Breaking New Ground in Women’s “Paths to Fulfillment”: A Conversation with Ruthellen Josselson

Kitty Lindsay talks to psychologist Ruthellen Josselson about her 35-year-long examination of the ways women define themselves.

Breaking New Ground in Women’s “Paths to Fulfillment”: A Conversation with Ruthellen Josselson

HOW DO WOMEN create fulfilling lives?

In the early 1970s, Ruthellen Josselson, then a doctoral candidate in psychology, randomly selected 26 college-aged women to interview for her dissertation on the aspects of identity formation. The women, each graduating seniors from colleges and universities across the country, were the first generation of women who, in the wake of the Women’s Liberation Movement, took on trailblazing roles in the workplace. Since these women came of age at historic moment of change for women’s rights, they created new possibilities for women, and challenged cultural attitudes and pervasive media stereotypes about women’s roles in society, at work, and in the home by daring to imagine different lives for themselves.

How did these women’s unique life choices ultimately affect the unfolding of their lives? In her new book, Paths to Fulfillment: Women’s Search for Meaning and Identity, Josselson, shares her 35-year-long chronicle of these women’s unique journeys, mapping the many ways that they developed, grew, and adapted as adults. Expanding upon her initial dissertation project, Josselson met with many of the same women every decade to observe how their lives and ambitions changed. Organizing the women into four groups — Pathmakers, Guardians, Searchers, and Drifters — Josselson identifies the diverse lives women can lead, while also illuminating their commonalities through rich descriptions of their personal experiences.

To learn more about the story behind this groundbreaking study of women and ambition, LARB reached out to Josselson to talk about feminism, friendship, and the barriers blocking women’s paths to fulfillment.


KITTY LINDSAY: What inspired the project on which the book is based?

RUTHELLEN JOSSELSON: It began as my doctoral dissertation on the aspects of identity formation in the late 1960s. I was interested in learning something about how college women went about forming an identity and I was aware at that time that there was almost nothing written about women — all of psychology was about men — and there wasn’t even a book that talked about the psychology of women. The understanding of the development of women was limited to menstruation, menopause, and child rearing, and that was it. We really knew nothing about women’s identity and of course, at this time, there were lots more possibilities on the horizon for women, so I wanted to learn about what went into women’s decision-making, how they thought about who they wanted to be in the world, and how to be a woman. So I randomly chose a group of women from four different colleges and universities and two different parts of the country so that I would have women across a very wide spectrum. I interviewed them and as an [organizational] model, I used four different paths the women could follow based on whether they had used searching and exploration to make a decision about who they wanted to be (Pathmakers), whether they had simply adopted their families’ ideas about who they should be (Guardians), whether they were still searching (Searchers), or whether they just weren’t doing anything about it at all and were just kind of drifting along (Drifters). That was the fundamental structure for understanding these different forms of identity formation. Then, my dissertation was published as a monograph and after I became a professor, my students read the monograph and after they read some of the case stories, they asked, “Well, what happened to Betty? What happened to Andrea?” And I didn’t know. This was 12 years later. I had gotten my degree and published my monograph. I [thought I] was done. But I was also curious, as my students were, what really became of them. So I had a wonderful group of students at Towson University and they said, “We’ll help you find them if you’ll interview them again,” and I said, “Okay.”

How did you go about tracking down the women after the initial study?

I had about five students who became kind of detectives. They succeeded in hunting down over 30 of the original subjects. The hardest people to find were people who had very common last names and because women often change their names when they marry, we tried to trace them through their family name in the city where they lived. If it was a very common name like Smith, we just couldn’t find them. But anybody who had a more distinctive name, we picked them out of a phone book because we didn’t have [the] internet then. If they had an unusual name, we were sure to get a relative. People were less suspicious then, so relatives and family were really very generous about giving us their contact information. Sometimes the colleges had alumni lists they appeared on, so that was another resource. We were able to track over 30, and I interviewed them again and at this point, it was so interesting, I thought, “Well, I’m just going to at least get information about how to find them in 10 years.” So I asked them who would know where they would be in 10 years and often they gave me the name and address of a sibling. After interviewing them when they were in their early 30s, I could then find them again when they were in their mid-40s and then at that point, having turned 50, the people were somewhat stable and it wasn’t hard to find them in their mid-50s. Paths to Fulfillment tracks their development through these four ages up to their mid-50s.

Do you plan to track them beyond their 50s?

