is an extra burden, one that women have shouldered since time immemorial.
At the core of what makes us women, the objectification of female sexuality has a profound influence on our psyches from our earliest days. In today’s hyperactive media landscape, we are buffeted by an endless stream of messages to be prettier, thinner, sexier, lustier, happier, smarter but not too threatening. Ask any mother—you never feel the outrage about our cultural obsession with false ideals of beauty until you’ve seen it through the questioning eyes of your baby girl.
As my daughter reached her preteen years, I began a quest to hone my personal definition of feminism and learn how other women defined their strength. I read all the books and research I could find, but nothing quite answered the questions I had about the unique intimacy that exists between a mother and daughter. I wanted to know how other women communicated with their daughters, how they instilled in them the values and principles that matter most. I wanted to hear the humor, sense the subtext, and savor the lyrical language used in telling each story—women who are all so different from one another, and different from their mothers.
I realized that if I was searching for advice and inspiration on ways to teach girls to feel empowered, other moms probably were too. My instincts told me to reach out to women who are in leadership roles in a variety of disciplines, from Oscar- and Emmy-winning actresses to pioneering doctors and scientists to spiritual leaders, activists, politicians, academicians, writers, directors, business executives, and those who do heroic work with nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. I was overwhelmed by how quickly so many embraced the “What I Told My Daughter” concept.
On the journey of assembling this book, I came to understand that raising a daughter with feminist ideals is as much of a parental responsibility as it is to ensure that she eats a well-balanced diet and gets plenty of sleep. I remember the days when Alice was in preschool, and I would pack her backpack in the morning with snacks, water, hand wipes, and other items to get her through the day. I believe as mothers we need to pack our daughters’ backpacks with the supplies necessary to be a strong, determined proponent of gender equality. We can’t assume that she’ll absorb these principles automatically, no matter how many wonderful role models she has in her life. We have to work at teaching those lessons.
My point of view on what it means to be an empowered woman came directly from my mother, Norma. She sang to me lullabies of freedom, celebrating our right to full equality with men within the broader context of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. She instilled in me the fundamental belief that I was destined for some variation on greatness—and it was those ideals that gave me the underlying confidence and determination to pursue a career that has taken me to the top echelon of the entertainment business. My mother gave me the gift of never doubting that I would achieve my goals.
I was a young girl when the Vietnam War was at its height. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, West Copake, where many local boys had been drafted and were serving overseas.
In the center of the town there was a large clock on a pedestal commemorating the men and women who served in World War II. The general feeling among the people in my town was to support the war—that’s just what you did. It was almost unheard-of for people to protest our government’s actions or express antiwar sentiments. So when I stood on crisp autumn nights by the base of that clock among a small group of concerned locals with a candle in one hand and my mother’s in the other, I was afraid.
The setting itself was unnerving to a kid. It was dark. People were singing emotional antiwar songs; I was one of a few children surrounded by adults. I would sing softly as I knew all the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Universal Soldier.” But I felt alone, and I knew discussing the evening’s activities the next day at school would not help my popularity. But as time went by, I grew less fearful. The strangeness I felt was replaced by the familiar and the conviction that I was doing something important. Perhaps I was getting comfortable with the sound of my own voice, or feeling that I was going to be part of a bigger story by helping to bring an end to a war a half a world away that was killing people from my town. Or maybe I grew more confident because my mother was beside me. It was as if she sent me secret signals through her firm grip of my hand. The message received was: “It’s okay to stand alone, to be afraid, to hold unpopular beliefs, to hear the sound of your own voice and to let courage grow from within?”
These are the lessons my mother taught me with her words and with her inspiring example. Now with my own daughter I search for similar opportunities. Some days it feels more difficult as the fast pace and congestion of our daily lives seems to make it hard to even breathe.
But the experiences that help us raise strong, confident daughters are found everywhere, often when we least expect it. Reading these stories from an eminent group of women is a way to preserve and to share our collective wisdom with women around the world, for years to come.
The spark of inspiration for this book came to me at a most unexpected time and place: the Phoenix Convention Center, where I watched Alice, then thirteen, take part in a volleyball tournament that draws hundreds of young female players from all over the world.
