Anna Quindlen

Keynote Speaker

2010 Dallas Annual Awards Luncheon

Friday February 26, 2010

I wanted to start out today telling you about 3 women, whom I happen to know really, really well.  The first one had parents who came to this country from Italy.  They were very strict, and they were very sure about certain things, and so was their daughter.  She knew that if there was money for college, which there wasn’t, but if there was, it was her brother who would get it, even though her art teacher said she had talent and she should go to art school.  But her parents really expected her to get married, which is what she is, and to have children, which she did, 5 in all, and to never, ever work outside of her home, and she did that too.  But sometimes she showed her kids a portfolio she kept in her bedroom bureau drawer of her old watercolors, and when she sent them to school with bag lunches, sometimes she drew pictures on the shells of their hardboiled eggs.  If she had other dreams, bigger dreams, she never talked about them, and neither did any of the other women she knew.

The second woman is her daughter.  She was raised as her father’s oldest son.  She always knew she would go to college, but she also knew that there were lots of colleges that she couldn’t attend because they were only for men.  Princeton and Yale and West Point, for example.  She looked around her at the people who ran this country, and they were male, every last one of them.  No matter what dream she had, she was told by everybody it would just be harder for her because she was a girl, but she decided that that was just too damn bad.  And to show them, she would just be so much better that no one would be able to take her less seriously than they took the guys.

The third woman is her daughter.  She is 21 years old, and she has grown up in a radically different world than her mother did.  There are indeed many women at Princeton and Yale, and even at West Point.  There are women in the Senate, and on the Supreme Court.  She takes for granted that women work and that they run the world.  It would never for a moment occur to her that her brothers are more entitled than she to do anything, from college to a career in science, law, or public service.

