Women and Work

07.17.134:45 AM ET

From One Glass Ceiling to the Next

After a productive tenure at the State Department, Tara Sonenshine asks: when can successful women finally rest on their laurels without feeling guilty?

I awoke the morning after ending my tenure at the State Department as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs and wondered: now what?

As women, we are trained for change—forever transforming ourselves into something new—always stitching together the next square in the proverbial tapestry of professional life. Reinvention is our middle name. We get up, dust ourselves off, and hurry along through the next hoop. We can endure any kind of traffic jam or impasse, including our own self-made ones as long as we stay moving.

But still I found myself, facing my 54th birthday, in a rare state of Anna Quindlenism—questioning, evaluating, contemplating, but not concluding.

How would my teenage sons feel about their mother not going to work? After all, as Quindlen wrote years ago of her own children, “They have grown up seeing, and believing, that women are as capable as men.”

And could I, even for a week or so, rest on my laurels—simply stand still, in a town (Washington, D.C.) that is in perpetual motion with high achievers contemplating the next rung of the ladder even if it is not clear where the ladder leads?

Women struggle with pride. It is hard to be proud of yourself for being a woman leader. I have served twice now in senior foreign-policy positions in a field still dominated by men. But still I marvel at the other women and the fact that three out of the last four secretaries of State have been women. And I can tell you, firsthand, that when I looked around the policy table at State, I saw lots of accomplished women including fellow undersecretaries like Wendy Sherman, Maria Otero, and Rose Gottemoeller as well as many talented women assistant secretaries and ambassadors.

The only one I wouldn’t dare see in the club was myself! As women we are taught to be slightly skeptical of our own achievements—to remind ourselves always that “there is more work to be done.” After all, we have not yet elected a woman president. There has not been a female secretary of Defense. Don’t get overconfident!

That was the mood I was in those first few days—doubt and denial—until I heard a news story on WTOP.

It was about “Molly Marine.” At first, I thought it was a new doll on the market. Then I realized it was a story from Virginia where a new statue of a woman Marine has been unveiled at the National Museum of Marine Corps. My heart nearly skipped a beat with, yes, pride—pride at the thought of a uniformed woman broadly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male colleagues in the parking lot of a museum where all those young kids would be coming.

Molly Marine gives me courage—the courage to admit that I have had my turn as a woman diplomat and I can pause a moment and take great comfort in that. And in knowing that many talented women are on the rise within the foreign service, civil service, and the throughout the political process. I can use up a few moments to reflect on those trips I made this past year—to China, Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, and the Middle East—where I discovered other women leaders, Americans and non-Americans, shattering glass ceilings and defying tradition by taking on powerful roles in society. And that I was one of them.

It’s OK, now and then, for women to sit back and enjoy the ride they’ve taken—not for too long, but just long enough to savor the moment and acknowledge their role as trailblazers. And then—get back to work!

Tara D. Sonenshine served as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs from April 2012 to July 2013. She is enjoying a summer off before starting at George Washington University in the fall.