again, the New York Times stirs the pot of controversy
over what women want
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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?
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."
"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."
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.
Editor, The Mothers Movement Online