Outdated Notions Regarding “Women’s Duty” Are Hurting Us All

I think a lot about the challenges and opportunities presented by notions of women and “duty.” I have recently read, and not yet fully comprehended, Margaret Fuller’s 1845 essay entitled, The Wrongs of American Women; The Duty of American Women. Without going into the complexity of the dated but oddly still relevant text, I will say that it makes me think so much about the double-edged sword of cultural and maybe, instinctive ideas of duty that could inure to the benefit of women, but that in the professional world frequently become a soundless and limiting burden.

Duty in its general sense invokes a deep ethic and the level of responsibility that we expect of our leaders at the highest levels. I will risk the proposal that when we think of duty in men it conjures images that tend toward the political, the military, and as it relates to guardians and defenders. And yet in this country (and others), it is sometimes difficult for us to see the idea of duty in women in quite the same way.

I can’t help but wonder whether we don’t continue to default to what Margaret Fuller observed in 1854―seeing dutiful women most easily as supporters rather than leaders. She references what we think of as the “helping professions” specifically, and seems to encourage a more expansive range and quality of available cultural contributions for women.

With all of our general progress, I have wondered how far we’ve evolved with this concept. We all know women whose dutiful willingness to do the dirty work, support others, and take on the same self-effacing persona we admire in soldiers results in professional lives lacking authentic gravitas and influence. This may be part of the complexity of duty as it is applied to gender. If the default notion of a woman’s duty is helpfulness and support, as opposed to responsible, intentional, and deeply impactful leadership, we are losing out.

This is a shared challenge. Organizations need to think harder about what leaders and influencers look like and what they might be missing given the vast number of exceedingly qualified women in their midst. And women need to uncomfortably press the bounds regarding what they have to offer—frankly, out of a sense of duty. There is a lot of important work out there to be done and the opportunity to do it better together.