How We Create A Career: Dr. Abigail Stewart

As a graduate student at Harvard in the 1970s, Dr. Abigail Stewart found an untouched box of data on the personalities of Radcliffe graduates from the class of 1964. The data had been collected accidentally – the original aim was to study the lives of men only – so the women had been all but forgotten. Dr. Stewart contacted them and launched a longitudinal study of women’s lives that has now spanned over 30 years. Collaborating with Dr. Sandra Tangri at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Ravenna Helson at U.C. Berkeley, Dr. Stewart has published over 100 papers examining the relationship between personality, social roles, and well-being for women across the life course.

She took time out from her research last summer to speak with me about the evolution of her own work, and to share some of her most important findings. For insight on juggling career and motherhood, the lives of creative women in their 20s and 30s, and aging gracefully, read on…!


So first I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about this longitudinal dataset that you’ve been publishing papers from over the years. How did the study begin, and what were the original aims of the study?

The study was initiated by Sandra Tangri when she was a doctoral student. At that time it was designed to look at how women who pursued careers that were non-traditional for women at that time – this was in the late 60s-conceptualized their career paths, their likely marriage and family outcomes, their goals for the future… And then how their personalities related to their actual career path.


She and I and Ravenna Helson collaborated because the three of us each had longitudinal studies of women who had graduated from college in the late 50s or early 60s. My sample had graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964 and in fact along with one of my doctoral students, I pursued a new initiative with the Smith graduates of 1964 to compare the two. Ravenna had Mills College graduates, and Sandy had this University of Michigan sample. So the three of us collaborated on an effort to kind of bring these three separate longitudinal studies, all of college educated women in roughly the same period, into some kind of conversation.

What was the inspiration behind that study that you initiated?

I was in graduate school at Harvard and interested in studying women’s lives. My advisor told me that there were personality test data from when they [the sample] were freshmen that no one had ever looked at. And that turned out to indeed be true. There was a box of their tests in the basement of a building at Harvard that we went and found. So I contacted those women and invited them to participate in a follow up.

At the time psychology was strongly committed to the view that women’s lives were –and this language was prevalent in the field-contingent. They depended on men, or children, they sort of weren’t independent actors. And I was skeptical that this could possibly be entirely the case. And so my question was: Did women’s personalities at age 18 play any role in predicting what they were doing at 31? Like Sandy Tangri, and Ravenna Helson before us, I couldn’t really let go of the question of, what’s going to happen next? And you know, lo and behold, at the end of 30 years you’ve got this massive data for over 30 years of all the changes that have affected women and all the personal life changes that have affected these individual women.


What was that study originally about?

Well there was a thing called the Harvard Students Study. And the best we could figure out – my advisor and I – was that nobody ever meant to actually give this test to the women. So you know it was a 4-year longitudinal study of men at Harvard. There was a book that came out of it called Five Lives at Harvard, and so my advisor’s best guess was that nobody really meant to have the women tested, but they were. And he thought, you know, the data were there and someone should use it. So I was really just lucky that he remembered. He had this dim recollection that he thought this had happened. They’d just been sitting in a box for 14 years.

Since the 31-year-old follow-up, how many follow-ups have you done, and what were some of the questions that you’ve asked?

The questions changed as their ages changed. Early on, I was particularly interested in the relationship between the way women were sequencing and structuring role choices and the implications of that for their well-being, and for their next stage of life. So I tended to look to add issues around if people went to graduate school and started careers and only after that had kids, what consequences did that have, compared with women who got married, had kids, and maybe 10 years later went to graduate school or got a job. And you know the lives are complicated and messy. It’s not so easy to create tidy little groups. But, there were, in this generation, some pretty clear patterns of sequencing.

[There were] those two that I just mentioned. There were also a small number in Radcliffe of women who never pursued post college education or jobs. But that was a minority. And then there was a small group that pursued a career but really never pursued a family. And then there was a group of women who kind of combined them all the time. And there were important differences in how stressful different stages of life were in health outcomes. Not serious health outcomes but just kind of low level health issues.

Later, as they got older, I was interested in how they thought about aging and the relationship between how they thought about it and felt about it and how they were doing in a broader sense in terms of mental health. And then I got very interested in the issue of regret. How people come to terms with their regrets, how people change in the way they conceptualize their regrets. So that’s been my primary preoccupation. But throughout, I’ve had graduate students who were also interested in issues, who pursued other things. I’ve tried to keep the data set rich to address questions that are not my questions, as has Ravenna and as did Sandy. All three of us tried not to foreclose what you could learn from the data.

Thinking both about your data set and the Tangri data set, what do you think are some of the most important findings?

We were both drawn to the fact that even in this homogenous demographic (college educated, mostly white, mostly middle class women), women were creating very different lives. Women’s lives were not so circumscribed and contingent as people were saying they were. And women were figuring out what kind of lives they wanted to have and how to have them as they – they were making it up as they went along. They were making it up to suit them. And I think the integration of their own wishes and personalities with their roles and opportunities – finding that integration – was the project of their life.


Did any of the findings surprise you?

Early on I was very interested in the group of women who were combining career and family changes along the way. They were having kids and going to graduate school, and everything was sort of wrapped up at the same time. The word on the street at the time, the media representation, was that this kind of juggling was extremely stressful, intolerable, bad for women. Probably they would end up having heart attacks just like men. And certainly women reported that they found it difficult. But that group of women in the early 30s, although they reported that they were making lots of life changes and having lots of stuff going on that was hard to handle, their mental health was actually better than either women who were at home full time or women who were working full time and had no family. So that was a surprise at the time. What was called at the time “role combination” was actually better for women’s mental health than sequencing. That was news. And I’m not sure the news has still really gotten out.