Yes, I’m in the process of interviewing them now. I don’t think I’m going to write another book. This [one] was very much a challenge to manage all of this complexity, but I think what I might do is maybe talk about this later phase in women’s development and just focus on that phase rather than track them.

How diverse was the group of women you studied? Racially? Economically?

We as Americans, when we think of diversity, we immediately go to race, but I think that there’s other forms of diversity that are equally important. Initially, there were two black women in that first group, but one of them died and the other one I couldn’t find, so we didn’t study different races. But, there are enormous differences in background, class, and also locale, and this [in particular] I think is becoming increasingly important to today’s world. Many of these women who grew up in very, very small communities and some you wouldn’t even call cities, but rather towns, farms, so it’s not a just urban, suburban middle-class family sample. Most of them are the first in their families to go to college. They’re Pathfinders in the sense that they at least had the opportunity to move into a very different world from the one they grew up in. Some chose to return to that world and some chose to do something very different. You can call that differences of class, but I would think of it even more largely as differences of background. You also have differences in terms of family structure. Nobody grew up in a divorced family because of course, at that time, divorce was not that common, but many of them did have parents who died, so there were also huge economic disparities, partly because of having a single mother household. There were economic disparities in other ways, too. There’s a couple of them who grew up as quite privileged. Others not very privileged at all and they put themselves through college.

What was the world like for women when you began the project? What stereotypes existed about them?

Well, it was a time of transition. The transition in women’s roles was really just taking place, so [the women we studied] grew up in a world where the woman’s place was in the home. You could still say with impunity, “How could a woman be president? What would happen if she had her period?” If I called a doctor’s office to make an appointment and introduced myself as “Dr.,” then they would ask me when the doctor wanted to come in because the assumption was I couldn’t be the doctor. Women still couldn’t get credit in their own name if they were married. The overall view of women’s legitimacy as individuals, as responsible selves, was still very limited. We still had the Donna Reed stereotype and almost all of these women except for one grew up in homes where their mother was a homemaker, and that was very difficult. These women were born in the 1950s, so that was what they knew, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that women began thinking about equal rights and equal opportunity. I can still remember teaching in college in 1969 and talking about women having careers and I remember a couple of the young men sort of laughing at me saying, “Well, who’s going to take care of the kids?” This is the world that these women were surrounded by, so I see [these women] as the most important generation because they were the ones who by getting into the work world and fighting their way very often to positions of great responsibility, they are the ones who broke through the barriers and then made it possible for the women coming behind them to follow them.

Did any of your subjects identify as feminists at the time they were first interviewed? How did the Women’s Movement and the emergence of feminist ideology influence the women you studied?

Only a couple of them defined [themselves] as feminists then. But at that time, the discussion of women’s roles was [everywhere], so you almost couldn’t get away from it and they were [all] talking about it, but in small ways. Like one of the women, Marlene, who didn’t think of herself as a feminist, talked about ironing her boyfriend’s shirts and stopping in the middle of it asking, “Why am I ironing his shirt?” Feminists were raising those kinds of questions. There were consciousness-raising groups to think about the role of women. Feminism was discussed in the kind of daily definitions of what it meant to be a woman. It was expressed in the way people dressed. From the hats and gloves to wearing blue jeans and long hair. Was that acceptable? If they had a job, could they wear pants to work? It was not so much that people aligned with larger feminist issues as they were claiming the right to be taken seriously as individuals, as smart people who could work, make choices, and as people who deserve the chance to define their lives without being caged by stereotypical views about what a woman was. So, in that sense, feminism was extremely important to them. Not in that they joined a movement, but rather that the ideas of the movement began seeping into the society and they began asking themselves questions about what they were doing in the day-to-day.

How open were the women to sharing their personal experiences with you?

They were themselves in a period of transition because they were seniors in college, and so the opportunity to talk about themselves in detail with an interested sympathetic listener, they just took to it. They really enjoyed that opportunity to explore themselves, to talk about their earlier lives, how they got to where they were, what they were hoping for in the future, what their struggles were, what still caused them worry and anxiety. These were long and very rich interviews and over the years, especially in the most recent years, women have gone to a lot of trouble to come to banter with me. Just talk about yourself with someone and think about where you were, where you came from, where you are now, and where you’re going, and they’ve been very enthusiastic about doing it.

And many of them are extremely different from me. The diversity is huge among these women. They [lead] very different lives. When we think about women, we tend to think about the women that we know, our friends and so on, but these are not like the women that I know. They’re living very different kinds of lives, and that’s what I find so fascinating.