I was struck at first by the sheer number of women gathered in one place for the purpose of demonstrating their athletic skills and all the leadership and character traits that come with team sports. This event, featuring players ranging in age from twelve to eighteen, was all about achievement, about striving to perform at the highest levels as individuals and as a collective unit. It was also an assault on the senses, what with the oppressive June heat (it was 115 degrees outside, literally), and the roar of the screeching, cheering, and ball-smacking sounds coming from row after row of volleyball courts erected in the cavernous space.
I’d never been in such a female-centric environment before. The energy radiating from the assembly of young girls and their mothers was electrifying. As I looked around, I saw a panorama of womanhood, in all shapes and sizes, from preteen middle schoolers to young women about to head off to college to all the mothers who guided them to this moment. I recognized that while we all had much in common, every mother and every daughter traveled their own path to get to this moment.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s when I made up my mind to shepherd this book of deeply personal essays. As someone who has built a career on developing great storytellers, I believe every woman has an experience that can inspire and enlighten others.
At the volleyball tournament, my daughter’s team didn’t win their final match. But Alice played hard and was there for her teammates at pivotal points in the game. When I told her I was most impressed by how “consistent” her performance was, it was as if I had a magic key and unlocked a secret door, because I had given her an honest reflection that validated her own feelings. It wasn’t just a platitude. I felt how much it meant to her that I’d noticed her contributions to the game.
In that moment, I could feel that my role in her life was shifting. We had turned a corner. We were starting to communicate on a more adult level than we ever had before. Alice was of the age where she no longer needed me to be there with Band-Aids when she scraped her knee; she needed me to be there with honest emotional support as she began to tackle adult-size challenges and opportunities. I was immensely proud of her for working so hard all season toward her goal, and I thought about all the ways I’d tried to instill that kind of drive and confidence in her.
The importance of heroes and role models was underscored during the tournament when the girls were addressed by volleyball star Misty May-Treanor. This was an inspiring moment, because May-Treanor is a rock star to these girls and her motivational words had great resonance. She was two months away from winning her third Olympic-career gold medal, this time at the 2012 summer games in London.
Weeks after the volleyball tournament, I was still so energized by the experience that I knew I had to make this book happen. I am deeply grateful to the busy women who took time out to contribute their stories. In the spirit of reaching out and giving back, a portion of the proceeds from this book will be donated to two organizations devoted to nurturing leadership skills in young women: Girls Inc. and the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign.
Working on this book has been nothing less than a revelation for me. I never fully appreciated the strength of the emotional and intellectual foundation provided by my mother’s teachings until the essays collected here gave me insights into the challenges that others have faced. Our contributors reflect the breadth of maternal experiences and the melting pot of racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, education, income levels, and cultural differences that define our country. The order of presentation in this book seeks to both accentuate that diversity and reinforce the universality of motherhood. Underneath the divisive labels that are often affixed to our jobs—working mom, tiger mom, helicopter mom, soccer mom, et cetera—we are all simply women trying to do our best to raise the next generation of empowered leaders. In a few instances, we offer the dual perspective of essays from mothers and their daughters.
Pat Benatar writes about being under enormous pressure from her record label to hide her pregnancy when she was topping the charts in the 1980s. Jehan Sadat, widow of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, recalls the extra hurdles she scaled to earn her doctorate degree in the face of accusations of favoritism from university officials. Dr. Susan Love, the eminent breast cancer expert, recounts the legal battle she waged with her wife, Helen Cooksey, to adopt their daughter, Katie. Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez, tells the story of leading a labor movement while scrambling every day to find child care for her own children.
Other contributors offer stories of mother-daughter experiences that range from funny to heartbreaking to uplifting. Marie Osmond reveals how she and her daughter wound up breaking off engagements virtually on the eve of walking down the aisle. Author Ayelet Waldman tells how “Be nice to the fat girls” became a family motto. Actress Christine Baranski describes how a muddy fall from a horse taught her daughter an important lesson. Brooke Shields writes candidly about how she turned scary encounters with paparazzi into a teachable moment for her girls.
The common thread in all of these tales is the extra layer of responsibility that mothers have to guide their daughters to be empowered, to be confident, and to make the right choices for them regardless of societal pressures.