How has working on the study shaped the decisions you’re making in your own life? Do you reflect upon the findings?

Yes. I certainly did. All my life. These women are about 6 years older than I am, so it would be really stupid if I didn’t look to them as models or examples of the things that lie ahead. I think because of what we saw with them in the data with role combination, I pretty early on started understanding there was a difference between being tired, and your life being bad. Feeling tired or feeling stressed has been found in lots of studies but it doesn’t relate to low well-being. In fact, people who are very busy often have higher well-being than others. So that’s something I’ve had in my head. Pretty often in my life I’ve thought, “yeah I’m tired, but tired doesn’t kill you.”

What about your work on regret? Has that helped you to avoid some of the pitfalls that other women experienced?

Well it certainly helped me think about it. One of the things that I noticed when I interviewed the women when they were turning 50, was how many of them talked about the big regrets that had come up in the questionnaires before, but talked about them with a kind of detachment, as though, “yeah, that was a bad marriage, I wish I hadn’t gotten into it. But I got some value out of it and now I’ve moved on.” There was a kind of acceptance and a recognition of the cost, but that at the same time, all of life experience comes with cost, and that’s ok. You don’t have to look back and think everything was perfect. It was beginning when they were 50, but it’s very strong now. It’s so clear that not focusing on regret is a healthy thing as people age and come into terms with the lives they have led. Seeing the value in the experiences they have had, is a really important part of aging happily. And sure I think about that.

So it’s not just about avoiding mistakes that they made, but learning from them how to accept or make meaning of whatever mistake you made?

Exactly. And you know, the mistakes were made. They’re just, they’re there. There’s nothing they can do about them and that’s ok. And part of the reason I got so interested in this is when they were in their late 30s, we looked at their regrets, because it’s a very common finding that women have more regrets than men at that age. And they tend to have many more education and career regrets. So I wanted to look at, you know, what were they doing with their regrets. And around age 40, what they were doing was changing their lives. So they were dumping the husband who didn’t want them to have a career, they were going back to graduate school, they were doing things to change their life. And the women who had regrets and did those things were much more mentally healthy than women who had regrets and did nothing about them.

So what I was intrigued by was this change in the course of aging from instrumental activity being the best way to deal with regret to this much more internal, cognitive process of coming to terms with regrets. Not ignoring them or denying them, but sort of thinking about the ways in which those regrets reflect who you are, or who you were, made sense at the time, and now they don’t control you. So that just seemed very powerful and it’s so clear in the data that the women who have done that work, are just enjoying aging in a different way than the women who haven’t quite got there.

Per Gjerde wrote a paper with Kim Cardilla in 2009 with some of the data from the Block and Block Longitudinal data set. And it was looking at preschool girls who were really high on openness and how in their 20s then they became really neurotic and depressed and rigid and brittle. It’s kind of a depressing study, but it’s fascinating. And I think I read – maybe it was a paper that you wrote or Ravenna Helson –that creative women experience a resurgence of vitality in their 40s. So it seems like for these really creative, open women, there’s this dip in the 20s and 30s. I’m just wondering if you had any thoughts for what’s going on.


I love where your head went, because it’s exactly where my head went when you described Per’s finding, which is life is not over in the 20s and 30s. My sample, like most, were at their most stressed in their 20s.

You know now people are talking about this period called emerging adulthood that we seem to have manufactured in this culture. And that period I think is indeed very stressful for people who have a sense of mission about something. Whether it’s creativity, or social change… It’s a difficult period, because you’re not yet doing the work you feel like you were put on this earth to do. You’re maybe getting there, getting ready to do it, but you feel like you’re in limbo, you’re not yet doing it. So it’s frustrating.

There’s all this role demand to have a family and establish a career, and get going. So you’re tired. You’re frustrated and tired.

So I think you’re completely right. And it’s Ravenna who wrote the paper you’re thinking of. She definitely was the first to notice that the 40s and 50s seem to be a period of real positive adult growth for women. And that was absolutely true for my sample. There’s no question the 40s and 50s are a time of real empowerment and excitement about the contributions women feel like they are making and that they’ve come into their own. They feel much less constrained by gender, much less constrained, period. They feel like they can do what they want to do. And so yeah, I absolutely see it and what we don’t know is, is this a developmental process that would be true for young women today, or is it related to the very odd social change circumstances of these women’s life courses? I don’t think we know yet.

Which questions remain in your data?

Well you know there’s this kind of banal issue of: How will these women’s lives end? I guess some of the ways that that’s less banal that I’ve tried to care most about is how do these women experience the end stages of their life? They’re not that old in today’s world, and yet, there are deaths already. Especially for Radcliffe, where I feel like I know everybody, each death is a personal loss for me.

At the same time, I’m curious what the significance is of this life course that they have pursued. And what will the meaning of their collective lives be for the culture? Will younger women be able to learn from what we’ve learned about these women’s lives? Will it be easier? Less difficult, because they contributed? That was what they wanted.


Thank you for speaking with me, Dr. Stewart! Your work is inspiring and full of wisdom. I have no doubt that the contributions of these women’s lives–and your analysis of them–will positively influence women for generations to come.

Hear about more interviews with women who are forging their own paths, career and otherwise: Follow me on twitter @shespoised.


4 replies »

  1. I love the idea of the study participants being a few years ahead of the researcher, and the way she talks about them serving as models for her own trajectory (in addition to the broader findings).

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