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oh no, not again

Opt-out revolution redux:

Once again, the New York Times stirs the pot of controversy over what women want

Feminism failed. At least that's the implication of a recent front page news story in the New York Times ("Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," Louise Story, 20.sept.05). The article quickly generated a spate of intelligent commentary, including a shrewd summation by Ms. Musings' Christine Cupaiuolo and a bristling editorial deconstruction by Jack Shafer of Slate.

The gist of the story, which was based on an informal survey of young women attending Ivy League universities, is that the next cohort of women who ought to inherit the world intend to set aside their exclusive careers -- for a few years and in some cases, permanently -- when they become mothers.

At Yale and other top colleges, women are being groomed to take their place in an ever more diverse professional elite. It is almost taken for granted that, just as they make up half the students at these institutions, they will move into leadership roles on an equal basis with their male classmates.

There is just one problem with this scenario: many of these women say that is not what they want.

Many women at the nation's most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children. Though some of these students are not planning to have children and some hope to have a family and work full time, many others… say they will happily play a traditional female role, with motherhood their main commitment.

Various experts interviewed for the article duly point out that society hasn't caught up with women's changing aspirations and comment that perhaps the young women in question are merely being "realistic," although there is no further discussion about how the organization of work -- particularly in the elite fields that prepare the nation's best and brightest for positions of leadership -- might contribute to perceptions that women can't have it all -- not all at once, and maybe not ever.

Letters in response to Story's article took the Times to task for failing to address the real issues at hand, one of which, of course, is the impossibility -- for both men and women -- of having an involved family life while devoting 60 to 80 hours a week to climbing the career ladder. Some upbraided young women for their apathy toward challenging the status quo; others defended at-home mothering as time well spent, even for women with fancy degrees from Harvard and Yale. No one happened to mention that the rising young stars who do plan to mix motherhood with full-time jobs are likely to see their lofty career ambitions slam into the maternal wall with a sickening thud.

Like Lisa Belkin's observations in "The Opt Out Revolution" (New York Times, 26.oct.03), Story relies on interviews with a self-selected sample of elite women -- not a methodology that's useful for detecting actual social trends. As I noted in my original response to Belkin's piece, census data on maternal employment indicates mothers with four or more years of college are more likely than those with less education to remain in the paid workforce, and are more likely to work full-time. But rather than revisiting the argument that these reports are skewed and the topic isn't newsworthy -- or at least not newsworthy enough to rate prominent placement the New York Times -- I'd like to propose that those of us in the feminist camp view these articles as an additional incentive to step up the discussion on motherhood, careers and the future of women's leadership.

Frankly, I'm thrilled to see the culture at large absorbing (ever so slowly) the message that caregiving -- whether paid or unpaid -- is socially important work, and I'd hate to see at-home motherhood vilified as a waste of smart women's time and energy. Yes, some aspects of hands-on caregiving are menial and mind-numbingly repetitive, and always will be. But our more pressing problem is that mothers' ability to spend generous amounts of time with their children -- or otherwise ensure they receive quality care -- is determined almost entirely by social and economic factors. Yet no matter how weak and anecdotal the evidence, I also find it troubling that promising young women are mapping out their futures based on received wisdom: fatherhood, they've been led to believe, is compatible with pursuing a brilliant career, but motherhood isn't. ("My mother always told me you can't be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time," one Yale sophomore told the Times).

In a national survey of mothers' attitudes about motherhood and society, 72 percent agreed that "having more mothers in positions of power in American society would make life better for mothers and children." And sorry to say, we really haven't made much progress in moving women -- especially women who are mothers -- into positions of power. Despite women's substantial gains in educational achievement over the last 25 years, very few have managed to ride the pipeline to the top. As it happens, I don't believe women (or men) need a degree from a prestigious school to be effective and influential leaders. But an Ivy League education confers status, and -- particularly in a day and age when the potential for upward mobility has bottomed out for nine-tenths of the U.S. population -- status and connections make a difference, especially when it comes to gaining entry to the corridors of power. (Although given the deplorable performance of the Bush administration, the fact that status and privilege are unreliable markers of leadership ability should now be painfully obvious to millions of Americans.)

