The departure of a White House staff member, even one who is said to be a president’s alter-ego, rarely inspires a raft of cultural commentary. But when Karen Hughes, President George W. Bush’s top advisor, announced in late April that she would be returning to her home state of Texas with her husband and teenage son, there was a fine little uproar about what it all meant—not what it meant for the Bush administration, but what it meant for women in the workplace.
Several women commentators suggested that Hughes had let the team down. After all, she was the president’s most powerful and most trusted aide. No other woman, other than an occasional First Lady, had ever played so vital a role in the White House. And yet Karen Hughes walked away after less than 18 months, saying that she was homesick for Texas and that her son and husband—males, the two of them!—were not particularly happy in Washington.
It should be noted that Karen Hughes is not the first political advisor or government insider to surrender power in exchange for more quality time with spouses and children. In nearly 30 years of covering New York politics, I have heard several politicians—all of them male—cite the need to be with their families as their reason for leaving office. No doubt it was a coincidence that their sudden yearning for the pleasures of domesticity usually came at a time when prosecutors were combing through their credit card records, telephone bills and campaign receipts.
There was no such shadow over Karen Hughes’s announcement, so there was no cause for snickering, which is the usual reaction among political insiders when they hear one of their own citing family as the reason for giving up power. It was clear that perhaps for the first time ever, a powerful Washington insider really was giving it all up in the name of domestic bliss.
At least one female observer complained that women were never going to achieve their goals of empowerment if they meekly walked away from impressive careers just because their husband and/or children were unhappy. After all, don’t these big lugs and spoiled kids realize that their petty complaints are of no importance when great matters of global statecraft are at issue?
Apparently it has not occurred to Hughes’s critics that she and women like her—and, yes, even some men—are rewriting the old rules of career and family and redefining the pursuit of happiness. Some feminists seem to believe, perhaps understandably, that in order to be taken seriously, career women have to prove that they are as good, as hardworking, as driven and as ambitious as any man. But what if women like Karen Hughes inspire others, like some of those ambitious men who have spent a lifetime neglecting their families for the sake of impressive-sounding titles, to re-evaluate the meaning of success? That would be no small victory, for women, for men, for families—and for sanity.
It’s a fair guess that millions of men and women in their middle and late 40’s understand exactly why Karen Hughes is leaving the White House. They have achieved some measure of success, they have earned their middle-class or better lifestyle, they have climbed the proverbial greasy pole. But now the achievements and goals that seemed so important when they were 25 appear insignificant compared with the love of another human being, the laughter of their children or young relatives and the simple peace of an uninterrupted weekend.
Some of this mid-life, mid-career reflection no doubt is a function of age and, yes, wisdom. And some of it, I think, represents the impact that women have had on the workplace. Thirty years ago, when young women were just beginning careers in predominately male professions, there was very little discussion of the conflicts between work and family. Now the newspaper of business, The Wall Street Journal, devotes a weekly column to the topic. And it is not just a women’s issue. I know men who have turned down promotions and passed up job opportunities because they did not want to disrupt their families, or because they thought the potential new job would require too many hours away from home.
The old rules had it that you never passed up an opportunity to “advance” yourself, that you never lost sight of the next promotion, the next opportunity. And under those rules, plenty of men became strangers in their own homes, developed stress-related diseases and died of heart attacks at 50.
Women, or at least many women I know, have seen the old rules for what they were: macho nonsense, where the worth of a worker was measured by the absurd number of hours he spent at his desk. Workplaces today tend to be more humane because so many women are part of the work force, and they have resisted 1950’s definitions of success and fulfillment. Thanks mostly to such women, employers now offer more flexible hours and workweeks, and are far more understanding when a valued employee has a family or personal crisis.
So when somebody like Karen Hughes decides that the people she loves are more important than proximity to the president of the United States, she deserves not the scorn of disappointed feminists, but the admiration of those who have concluded that fancy job titles are no substitute for personal happiness and spiritual satisfaction.