WOMEN
10/17/2014 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Anna Quindlen On Tooting Your Own Horn, Fearlessness And Raising Feminist Sons

What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own.

Anna Quindlen has always told stories.

She began her career at newspapers, starting off as a copy girl at the New York Times and eventually becoming a reporter there and at the New York Post. In 1992, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her NYT opinion column, "Public and Private." From 2000 to 2009, she wrote the "Last Word" column for Newsweek. Now, at 62, she is the author of seven novels and 10 nonfiction books, the mother of three grown children aged 31, 29 and 26 and a much sought-after college commencement speaker.

The stories Quindlen tells are both trivial and important, fictional and personal. In her columns, readers learned why she kept her last name after marrying and left the Catholic church. Her most recent novel, Still Life With Bread Crumbs, explores how a 60-year-old photographer reinvents herself. In a review for NPR, Heather McAlpin writes that the book "makes a case for seizing control of your life" -- something Quindlen herself firmly believes in.

We recently spoke with Quindlen about leveling the playing field and where we would be without feminism. Here's what she had to say.

Let's jump right into it. How would you define success?

It’s a little bit like what Louis Armstrong once said about jazz. If you have to ask, you’ll never know. It’s a gut reaction. There are moments in your own life that don’t necessarily have to do with getting the promotion, or getting the raise, when you are sitting there and you think -- well, I’ve done it. Whatever it is. That feeling that somehow, there was an internal standard that you may not have even known you had, and you met it. That’s what I think of as success.

And so by that definition, are you successful?

Yes. I think women are so hesitant to say that -- anything that sounds even dimly like tooting your own horn, women back off from. And it’s one of the things that holds us back. I honestly don’t understand, given the retail price of a book, how you could go out there in the marketplace without a novel that you thought, was successful -- without feeling that, deep down inside. I think that part of our socialization as women is hesitating to put ourselves forward. Talking about yourself as successful, feels a little bit like that. But I think we’ve got to get rid of that.

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Quindlen with Barnard College president Debora Spar (L) and Meryl Streep

Something that really resonates in your books is how female characters define themselves and ultimately reinvent themselves. Why are these themes so important to you?

In modern life, reinvention had better resonate with you, because the data now shows that many of us will have four to five different jobs or careers over the course of our lifetime. Speaking of the course of our lifetime, one of the reasons that’s true is because in the year when I was born -- 1952 -- the average life expectancy of an American was 68. Now that we’ve added about 12, 13 years to that, people feel as though there’s more opportunity to reinvent themselves. But also I think for women, there can be a requirement to reinvent ourselves because our domestic roles change. My life was one kind of life when I had three little kids under the age of 5, and it’s a different kind of life now that I have a 31, 29 and 26-year old. Luckily I think most women are pretty good at that -- at saying, "I was one thing and now I’m going to become something else."

Do you think young girls and women are appropriately socialized to reinvent themselves in that way, or is it a crisis point for many women?

I think it can be a crisis point for lots of people. There’s nothing like being a really high-powered working woman and then waking up one day and discovering you’re somebody who’s been wearing the same yoga pants for three days and is covered in spit-up. There can be an element of whiplash to it.

But the older women get, the better they get at setting their own standards, which makes reinvention easier. When I got over 50, I really didn’t give a damn what anybody thought of me any more. The only voice I listened to after that point was my own. I’ve encountered that a lot in women at a certain age. I think we lose patience with those outside voices of the world that seem to hold us to such a ridiculously high standard, and lets guys get away with murder. I think there comes a moment in many of our lives at which we think: enough.

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Have you always wanted to be a writer?

From the time I was pretty young, I always thought of myself as a writer. And that was abetted by a whole line of teachers, God bless them, who kept saying to me -- "You’re really good at this, and you should keep doing it." The first person who ever told me I was a writer, as opposed to "you should think about being a writer" or "you might be a writer," was a teacher. And thats a very, very powerful thing.

