Hughes' deal says women can have it all

Hughes gets deal even men would envy

April 30, 2002|By SUSAN REIMER

KAREN HUGHES, President Bush's closest and most trusted adviser, is vacating her place at the center of power and returning to her home in Texas so her son can finish his high school career where he has grown up.

Her decision has been widely interpreted as proof positive that a woman can't have it all, that Hughes made the choice many women make when trying to balance work and kids: the kids come first.

There is a lesson for working women, and their daughters, in Karen Hughes' dilemma, but I am not sure that's the one.

Rather, I think Karen Hughes is an example of how a woman can have it all.

Hughes, a former television journalist, became Bush's communications director in 1994 during his first gubernatorial campaign, and in the years since she has made herself absolutely indispensable to him, so much so that he declared that he would not run for president if she would not agree to come to Washington with him if he won.

Now, when she finds herself torn by family concerns, she has the cachet with the boss to cut a deal that will allow her to continue working closely with Bush while living in Austin; a deal that will keep both her president and her family happy.

Commentators made the point over the weekend that Hughes' decision was a heck of a message to girls and young women, coming as it did so close to Take Your Daughters to Work Day.

But I think it might be exactly the right message.

Women who want to work and have children are inevitably going to find themselves torn between the two, and they will likely decide they must make decisions - not to relocate, to work only part-time, to give up traveling - that will benefit their families but discomfit their employers.

Only if they are as indispensable as Karen Hughes will they have the leverage to negotiate a workable solution.

The good news is that a woman can now hold a position of such authority and access.

But it is even better news that she can so publicly rewrite her job description with so much public support.

If her rival, adviser Karl Rove, had made such a declaration, it would have been immediately suspicious: Was he being forced out? Was he judged incompetent? Is an indictment at hand?

Hughes' explanation for moving back to Austin was accepted in a way a man's would not be.

The fact of the matter is that women have choices when it comes to family and career where a man might be expected to suck it up and keep working.

The bad news is, women must be essential, indespensible to pull this off, and most jobs held by women do not meet that standard in the judgment of their superiors. Nor do women often reach the heights attained by the Karen Hugheses of the world.

The other problem that Hughes' decision creates is this: When women and working mothers step off the stage, their concerns are no longer heard; the voice from the wings is necessarily fainter.

In the case of Hughes, who coined the description of Bush as a "compassionate conservative," that leaves the microphone to the likes of Rove, whose strength is catering to Bush's hard-core right-wing base.

We are going to get a lot more "conservative" and a lot less "compassionate," and that might not sit well with - you guessed it - women voters.

And finally, Hughes' decision to placate her husband and son and to resume a familiar family life in Austin will necessarily increase the pressures on her.

She will be trying to advise the president from a considerable distance. Phones and faxes cannot completely bridge that gap.

I can imagine her cell phone ringing incessantly at her son's baseball games or during a meeting at school or at the checkout counter at the grocery store.

That's another truth about balancing work and family: whatever accommodation we make to please the family or the boss usually requires us to bend over backward.

But as long as those two sides are happy with the arrangement, we can tell ourselves that we have made it work.

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