Was there one woman in particular whose journey fascinated you the most?

It’s hard to say the most. I suppose the story of Millie. There’s an unpredictability about her. There are others who have moved me tremendously by the way they’ve crafted their lives. For example, Betty, who’s a physical therapist, but travels half the year with her family, and then managed to navigate a severely learning disabled and troubled son over the years, and then they built their own house in the woods on this beautiful land, and now they’re going around the world with one of these charitable organizations that helps others build houses. When she was in college, she didn’t have any of that in mind, so it’s been really fascinating to see how she’s put together her own wishes and the necessities of reality as she finds them and hold on to a core of herself even as she adapts to the circumstances that life has brought.

Emily’s journey, in particular, resonated with me. Especially her relationship with her mother and her expectation of perfection. Mothers seem to play an unusually large role in how their daughters define fulfillment, impacting generations to come. For better or for worse, how did the mothers of the women you studied influence their daughters?

Well, I think that the mothers of these college women were deeply ambivalent about the change in these women’s worlds. On the one hand, I think they celebrated their daughters because many of the mothers had unfulfilled ambitions and felt they could’ve done a whole lot more in the world if only the opportunity had been there. But on the other hand, I think that to justify the lives they did lead, they held to the importance of the woman’s role as wife and mother and in a way, they were worried that they’re daughters were not going to fulfill that. There’s this wonderful passage with Maria who had grown up in this very close-knit Italian family. She said she had 13 mothers because she had all these aunts who all lived on the same road. She was director of nursing and she was working full-time when her children were young and she said all the mothers were very skeptical of the idea that she could work and raise these children. At one point, she said she overheard a conversation that her mother was having with a friend who she hadn’t seen for a while and her mother said, “Well, Maria is working and she has these two children, but the children seem to be fine.” And this was so important for her to hear because she never imagined that her mother could acknowledge that her making this different choice would turn out okay for the children. But it was important for her to hear it. It still mattered enormously what her mother thought. Even though she was a very responsible grown-up at that point.

The need for mother’s approval is lifelong and every one of these women certainly struggled with it at different points. The women who had the hardest time [in life] were women who felt their mothers in some way fundamentally disapproved of them from an early age, and that was very hard to get past.

In addition to familial relationships, according to many of the women you studied, domestic partnerships play a central role in their professional success and personal fulfillment.

Almost all the women who have done well, who feel fulfilled, say that. We tend to demonize men and husbands and point out that they do less of the housework, earn more. In a lot of the writing on women, men are the bad guys, but a lot of these women said, “No, my husband is a good guy. He supports me in every way.” There’s really a sense of partnership and they feel the support. Even when things have gone badly at work, [they said,] “He’s the person I can turn to. He’s my best friend and he will reassure me and soothe me.” When there’s a clash between responsibilities to a child and responsibilities at work, often these husbands step up and help. They see it as a shared responsibility.

You don’t need a man to take a step, to have a career, to move ahead. You don’t have to sit around and wait till you find one to get on with your life. But, a good man, if you find one, can be a great asset.

What was the biggest revelation for you in studying these women?

All along, I think the big thing was the centrality of relationship[s] in these women’s lives. And I would generalize that to women’s lives, in general. I think that partly as a result of the change in women’s roles and the wish to assert ourselves and to be taken seriously in the workplace, I think that has led us to downplay [that] the importance [of] the relationships we have with other people are in terms of our sense of ourselves and what’s meaningful and really matters in life.

I tell this story in the book that when I saw Emily again, I met in her very, very impressive judicial office and I started the interview by asking, “What’s been most important for you in the last 10 years?” And without missing a beat, she said, “My husband.” And that kind of blew me away because here I am surrounded by all these trappings of her office and I fully expected that she was going to start telling me about her judgeship. But instead, she tells me what is most meaningful to her is her relationship with her husband, which she values enormously and which is, in some ways, where she lives. Planning things with him — they entertain a lot — and talking with him. They have a very rich and engaged relationship.

