In September 1961, 24 women gathered at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, MA to start a year of intellectual study and focus on producing personal works of art, poetry, theology, philosophy, sculpting and writing. This “messy experiment” was designed to see if giving talented women money, lodging and access to stimulating academic opportunities in the company of similar women would spark their creativity while freeing them of the burdens of housekeeping and childcare that were weighing them down, devouring their time, and suffocating their dreams.
The announcement of the program’s inception to the public in 1960 wasn’t universally positive, though. Many women, including Radcliffe graduates, wrote to deride the idea, saying that the plan to financially uplift and honor deserving women in this way would undermine family stability and ultimately hurt the American way of life. That criticism continued as the fellowship winners enthusiastically came to Radcliffe to pursue their dreams, and it didn’t just come from strangers; their good fortune evoked anger and judgment from family, neighbors and friends, too.
Maggie Doherty, author of The Equivalents, which profiled the friendships among several of the earliest fellowship recipients, writes that one of the most vicious in-person attacks came from a Junior League audience of 50 well-heeled women in the Boston suburbs during the first year of the program. Lily Macrakis, a Greek history scholar, had been encouraged by the program’s founder and Radcliffe’s president, Polly Bunting, to overcome her fear of public speaking so that she could share her work with the wealthy audience, and hopefully get some fundraising support. Instead, the female audience attacked her, criticizing Macrakis’ “ambition” as being hurtful to her children, and peppering her with sarcastic questions about women’s abilities to be both mothers and a scholars at the same time.
Macrakis never forget the cruelty of the Junior League women, decades later describing the scene as a “war,” noting, “They were horrid … I hate them.”
In spite of cultural taboos against working women at that time, the results of the “experiment” were so positive that people like the poet Anne Sexton, the writer Tillie Olsen and the lithographer Barbara Swan Fink said that the Radcliffe fellowship (later renamed the Bunting Fellowship) had marked a turning point in their lives and careers. They became more prolific, earned more critical acclaim, fetched higher prices for their work, and published prize-winning tomes of poetry and short stories. More than anything else, though, being singled out by an august institution like Radcliffe with recognition and a scholarship also gave them confidence to know that their thoughts and work mattered outside of their roles as wives and mothers.
I’m just ending my own version of a writing mini-fellowship, and it’s a radical gift I’ve learned to annually bestow on myself, regardless of what others think or say. For more than two weeks I’ve been ensconced alone in a two-story condominium in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, driving distance from my home just outside Washington, D.C. I don’t speak to anyone, unless I bump into them at the outdoor pool where I jumpstart most days, and I don’t call home to check on anyone or anything. I ignore most emails and news alerts. I eat the same three meals every day and drink pots of coffee laced with too much Equal and Funfetti International Delight creamer. The walls are covered stretching up fifteen feet with mind maps and lists of my thoughts on reinventing goal-setting strategies to overhaul OKRs and KPIs, plans for new coaching programs, and an ebook on mastermind groups for women, among other ideas. I am quiet, energized and happy. This is my author’s version of the ideal writing process and the perfect day.
I’ve always needed blocks of quiet time when I’ve been conceptualizing or writing my books, stretching back to 1986 when I wrote my first book, My Name is Caroline. Although finding alone time to write and think got harder as my family expanded to three children, all of whom had active schedules, I never got far from my ritual when I needed it most – because it worked. I even once told someone I was convinced that I could write the Bible if I had a window overlooking the ocean and could hear the surf crashing on the shore. (More about how I prepare for and execute my writing binges can be found here.)
During my busiest motherhood years, these writing “getaways” were often restricted to borrowing a friend’s spare office for a day, traveling in the winter to someone else’s unused oceanfront condo, or doing a Priceline bid on weekend hotel rooms in my hometown to get 24 or 48 hours of peace and quiet. They all served my purpose. I eventually realized that it wasn’t so much the place that mattered; what mattered was that I was openly stating my right to invest in myself and my process, as well as my belief that I was a good writer whose voice deserved to be heard, regardless of the obstacles in my path.
