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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Exposing the Lie of Women 'Having It All' : DIVIDED LIVES: The Public and Private Struggles of Three Accomplished Women by Elsa Walsh ; Simon & Schuster $23, 288 pages

August 18, 1995|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Aware that even the most conspicuously successful women find life at the top of their professions troubled and unsatisfactory, Elsa Walsh persuaded three remarkable and distinctly different people to make her their confidant for two stressful years. The result is a candid, illuminating, and intensely personal work of nonfiction, entirely free of either cant or polemic.

Walsh's subjects are Meredith Vieira, who was a CBS correspondent for "60 Minutes" when Walsh's interviews began and who is currently under contract at NBC; Rachael Worby, who married West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton during her tenure as conductor of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, and Dr. Alison Estabrook, a surgeon who is now chief of breast surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

All three are married, and Vieira has three young children. They were not chosen for this investigation because they are in any way typical, but because they are anything but. All are uncommonly talented, ambitious, hard-working and well rewarded.

To most women struggling to combine work with family life, these three people would seem to have achieved a marvelous, almost unattainable balance.

As their stories unfold, however, that balance is revealed as a perilous high-wire act, nine parts illusion to one of reality. If there's this much anguish at the pinnacle, conditions at the base of the mountain or halfway up the slope hardly seem promising.

Vieira was offered the opportunity to become a writer-reporter for "60 Minutes" shortly after her first child was born--two dreams were realized simultaneously. After agonizing debates, she accepted the CBS job, only to discover that the protracted travel not only made her feel that she was neglecting her baby but placed a tremendous burden upon her husband, problems that escalated after the second and third child.

CBS required total commitment, and as the mother of three, Vieira reluctantly acknowledged that she couldn't supply it. To the outside world, she appeared to be the ultimate example of "having it all," but for a woman, that implies "and then some."

A perfectionist by nature, Vieira wanted to be a superb TV reporter and a perfect mother, goals difficult individually and impossible in tandem.

Eventually she accepted the traditional assignment for moms; a morning show requiring her to go to sleep at seven so she could rise at three and be at the studio at 5:30; a schedule that not only eliminated all social and personal life but left her terminally exhausted.

Frustrated, bored and conscious that she was living up to neither of her ambitions, she moved to NBC, where she was offered a more flexible schedule on "The Turning Point," an arrangement that seemed ideal until the show was discontinued as a weekly series.

When this book went to press, Vieira was doing much of her work from home, limiting her traveling, and producing only those pieces she considered important. In her view, the trade-off was worthwhile.

Rachael Worby was a New Yorker, a musician and defiantly nonconformist when she met and married Gaston Caperton, the 50-year-old governor of a conservative Southern state.

Charmed and delighted by the governor's pride in her career, Worby assumed that his constituents would be equally liberal in their attitudes.

Instead, she found that West Virginia not only expected a traditional First Lady but could be openly hostile to one who did not meet their rigid specifications.

Her compromise has been to soften her image at home and to use her out-of-state assignments as an escape hatch--an admittedly imperfect solution, but one she and her husband have learned to accept.

Although essentially professional, Alison Estabrook's problems were no less acute, brought to her attention when a colleague informed her that her salary was $40,000 under the sum paid to her male equivalents on the Columbia Hospital staff.

After she protested, the discrepancy was adjusted, but when the position of chief of her service opened, she was continually passed over in favor of male candidates, despite the fact that she had been promised the post.

Supremely qualified, eager to stay in New York, a financial asset to the hospital and nationally respected, she was granted the job of chief only when it seemed certain that she would leave to head an analogous division in San Diego.

In the process of researching and writing "Divided Lives," the author also confronted her own related conflicts as a writer and the wife of Bob Woodward, succinctly reported in a final chapter.

Arresting, poignant and disquieting, the book demonstrates that the feminist dream of "having it all" remains a snare and a delusion, at least for the generation of women now in their 40s.

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