I wouldn’t put it so much [in terms of] importance, but the feeling of being related to others is really what’s central. And it even comes into the work world. Women [who] talked about their work tended to talk about the people they work for and with. The teachers talked about the children they worked with and how meaningful that was. Doctors talked about the patients. We’ve gotten away from relational discourse, and that’s what these women keep reminding me is really, really central. And certainly by the time they’re in midlife or late to midlife, mid- to late 50s, what’s most meaningful to them is the sense of them giving to others and having on impact on others’ lives. And it’s hard to say that without it sounding treacly or Mother Teresa–like. It’s hard to find the right words for that, but that’s really what they’re talking about is feeling themselves in a network of interconnection with other people. Having a meaningful place there and feeling that they are contributing in some small, but important way to the lives of others. They don’t talk a lot about making money or rising up in the ladders. That’s not where ambition is. Ambition is about generativity, about impact, about doing something meaningful that will be meaningful to someone else.

Don’t dismiss the importance of relationships. Don’t buy into the always lean in philosophy. That’s something you might want to do, but in the end, satisfaction is going to come from the people you interconnect with in your home and in your occupational world.

Many of the women you studied stressed the importance of friendships, but admitted as that as they grew older, friendships played a smaller role in their lives. How do you account for this contradiction?

Well, this was a surprise to me and I don’t fully understand it. I’d done an earlier book with Terri Apter on women’s friendship, and the women that we interviewed talked a lot about the importance of friends in their lives and how terribly meaningful it was. But they also said that friends are the things that are most likely to fall away when you get overly busy with family and work. Many of these women said, “You know, I really am sorry that I’ve lost touch with friends, but between work and my family, there’s just not time for friendship.” [For those] who didn’t have really close friends, it was something that they regretted. Now, some of the women had intimate friendships with family members [like] sisters and cousins. This was something I didn’t really investigate a lot further, but I think that, especially for the people that live in smaller communities, what we think of as a friend — an unrelated woman — to them is just a cousin or a sister. The more urban women tended to have more friends, but it’s hard to make time because they’re busy. Now, whether they’ll turn back to [friendships] as they get older, now that they’re in their mid-60s and the ones who have children, the children are grown … I was surprised by this, too. It seems to contradict what I found earlier, but I think it’s just the pressures of time rather than will.

Your study spans decades. What can we learn about women’s personal progress and development over time?

Well, I think that we can pay attention to the fact that in different decades, there are different psychological and environment challenges for women. [For example,] I think that the ages between 20s and mid- to late 30s [for women] is a period of finding out what one can do. It’s a period of development of competence and sort of establishing one’s self, and there’s a lot of anxiety around that. Then, I think what happens to women in their mid-40s is there’s this period of stocktaking or revision where they start asking, “Is this the life I want to be living? Is this how I want things to be?” And that’s a period where they are most likely to make changes, either in an occupation or in a partner, to try to rebalance things and to feel that they are living life the way that they really want to and that the are becoming the person they really want to be.

The question I went into with this book with was: “What happens in the next phase when women start to become invisible to the society [in their] mid-40s to mid- to late 50s?” If they’re not becoming CEOs, then we sort of don’t talk about them. We talk about their aging, about them getting plastic surgery to look younger, but what’s really happening inside them? What are the developmental demands? And what I see is that in some ways, this period [is] the best time because there is a feeling of acceptance and fulfillment and lack of press to be other than one is. This is a real feeling of what I call fulfillment. “I’ve worked at all these things in my life, both in terms of occupation and relationships, and now I can enjoy it.” The ones that are happily married have come to an acceptance in their marriages. Their husbands are who they are and they can love them as who they are. If there are dissatisfactions, they’ve learned to live with them, and they find new satisfactions that they didn’t know were there, particularly for those who have raised children and now have the opportunity to be alone with their husbands again. They find new ways of being together that are meaningful. At work, they’re doing what they are doing competently and they are enjoying nurturing the next generation, helping other people develop their careers.

The ones who have done well, who have created an identity [and] lived in it, maybe revised it, restructured it, but who have really found themselves in their lives are now enjoying the fruits of that. And I think that we should celebrate them for that.

Considering your research, what is your advice to women seeking fulfillment?

I think it really starts with the first steps. Taking seriously the quest to find out who you are, what you value, where your inner compass is pointing you, to take your own life seriously and then to follow that. Not rigidly, but flexibly. Still holding on to your own values. And if you do that and find the people along the way who are going to support that — now I’m not talking about husbands, but more generally — building a world that will support that. That is probably, as a best as I understand, the recipe for fulfillment.


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. Blogger and a regular weekend contributor at Hello Giggles. She is the creator and host of Feminist Crush, a podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists.

LARB Contributor

Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and a regular contributor at HelloGiggles. She is the creator and host of Feminist Crush, a podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists.


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