Ivy League mommy wars

My Boston Globe column today deals with those female Ivy League students who, the New York Times tells us, are already planning at the tender age of 20 to someday ditch their careers and become full-time moms.

The flaws in the article and the study on which it was based have been detailed by Slate.com’s Jack Shafer here and here. Meanwhile, a bit of conservative gloating can be found on the blog of the Independent Women’s Forum, the Inkwell, and there are interesting discussions at Crooked Timber and Ann Althouse.

One thing that strikes me is how nasty and personal these debates consistently get, with charges flying back and forth of putting down either working mothers or stay-at-home mothers. To some extent, I suspect that this is inevitable, because of the way the debate is framed. If a mother who stays home to raise her children is performing an important service, the implication is that a mother who works outside the home — especially if she could afford not to — is a selfish failing her children and probably society as well. (And yes, this expectation still falls on mothers, not fathers.) If a two-earner family can do a fine a job of raising children, the implication is that a stay-at-home mom is a slacker with an expensive hobby.

These assumptions are evident in some of the discussions of the Times story. At Crooked Timber, sociologist Kieran Healy’s suggestion that these women are “free-riders” who “plan to take the upside of the revolution in women’s participation in elite education, but … are tacitly aware that they don’t have to expose themselves to any of the risk if they don’t want to” sparked cries of misogyny and disrespect for mothering. Meanwhile, at the IWF’s Inkwell, Charlotte Hays reposts a reader email that I found infuriating. M.K. writes:

“What I found most outrageous [about the New York Times piece] was this quote: ’It really does raise this question for all of us and for the country: when we work so hard to open academics and other opportunities for women, what kind of return do we expect to get for that?’ said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard …

“In response I wrote the following on my blog: ’What is it with these numskulls? [sic] How about a generation of happy, well-adjusted children who know their mothers chose them over a career? For goodness sake, college isn’t just about getting a job, it’s about expanding your horizons. … The disdain these people have for stay-at-home moms is palpable.’ I find it horrifying that they actually think they can dictate what a worthy career choice may be. … And doesn’t her statement also suggest that because Harvard ‘made space’ for women that women really aren’t as good as men? Or are the women who want to be men the only ones that count?

I agree, of course, that it’s up to each woman or man what to do with their Harvard or Yale education, though I don’t see where McGrath Lewis’s comment suggests that women aren’t as good at men. (Harvard and Yale had to “make space” for them because they were once barred from these schools by sexist discrimination, M.K., not because women aren’t good enough.) But while M.K., echoed by Hays, complains of disdain for stay-at-home mothers, her own disdain and intolerance toward working mothers is equally palpable and noxious. Obviously, children whose mothers pursue careers can’t, in her view, be happy or well-adjusted. And then there’s that gem at the end: women who plan to pursue careers are “women who want to be men.” Great. I thought we’d gotten past this kind of mindset some 40 years ago, but obviously not.

I don’t disdain “stay-at-home moms” (though I do wish we could talk like adults and call them “mothers”). I do think, however, that many of the feminist critiques of full-time motherhood and homemaking as an occupation were (gasp!) valid. I don’t think long-term economic dependency on one’s spouse is a good thing, and not just because the marriage could end in divorce. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have no serious pursuits outside the family — a job, study, or a substantial commitment to volunteer work — for an extended period of time, and to have an identity based solely on personal relations with people you love (spouse and children). I believe, along with Freud, that love and work are two basic human needs; and while in many ways child-rearing is certainly “work,” it is still primarily love. I think it’s important to maintain a core of self separate from intimate relationships, to remain engaged in “doing” and not just “being” (many proponents of stay-at-home motherhood say outright that the most important aspect of a mother’s “job” is simply “being there” for the children). And this isn’t necessarily about “fulfilling jobs” in the conventional sense of the word. While researching my book, Ceasefire, I found studies showing that even working-class women in low-paying clerical jobs often found a sense of pride and competence in their work.

(I will add that I don’t understand why a woman who wants to work for a few years and then stay home with her children would go to law school or business school, as some of the women profiled in the Times article apparently plan to do. If expanding your horizon is what you’re after, what’s wrong with a liberal arts degree?)

Mind you, I think that parents who put their careers ahead of their children’s well-being deserve criticism. But as long as this stigma falls almost exclusively on women, many women will continue to bristle at all this family-values talk as a cover for sexism.

Where I part company with the majority of feminists is their failure to recognize the sexism toward men that is also inherent in these debates — sexism on the part of not only the culture, but women themselves. The general assumption is that it’s women who have the options (not just the ability to drop their careers completely, but also the choice to work part-time or to take a few years off). Many women, at least in the affluent segments of society, hold the belief that they are entitled to be supported by a man if they choose to withdraw from the labor force (sometimes not even to raise children). This female sense of entitlement is every bit as sexist, and every bit as unjust, as the traditional male’s belief that he is entitled to be king of the castle because he works hard to provide for the family, or that it’s beneath him to do “women’s work” at home.