If we want to see qualified mothers filling more leadership positions, we either have to make sure they're represented in the upper echelons of high-powered professions in the same or greater numbers than men, or we have to figure out a way to change the dominant culture so that individuals with exceptional skills and talent can compete successfully with those of higher status for positions of authority. Given women's lingering status as the secondary sex in our society -- a bitter truth that's glaringly apparent when motherhood enters the equation -- it's fair to say that simply pressuring women to excel in public life won't do the trick.

Even so, it occurs to me that mothers may not be doing themselves any favors by repeating the feel-good mantra, You can have it all, but not at once. Maybe we should be channeling the energy whipped up by all that enthusiasm and self-acceptance into imagining what "having it all" would look like in a more fair and just society. Or maybe we could switch to a new refrain: "Men can have it all, just not all at once." Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Story's report is that of the 138 undergraduate women who repsonded to her questions about their future plans, only two saw their ideal husbands in a primary caregiving role. Apparently, the 85 students who expect to scale back or interrupt their careers when they become mothers assume the men they one day marry will conform to the ideal worker mold without complaint. And why not? For young men in high-performance professions, having a wife at home full-time assures that when push comes to shove, they are free to put their careers first -- and reap the attendant rewards.

This latest New York Times piece on unbalancing work and motherhood also raises interesting questions about the relationship between the rise of the hyperparenting phenomenon and the reproduction of privilege. A single-minded determination to claw one's way to the top may be tolerated in childless women, but in mothers that kind of thing is still viewed as an aberration -- and a blight on their children's future. A University of Pennsylvania freshman quoted by the Times remarked, "I've seen the difference between kids who did have their mothers stay at home and kids who didn't, and it's kind of an obvious difference when you look at it." Oh, really? Large-scale studies suggest the anti-social behavior of some young children who spend more than 30 hours a week in day care falls well within the normal range of development and generally disappears around the time they enter grade school. So what's going on here?

Even taking the Reagan-era-and-beyond backlash into account, it's profoundly unnerving to see how willing some of these young innocents are to toe the conservative line on gender and family. In the weird metamorphosis of politics and culture over the last thirty years, women were urged to drop the question of whether the smidgen of social power granted to mothers as the nation's nurturers is really all it's cracked up to be. In its place, we've been invited to behold the best practices of mothering as a means of modernizing corporate culture and contributing to the greater social good. Is it any wonder that a certain cross section of young women perceive motherhood as entirely compatible with their desire to excel? And isn't that what we really want?

Well, no, not exactly. I suppose what we really want is for every generation of women to strive for what is not yet possible, because that seems like the only way we will inch our way forward. It may be true that younger women envision themselves as part of the permanent settlement of the feminist frontier rather than the next wave of pioneers -- and for those of us who'd like to things to move along more briskly, it rankles. But I also believe we should examine the assumption that this fresh crop of academically gifted wondergirls holds wildly different expectations about combining professional achievement and family life compared to college women ten or twenty years ago. "What seems new," Story writes, "is that while many of their mothers expected to have hard-charging careers, then scaled back their professional plans only after having children, the women of this generation expect their careers to take second place to child rearing."

Apparently, "what seems new" is not very new at all. In a 2004 article in the journal Sex Roles, Michelle Hoffnung reviews current research on college women's attitudes about careers, marriage and motherhood ("Wanting it all: career, marriage and motherhood during college-educated women's 20s," May 2004). A study based on a 1985 sample found 55 percent of college women were planning for careers in male-dominated fields such as law, business and medicine, but "once they did have a child, the women expected to place family demands ahead of career demands; they anticipated long maternity leaves and subsequent part-time employment." And in the early 1990s, researchers reported that the college women they interviewed "planned to have both career and family, yet they expected family to be more important. The women were not prepared to commit to long-term full time careers but rather expected to take lengthy breaks to raise children. More than half (56%) planned to interrupt their careers until their youngest children were in school."

There is a great deal more that might be said about this debate: about why women might feel compelled to offer a culturally desirable response when queried about work and motherhood; about what happens when affluence and social privilege intersect with marriage and motherhood; about the economic and cultural disincentives for men and women who wish to transcend traditional family roles; and about our inability to produce a popular narrative to counter conventional thinking about gender. But rather than dismissing warnings about the impending "opt out" revolution as little more than feminism-unfriendly media spin, we should seriously consider reopening the dialog about what it's going to take to bring women into equal power in America.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
Editor, The Mothers Movement Online
September 2005

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