Tuesday, September 20, 2005

In which I judge other women's choices

Others in the blogosphere have already taken aim at today's appalling article in the NY Times on Ivy Leaguers happily embracing the mommy track. I read the piece with increasing irritation, and not just because this is one more in a series of stories on the propensity of young women today to drop out of the working world. I met these types at HLS: the young female lawyers with lucrative offers from firms who planned to pay off their loans, accumulate a little cash, and then drop out of the job market to be full time parents. The only thing more disgusting than the complacent ones who knew their similarly employed professional husbands would continue to pull 100 hour weeks to keep them and the kids in the upper middle class style to which they had become accustomed were the ones who asserted that they didn't care if their husbands would prefer to stay home or if their quitting would cripple the family budget, they were going to embrace their Ozzie & Harriet dream come hell or high water.

Feminism is about choices, yes. Feminism is also about equality and not all choices are unassailable. Smugly declaring that you plan to unthinkingly embrace retrograde gender stereotypes (and even that you're aware playing them up attracts men) is not a choice I'm going to support as a feminist. All the young women in this article got theirs, and they are perfectly content to reap the benefits of earlier feminists' efforts by attending Ivy League schools and getting professional training, but they also want to be "sexy" kept housewives. Refusing to see that their husbands will also face a work/family conflict, they flee into the comforting arms of stereotype. That only four women in the sample saw a stay at home husband as an option suggests that these women have only the sketchiest understanding of the true meaning of choice under feminism. The choice is not between being a full time mother with no job or a full time professional with kids in day care or with a nanny. It's between those things and a third way: sharing parenting responsibilities with the your husband. (There is also the choice to remain childless, but let's assume that all of these women have given slightly more thought to whether they want kids than how they plan to allocate the burden of caring for them.) But apparently an equal division of labor doesn't occur to them:
"What does concern me," said Peter Salovey, the dean of Yale College, "is that so few students seem to be able to think outside the box; so few students seem to be able to imagine a life for themselves that isn't constructed along traditional gender roles."
This failure to think critically about the options the dominant paradigm offers puts the women themselves in a box:
Shannon Flynn, an 18-year-old from Guilford, Conn., who is a freshman at Harvard, says many of her girlfriends do not want to work full time.

"Most probably do feel like me, maybe even tending toward wanting to not work at all," said Ms. Flynn, who plans to work part time after having children, though she is torn because she has worked so hard in school.

"Men really aren't put in that position," she said.

Men aren't put in that position because you and your fellow Ivy Leaguers aren't willing or are too oblivious to put them there! And they are similarly oblivious to the potential hazards of their choices:

Angie Ku, another of Ms. Liu's roommates who had a stay-at-home mom, talks nonchalantly about attending law or business school, having perhaps a 10-year career and then staying home with her children.
10 years. Assuming graduation from law school at 25, that makes her 35 when she quits. Even if she stays home only ten years and not the full 20-25 it might take to see the kids through school and out of the house, that makes her 45, with no work experience for a decade, when she reenters the job market. Hope Ms. Ku's husband doesn't decide to leave her, and that her skills remain in demand (although apparently even a 6 month break could be fatal if she wanted to come back to BIGLAW). Hope she marries well enough that her family doesn't need a second income for a decade or more. And even if everything works out for Ms. Ku and her fellow dilletantes, the rest of us will be contending with a working world with fewer women in it, fewer examples of gender equality in parenting, and less pressure to effect change.

I don't expect these Ivy League girls to sacrifice themselves for the cause, but you'd think with all that education they would be self aware enough to be able to analyze their own preferences and assess the extent to which they are determined by gender stereotypes. After all, isn't navel gazing what college students do best?
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