Now, what you have just heard is a family tree.  The frustrated artist was my mother.  The girl who was pushed hard by her father is me.  And the youngest is my daughter.  I remember once coming to pick her up from “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” when she was 11, when she had spent the day with my friend, Kimba, who is a federal judge.  And in the cab, I said to Maria, “Honey, do you ever think you might want to be a boy?”  And without pausing for a moment, she relied, “Oh no momma, it would be too boring.”  What a time it is to be a woman in our world.  When I was 21, I could never have imaged a world in which we would take for granted women police officers and women firefighters.  Women rabbis, and women ministers.  Women senators, and women judges.  Women editors, and women columnists.  I could never have imagined how different the world would be for my kids.  I could never have imagined that when my boys were very little, I would listen to them talking in the backseat of the car one day when we were driving home from seeing their pediatrician, who is one of my best friends, and Chris would say to Quinn, “When I get big, I might want to be a doctor.”  And Quinn would reply, “Don’t be stupid Christopher, only girls can be doctors.”  I could never have imagined that what I think of as trickle-down feminism, would become so pervasive that lots of the things that I thought of as utopian, or idealistic, would become completely absorbed by our culture so that one day when I was visiting a junior high school, one boy rose to his feet and began his question, “Okay Ms. Quindlen, I know that girls can do anything boys can, but . . “  He thought that was nothing.  He thought that was a universally accepted fact.  Girls can do anything boys can.  But I heard the greatest social revolution in the last 100 years in his words.  Okay, I know girls can do anything boys can, but . . .  Well, here’s the but, and a room like this is a great time to deconstruct it.  Was the point of having this great social revolution that made my mother’s life completely different from my own, and my own completely different from my daughter’s, was the point of that to have corner offices, executive washrooms, and great suits?  Did we want the right to lead imitation guy’s lives with all of the old rules, or did we really want a revolution that would, in the way we women do, change the whole world for everyone.  I mean, beneath our career ladders, let’s not forget, there’s been a gulley, and in that gulley have been millions of our sisters struggling.  Homeless families are epidemic in this prosperous nation.  Women are trying to hold those families together in that way we do.  Child poverty is out of control.  Women are trying to get those kids to school and out of the cycle of dead-end dependence in the way we women do.  Women are doing great things in the world, but part of our world sees them doing the great thing of trying to keep their kids alive and fed with a roof over their heads and an education.  Well, you can’t call yourself a feminist if you think of all of those struggling women and are not moved to act.  You can’t call yourself a mother if you think of all of those hungry children and are not moved to act, and you can’t call yourself a human being if you think of all of those striving people are not moved to act.  Oh sure.  We love the platitudes in American.  We are just one big Hallmark card.  Children are our future.  Families are the promise of tomorrow.  But let’s be honest.  This is often a nation that loves the notion of children, but really doesn’t like the reality of kids.  It’s undeniable, the greatest number of the poorest people in this country are under the age of 16.  The last Bush administration in its early days said that it was going to try to remedy some of those deficits with what were called faith-based initiatives.  In other words, the federal government would give money to institutions to help them do the good work for families that they were unwilling or unable to do themselves.  Here’s the thing I found really perplexing about that.  If support was going to be given to faith-based organizations, how come Planned Parenthood didn’t get any money?  Because, Planned Parenthood is the ultimate faith-based group.  Here are the things that we have faith in.  We have faith in the ability of women, rich and poor, from all backgrounds, to make correct and moral decisions about themselves and their families if they are given help and support.  We have faith in the ability of caregivers, doctors, and nurses, and social workers, to deal with patients as equal partners in their own care.  We have faith in the ability of women of all ages to decide when and whether it is the right time to bring more children into the world.  We have faith that they are capable of doing this without the forcible intervention of state legislators, governors, judges, and lawyers.  We have faith that educating girls will lead to empowering women, and that women who are empowered will be able to raise strong families.  And we have faith that that support will create a web of outcomes that, as Lisa said, will elevate the lives of women, men, children, families, communities, and thus, our entire nation.  One of the things we are not very good at in the United States is putting the pieces together.  Sometimes I think it is why some of our problems seem to be so intractable.  We talk about early childhood education on one hand, and dropping out of high school on the other, as though those are distinct issues, when the data, as well as our commonsense, tell us that they are not, that a child who is engaged early in the enterprise of learning is more likely to stay engaged and prosper in school and not drop out, and not go to jail.  So it is with some of the issues that are the pervue of this organization.  It pulls together all of the pieces.  Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, once said that, “No women could call herself free who did not control her own fertility.”  Now, what does free mean?  Just look around this room.  Women working.  Women leading.  Women prospering.  That is all part of the continuum that includes women deciding whether and when to have children, a decision that was almost impossible just a generation ago.  Data in other countries show that when women are doing well, the nation is both more likely to be prosperous, and more likely to be peaceful.  That is an affirmative good, not just for women, but for the entire world.  We are also not so good in America at talking about tough issues.  Instead, sometimes it seems like we do speak in slogans, bumper stickers, the simplicity of easy opposition.  We turn things into issues because issues don’t touch our hearts.  We talk about healthcare, instead of talking about another mother who can’t afford an inhaler for her son who is choking with asthma.  We talk about a mortgage crisis, instead of talking about a family who sees the only home they have ever known disappearing through the back windshield of their car.  And on one of our most difficult national issues, we talk about either choice or life, autonomy or maternity.  Those are over-simplifications, but too often, over-simplification is seen to be the ruling principal on the issue of reproductive rights.  I mean, maybe you know someone who watches that little stick turn color and sits down on the toilet to think about the right to privacy.  I don’t.  Lots of women in America have wondered why the so-called debate seems to have no connection to what they’re thinking, feeling, and doing.  How come, they ask, an unaccompanied 15-year-old can’t get a tattoo, but can get an abortion?  How come when you want it it’s called a baby, and when you don’t, it’s called a fetus?  And how come they are made to feel unreasonable and ignorant when they ask those questions?  How come we don’t call it as a feel it?  We’ve learned to speak the language of the courtroom and the constitution, when we really ought to be speaking the language of the kitchen table.  People are going to go on reducing this discussion as best they can.  God and freedom, rights and wrongs.  But this is never going to be an issue to parse.  It can’t be.  