Like the Radcliffe fellows, I’ve gotten venomous reactions to my writing ritual, including from my in-laws, who have repeatedly said that my work devalued my commitment to, and love for, my family. This cruel jab was repeated in a New York Times Sunday Book Review of my first book – written by a woman – that stated that I cared less about my husband’s epilepsy than writing about my recovery from bulimia. In spite of that stunning review 32 years ago, which would never happen in today’s climate of openness and praise for the courage of recovery memoirs, I’m proud that the book was the first autobiography by anyone who recovered from a disorder that was once thought to be a lifetime sentence, and that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world have contacted me to say that my book gave them hope and the will to live.
The criticism has never abated. Twelve years ago, while writing Creating Your Best Lifeon a particularly hard deadline that involved several months of weekend hotel rooms and the kindness of friends with empty second homes, aman on my Masters swim team who was known to go on frequent boys’ weekends said witheringly to me while shaking his head in disgust, “My wife Janie would never do that to me and the children.” Women often went silent when they heard I was leaving for a few days, or said some version of the following: “Is your husband okay with this?” or “What will the children do while you’re gone?”
It was Virginia Woolf who first observed 100 years ago that for a woman to be a writer she had to be financially independent and have “a room of one’s own.” Saying a “room” is important and getting it – or simply taking it – is another thing entirely.
Like many women, I’ve often fallen victim to over-giving to my husband, my children, my friends, my clients and people who have depended on me for love, listening and helping in a pinch. And like many women, my giving is often taken for granted and unappreciated. Research has found that women are expected to do “emotional housework” and pitch in when more hands are needed, and are penalized when they don’t. Men, however, get no penalty for not helping in a crisis, and when they do do a bit extra, they are lionized. (For a timely and funny look at men even believe they do more than women in spite of evidence to the contrary, click here.) Is it any wonder that finding time for your own dreams, goals and creativity feels awkward, and even impossible, when you are a woman?
Even though many people are currently homebound and stifled by the pandemic restrictions around work and travel, I hold fast to the belief that it matters for our sanity to get solitary, uninterrupted blocs of time – to think clearly, string ideas together, practice new forms of expression, and simply connect the dots while staring out a window. Right now this might mean sitting outside for half a day, sketching out your ideal self in a mind map without interruption, or spending a few minutes writing in a journal. It could also mean going away – within healthy guidelines – to devote a day or two to just being spiritually contemplative, or catching up on personal matters that always seem to come in behind others’ needs.
I recognize that not everyone has the means or time to do what I do, but it took years of believing I mattered, and standing my ground in the face of disrespect, to work up to a point where I could drive away from my home in a car packed with a printer, binders of research, legal pads, highlighters, books, lamps and clothes so that I could write alone regardless of whether I would be judged, hassled or denigrated by anyone else. And after almost three weeks by myself, I’m driving home tomorrow with a lighter heart, pride in what I’ve written, excitement about my future and love for the people who stepped up to make this getaway possible. I’m a better version of myself and a better role model for my daughter and all of the young women who look up to me because I did what I did, and because I will do it again and again and again without remorse, shame or guilt.
If you crave alone time, too, but don’t know where to start, here are some free downloads that can get you going on imagining your future and that can point you in a hopeful and positive direction that will involve strong belief, good goals and grit. Every good change starts with intentions that evoke hope and deliberate action with accountability, so let that next action you take towards your best possible future be one that validates your creative worth and expands your belief in what’s possible for yourself, because it will make the world a better place.
Believe me – it matters.
To receive free downloads, book chapters and updates on Positive Psychology’s contribution to the science of goal-setting, grit and well-being, please visit www.carolinemiller.com and sign up for the newsletter. You can also text GOAL to 33777 in North America to get the new introduction, first chapter and a sample worksheet from the new reissue of Creating Your Best Life. Weekly videos on my work and thoughts on how to succeed more efficiently and effectively can be seen on Instagram and YouTube, and Pinterest. Please follow me and share with others who might like my work and benefit from these thoughts!
Note: The quote about Lily Macrakis’ response to the heckling at the Junior League luncheon is from “The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s” (Knopf 2020) by Maggie Doherty, p. 163.
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