From the time I was a girl, I never doubted that I had every right—dare I say even a sense of entitlement—to pursue the career of my dreams. It started with acting, which was an uphill battle for me no matter how much I loved the idea of being an actor. After a period of trial and error in my twenties, I found my natural strength as a program development executive, someone who works with writers, directors, and actors to help shape raw ideas and talent into prime-time TV series. Contrary to our public image, network “suits” aren’t all meddling incompetents who do nothing but deliver nonsensical notes to writers. Television is an extremely tough business—the failure rate of new shows is higher than 80 percent for most TV networks. But when it works, nothing in entertainment packs more of a punch than a hit television series. These are the storytellers and the characters that Americans welcome into their living rooms (and nowadays their smartphones and tablets) week after week.
I’ve been fortunate in my career to have been involved with some of the biggest TV hits of the past few decades—from the dedicated doctors of ER to the forensic sleuths of CSI and its offshoots to the lovable geeks of The Big Bang Theory, among many other shows. I have been lucky to have been mentored by great bosses, male and female, and to have worked for progressive companies, notably Warner Bros., which has long reigned as the largest studio in Hollywood, and CBS, the “Tiffany Network.” I am indebted to many predecessors in the entertainment industry who blazed the trails that allowed women to reach the highest ranks at networks and studios. In 2004, I took over the job of overseeing programming for CBS from the woman who previously held that position, Nancy Tellem, an accomplished executive who is one of the most respected strategic thinkers in all of media.
For more than twenty-five years, at CBS, Warner Bros., and Lorimar Productions, I had the privilege of working for an enlightened leader, CBS Corporation chairman, president, and CEO Leslie Moonves. Leslie and I enjoyed a longevity that is rare in the entertainment industry. We thrived together on the strength of a relationship built on trust, respect, and support, whether in success or failure. Finally, Leslie granted me the ultimate gift of controlling my own destiny as an executive. After much consideration, I made the decision to resign my post as chairman of CBS Entertainment in December 2015, just as we finished up work on this book. As much as I have loved working with writers, actors, directors, producers, and others in the creative community, assembling What I Told My Daughter helped me realize that it was time to seek new challenges and flex new muscles.
Through all my years in television, I have rarely felt disadvantaged because I’m a woman. Developing shows that appeal to a wide audience by definition means finding shows that connect with female viewers, because women make up a little more than half of the total viewing audience in the United States. Having a built-in sense of what distinct groups of women might respond to when they turn on the tube is only a plus in my business.
But like women in many lines of work, I have often walked into high-level meetings where I was the only female in the room. I’ve experienced the aggravation of being talked over by voices deeper than mine. I’ve had the demeaning experience of making a presentation or advocating a position only to have questions and comments directed to a male coworker. I stand about five foot two in low heels, which means that I sometimes have to work harder to exert my authority with unfamiliar people. Nowadays the stature I gained through my position at CBS mostly combats the problem of those who think, even subconsciously, that short equals weak. But some people still blurt out, “You’re so tiny” or “You’re not as tall as I thought you were,” when I first meet them.
Dealing with this perception issue has made me more sensitive to how women are perceived and portrayed in our culture. My definition of what it meant to be a strong woman was shaped by my mother and her history. I defined myself as a feminist because she was the role model who drove me to pursue the career of my choice, and to speak out if I ever felt cheated or judged unfairly.
Now that my daughter is of the age where she’s facing important decisions about her future, the question of what it means to be a feminist in the twenty-first century—more than fifty years after The Feminine Mystique—has come into sharp focus. Even from the time I started working on this book, the cultural debate about the definition of feminism has heated up on op-ed pages, in academia, and in pop culture. For female celebrities, the question “Are you a feminist?” has become a “gotcha” moment in media interviews. It’s disconcerting to see prominent stars disavow the F-word because they associate it with disliking men and all the other negative connotations heaped on the term by those who fear true gender equality.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, helped spark this conversation with her powerful message about the importance of encouraging women to step up as leaders in her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Since then a number of commentators have weighed in with articles and essays attempting to answer some of my questions: Why does it seem that the modern women’s movement has stalled? What do we need to do—what should we do—to revive a spirit of activism and advocacy without excuses, without apologies or without qualifications?