Instead of fitting neatly into black and white boxes, it takes place in that messy gray zone of hard choices informed by individual circumstance and conscience.  People of good faith, like the people in this room today, need to talk about it just that way to advance the dialogue, even in the face of rigid opposition.  And yet the issue of when and whether to raise children remains one of those strange and seemingly relentless areas in this country in which the ghosts of Puritanism seem to have a headlock on the spirit of progress.  I mean, it’s ridiculous to have to stand up here in the year 2010 to restate the simple fact that cheap, accessible, and reliable methods of contraception drive down the rate of abortion.  Yet in terms of public policy, there has always seems to be a disconnect on the issue.  Maybe because there is always the subrosen notion that this is a sexual, rather than a medical issue.  I keep seeing this most conspicuously often in this state when we talk about teenagers and sex, what they should know, and what we should make sure they do not know, or at least fool ourselves that they do not know.  Teenagers are having sex.  They have always had sex.  But sometimes it seems as though we liked it better when they hid it, or got what used to be called a reputation, or had to give their children away out of shame and secrecy, or married when they were too young to know what that commitment meant.  Why?  Do we really want them to have things as tough as some of us did?  Do we want them to be ignorant rather than informed?  Do we want our society to evolve on all fronts but this one?  What a horrible disconnect that is.  But there has never been a disconnect at Planned Parenthood.  The people at Planned Parenthood know the big picture, the whole story, all of the connections, because they never forget another thing that Margaret Sanger said when she founded the organization, the phrase that is truly at the heart of Planned Parenthood, and that we should take away today, “Every child a wanted child.”  There is an article of faith if I’ve ever heard one.  Planned Parenthood exists to provide a healthy life for wanted children.  Don’t believe anything different.  In a nation that is enmeshed in a terrible crisis, where the provision of affordable healthcare for all is concerned, Planned Parenthood has been one of the greatest leaders, now and in the past, in the field of providing affordable healthcare, this is the public option at this moment.  I mean Lisa said it.  Pap tests, breast exams, prenatal care.  The vast majority of the work of this organization is a kind of basic healthcare for women, and even for men too, that is the key to a prosperous country in the future.  It’s so important to see that big picture, the whole picture, not issues or services in isolation.  I wish more of our elected officials did that.  I deny the right of guys in Washington to make decisions about my fertility, my morality, and that of my friends and my family.  It’s simple.  My pelvis is not public property, and no one alive can make it so.  But they would have a little more credibility with me, and with a lot of the rest of us, if they seemed to understand that everything is connected.  That a family’s economic well being is connected to their healthcare.  That a woman’s willingness to have more children is connected to her confidence that she can do right by another child.  That it is as important to be committed to children after they are born as before they are.   Of all places, the National Catholic Reporter said in an editorial several years ago that opposing abortion is “cheap grace” for those politicians who don’t support policies that make it easier for women to raise kids, and I agree.  Many of us in this room today are lucky people. We have health insurance, private doctors, access to specialists.  Sometimes it may seem that what goes on in Planned Parenthood centers is happening to other people, but it’s not.  The truth is, we live in a country in which we really are one, because our children, rich and poor, black and white, are going to coexist in the years to come, and so raising one of them up, is lifting them all up.  And that is why our concern has to be not just for our kids, but for all the programs that help all kids.  The fluidity and richness and diversity of American society has always, from the very beginning, depended upon the ability of the poor to become working class, the children of the working class to become wealthy.  Ditch digger to cop to lawyer to judge in four generations, that’s how I learned it as an Irish-Italian kid, at one end of the cycle that my ancestors began.  My maternal grandparents spoke very heavily accented English, my mother never got to go to college, and I get to stand up here today.  That is the American story right there.  I come to you this afternoon, courtesy of immigration and education both.  That’s why we want every child to be cared for in this country.  So that the poor can someday be enriched, and therefore enrich the lives of us all with ideas, and art, and philanthropy.  The process of educating, empowering, and advocating is a circular, not a linear process.  Can we count on that enrichment?  Not if we continue to spend more on prisons than on preschools.  Not if poor teenagers get substandard healthcare, or not healthcare at all.  Not if we compartmentalize so-called issues, instead of thinking every day in every way about all the ways in which human beings live and suffer.  My mother, who just missed the revolution that changed my life, left her 5 children an index card when she died on which she’d written this section of  St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am a sounding brass or a clanging symbol.  Tough I have the gift of prophecy and know all things, though I have faith strong enough to move mountains, but am without love, I am nothing.  Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is not jealous.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails.”  In some versions of the New Testament, that word love is translated as charity, which suits our purposes down to the ground.  Because what does it profit if we’ve had this revolution and what we women gained was resume power, but we don’t have love within or charity towards our sisters without.  What does it profit this country if it is conspicuously rich at one end, and destitute at the other, and if the end that can afford to act pays no attention to the end that cannot afford anything?  What that means is that we women will have gained equality, but lost our humanity, and our nation can claim democracy, but it will lack morality.  Most of you in this room have probably done well in your lives.  As I like to say to my kids, it’s fine to want to do well, but if we do not do good too, doing well is not good enough.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am so happy that we changed the world over my lifetime.  Every time I see Gloria Steinem, I say thank you for my very existence.  My 21-year-old daughter just assumes access and opportunities that would never have occurred to me.  I remember several years ago when she asked me if it was possible for the Secretary of State to be a guy.  She has grown up in a nation that glitters.  In one part it is because of the sparkle of an event like this one, and in another, the glitter is still broken glass on the street.  Both countries are our country.  We forget that at our peril.  Not political peril alone, but spiritual power, spiritual peril.  Many of you in this room are probably people with some kind of power, the power of influence, or the power of affluence, or both.  Maybe we ought to all walk out of this room today with a shadow at our heels, the shadow of a woman who is much more like us than different.  She loves her kids, she wants a future for them, and for herself too.  With all the cards stacked against her, she still dreams, and she hopes, and she tries, and maybe today she can remind each of us what we’ve been given, and therefore what we’re morally obliged to give in return, because the point of the revolution was not a corner office.  The point was sisterhood, solidarity, love, and charity.  The point was changing the whole wide world for the better.  I only wish we’d started the whole deal earlier so that my mother could have gone to art school.  Thank you very much.