I wanted to be a fiction writer. That was my goal. My class prophecy in my high school says “I want to write the great American novel,” which just shows how utterly full of yourself you are when you’re 17. I wanted to be a fiction writer, but I also wanted to purchase attractive clothing and pay rent. I couldn’t figure out how a fiction writer did that, and that’s why I went to work as a copy girl, then as a city desk clerk, and then as a young reporter. And being a reporter was just so much fun that I stayed for much longer than I’d planned. I only got the chance to write on my first novel when I was on maternity leave when I had my second kid.

What advice would you give to young women starting out in their careers? Especially those who want to be writers?

It’s the Nike slogan: just do it. People spend a lot of time waiting to write. They wait for the right time, they wait for inspiration, some of them are foolish enough to wait for a book deal -- and there’s no point to that. Inspiration doesn’t come around very often, there’s never a right time to write, and book deals come after you’re done, more often than not. You have to try to set aside an hour or so every day and just pound something out.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about women and success, and women and feminism. Some young celebrities, like Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry, have publicly distanced themselves from feminism and downplayed its role in their success. How much is feminism a part of your life, and your work?

That’s a little like being asked how being female relates to my work. Feminism has been the ruling impulse of my adult life, and is frankly responsible for the existence I have. I’ve said that if I live to be 70, I will get a tattoo to celebrate. I could just as soon get the word "feminism" tattooed on my body as almost anything else, because it’s so much a part of me. I always just turn to the dictionary: "social, political and economic equality." Hello! It just seems so simple, and eloquent, and right to me, that the idea that there’s any kind of dismissal, distrust, whatever -- it makes me nuts. Especially with smart young women.

People say to me constantly when I speak on college campuses, “Why don’t you call it humanism?” And I always say the same thing: When there is a level playing field, I will call it humanism. But I can tell you unequivocally that we are nowhere near a level playing field. It just seems like such a no-brainer to me. Younger women can dismiss feminism if they want, despite the fact that they are living lives that would have been impossible without it. Unthinkable without it! And that’s what I think makes [some of us] crazy. We know that without feminism, those young women would have vastly diminished existences.

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Anna Quindlen and Cynthia Nixon at Newsweek's 4th annual Women & Leadership Conference in 2008

What can we do to level that playing field for women? What are the key issues you think feminists and advocates for women should be focusing on?

Job one for me was raising feminist sons. Unless men come along for the ride, you’ll be left with all the stuff women were obliged to do 100 years ago, because men haven’t changed as well.

But I also think it’s really important that we have better top-down leadership. There’s been a leadership lid in this country for the last 20 years. If you look at virtually any line of work, from Wall Street, to medicine, to journalism, the percentage of people at the top in every business and industry and field, is about 20 percent female. Twenty years ago, the line on that was "there aren’t enough women in the pipeline." With 50 percent of graduating law students female, and only 17-18 percent of partners at top law firms female, you can’t make the pipeline argument any more. There’s a lot more than that going on.

So how did you raise feminist kids?

I have two boys and a girl. It’s actually fairly easy to raise a feminist daughter. I have a very smart, strong-minded daughter who only needed to be told “Gee, Maria, a woman has never been president of the United States” for her to go off like a rocket. It’s harder to raise feminist sons, because what you’re basically saying to your kids is, "you should give up this privilege that society hands you with both hands, and you should be different from your colleagues." I used to talk all the time about parity between men and women. I used to talk all the time about the gross inequities. They certainly never thought twice about whether women worked or had positions of power and influence in the world -- my friends include a federal judge, a correspondent on "60 Minutes," a New York Times critic. So they grew up thinking women did all those things. Ultimately, while I think sometimes it was hard for them to be asked to be different from their peers, when push came to shove it worked out pretty well for them.

What advice would you give yourself when you were in high school?

The size of your thighs is irrelevant. Stop worrying so much, it will all be alright. Try to get rid of the fear. I feel like fearlessness can make everything better, and make everything work. It’s really fear that holds us back from doing the things we really want to do, from doing the things that we could really be great at, from doing the things that could change everything. When you look at the women that have made a real difference in the world throughout history, what they’ve done has almost always been defined by fearlessness. That’s something I came to at a certain point; I wish I’d come to it younger. Stop looking over your shoulder -- there’s nobody who matters back there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

"Still Life With Bread Crumbs" will be available as a paperback starting Oct. 21.

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