It was invigorating to see no less a superstar than Beyoncé taking a stand on the F-word and send a powerful message to young people by performing at MTV’s 2014 Video Music Awards against a backdrop of “FEMINIST” in giant block letters. Actress Emma Watson made headlines—and drew a standing ovation—with her impassioned and articulate twelve-minute speech declaring herself a feminist at the United Nations in September 2014. She spoke in her capacity as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and unveiled the launch of the HeForShe campaign to enlist men and boys to work toward ending gender inequality in all its forms.
“The more I’ve spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” Watson said. “If there is one thing I know for certain it is that this has to stop.”
After all the gains of the past hundred years, how can we possibly still live in a world where women still account for less than 5 percent of the CEO posts in Fortune 500 companies? How is it possible that a national retailer could market a T-shirt for girls that proclaimed: “I’m too pretty to do my math homework so my brother has to do it for me”? Somebody at JCPenney thought that was a good idea. In 2011.
Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis, a friend of mine from our college days at Boston University, was so dismayed at the portrayals of female characters in children’s media after she had her daughter that she launched the Institute on Gender in Media. She funded it out of her own pocket at the start in an effort to generate credible academic research on how gender images in media affect all of our children. One of the most surprising facts uncovered by the research her institute has funded is the documentation that male characters outnumber females three-to-one in family- and kid-friendly films—a ratio that hasn’t changed since the 1940s. Geena writes with humor in her essay for this collection about the experiences with her daughter, Alizeh, that led her to establish the institute and its advocacy arm, See Jane.
My own principles of striving to be open-minded and respectful of individual choice have been tested by the growth in the number of highly educated, highly skilled women who “opt out” of the labor force to focus on raising children. Some have argued that this is a new form of feminism—the ability to disengage from working outside the home if that’s where your passion lies.
The renewed scrutiny of the social status of women sparked by Lean In has shed light on the reality that while we may have lost the sense of being part of a broad-based national “movement” to press for equal rights, there are many more platforms out there for women to make their voices heard—no matter what they choose to express. Unfortunately, the increasing tendency by the media to divide mothers into categories has a negative effect in making both women and men more judgmental of the parenting and lifestyle choices that we make. Why can’t we all just be moms?
It’s easy to get discouraged—until you see people like Ms. Watson claiming the mantle for the next generation. The movement is there, but it’s more diffuse and diverse than in the early days of Ms. Magazine. It’s analogous to the fundamental changes I’ve seen across the television business, which has evolved from a marketplace dominated by three networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) to a universe of 200-plus channels and a multitude of screens in the typical American home. Ideas of what it means to be a feminist are as plentiful as new television shows these days.
I embrace the diversity of this modern patchwork quilt. We have come a long way but we have miles to go. The mothering instinct makes us want to equip our daughters and our sons with everything they need to be happy, healthy, successful, and fulfilled.
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan famously asserted that “the personal is political” for women in defining who they are and what they are able to achieve. It doesn’t get any more personal than the shared experiences of mothers and daughters. In these pages I hope readers will find inspiration, insights, and ideas for the most meaningful ways to impart the values and the beliefs that we prize the most as modern mothers. It’s never too early, or too late, to start packing that backpack.
Lessons from Leaders on Raising the Next Generation of Empowered Women
What I Told My Daughter
Lessons from Leaders on Raising the Next Generation of Empowered Women
In What I Told My Daughter, a powerful, diverse group of women reflect on the best advice and counsel they have given their daughters either by example, throughout their lives, or in character-building, teachable moments between parent and child.
A college president teachers her daughter, by example, the importance of being a leader who connects with everyone—from the ground up, literally—in an organization.
One of the country’s only female police chiefs teaches her daughter the meaning of courage, how to respond to danger but more importantly how not to let fear stop her from experiencing all that life has to offer.
A bestselling writer, who has deliberated for years on empowering girls, wonders if we’re unintentionally leading them to believe they can never make mistakes, when “resiliency is more important than perfection.”
In a time when childhood seems at once more fraught and more precious than ever, What I Told My Daughter is a book anyone who wishes to connect with a young girl cannot afford to miss.