For many men, working for their families is a sacrifice. There are men who give up the fulfilling but low-paying work they love so that their wives can stay home or cut down on work. Yet much of the feminist critique of traditional sex roles remains mired in a simplistic view of women as victims and men as oppressors. This was evident, by the way, on the Crooked Timber discussion thread. For instance, mythago, a feminist blogger, writes in the comments section:

[I]t’s interesting that none of these young women consider choosing a man who will share the work of rearing children, or perhaps even a stay-at-home dad. I wonder how much of that is cultural (“Gosh, I never thought of that!”) and how much is some kind of deep belief that if you start demanding fairness and participation by a potential husband, you’ll never find one.

Of course, it couldn’t possibly be because many of these young women see family as their turf, or limited workforce participation as their entitlement. Never mind the Times story; consider the 2001 book Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World, by bona fide feminist Peggy Orenstein. From my review in Reason:

“Men may have to do more, but women also have to let them,” writes Orenstein, who interviewed over 200 women while writing Flux. Most women, she concludes, hold on to maternal control, both out of fear of being labeled a bad mother and out of reluctance to relinquish power. Even career-oriented young women who talk the good talk about shared parenting often quickly reveal that they don’t expect and don’t really want men to be equal partners in child rearing.

“I say I’m pissed off that the men aren’t thinking about [balancing work and family], but the truth is, I don’t imagine my husband…thinking about working part-time,” admits a medical student. “I think of it as being my choice.”

These semi-traditional expectations shape women’s decisions long before they start shopping for maternity clothes. Many choose careers with lower pay (and often less prestige) but more flexibility. They also seek mates who are “husband material” in the most unreconstructed sense. One young woman interviewed by Orenstein rejects her devoted boyfriend in part, she sheepishly admits, because of his “limited earning potential” as an art director. Abbey, a sales rep for a comic book publisher, is strongly attached to her identity as a professional woman, yet deep down she wants the option of not working when she has kids — an option she is nearly certain she won’t exercise.

I have my disagreements with Orenstein, but she’s a feminist who “gets it,” and voices like hers are largely absent from the discussion today. Instead, we have feminists like mythago, who has this observation to make on the fact that upper-middle-class men now generally seek to marry women with elite degrees: “There’s far more status to having shut down a wife who had other options.” Is that really the feminist view of marriage in 2005? Men marry women in the hope of “shutting them down”?

By the way, I don’t think the Times article and the study it featured is that much of a cause for feminist alarm. The flaws in the study aside, what did it really find? Some 30% of women said they planned to work part-time while their children were young, and another 30% said they were going to stop working for a period of time. (That means the single largest group, 40% , were women who planned to continue working full-time after having children.) Most of them said that a quality education was important because it would enable them to maintain part-time employment or to return to the workforce after taking time off. That doesn’t sound to me like a bunch of women who are flocking back to domesticity. I believe that modern motherhood is more complicated than either conservatives or feminists think.

That said — there are real issues and real conflicts here. I will quote, once again, from my 2001 review of Peggy Orenstein’s book:

Orenstein makes a strong case that the crazy quilt of old and new norms often leaves women painfully conflicted and guilt-ridden, and contributes to marital tensions. While she wants businesses to make it easier for both sexes to lead balanced lives, she stresses that “there are decisions we [women] can make more consciously … consequences we can understand more fully as we assemble the pieces of our professional and personal dreams.”

Amen to that.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Ivy League mommy wars

  1. passengerone

    I know this will make me sound like I’m taking sides, and it could sound bad in general, but it struck me upon entering law school that I would occasionally hear disparaging remarks from some of the more career-driven women about a group of women they described as being in law school to receive their “MRS” more than their JD.

    From an economically rational perspective, if a young woman were looking for a situation where they could take care of their kids and live comfortably with a single income, law schools and business schools would be good places to do it (medical schools would be a commitment above and beyond the call).

  2. Cathy Young

    From an economically rational perspective, if a young woman were looking for a situation where they could take care of their kids and live comfortably with a single income, law schools and business schools would be good places to do it (medical schools would be a commitment above and beyond the call).

    Do you mean as a place to meet potentially high-income mates, passengerone?

  3. Unbridled Greed

    Great post. This is so true: “For many men, working for their families is a sacrifice. There are men who give up the fulfilling but low-paying work they love so that their wives can stay home or cut down on work.”

    I think the debate also points up the kinds of weird resentments that government efforts to “correct” discrimination can lead to. E.g., “Why should women get all the attention from college recruitment and financial aid offices if a lot of them aren’t even planning to ‘work’ as hard as men in their fields?”

  4. Dean Esmay

    I think passengerone has a point–if your goal is to be a full-time homemaker, a rational choice in a mate will be someone who can bring home a comfortable income.

  5. Cathy Young

    unbridled greed (by the way, cute handle! *G*) — interesting point. Though I think that special breaks for women students are unfair regardless of what those women are planning to do with their education. Also, it’s important to remember that these women’s lives at 35 may turn out very differently from their plans at 20.

    dean and passengerone: I see your point, but somehow women in the pre-feminist past managed to meet lawyers and doctors without going to law or med school. I guess even for women on the “mommy track,” expectations has shifted to the point where these days, the way to get a lawyer husband is to be become a lawyer yourself, not a legal secretary or a paralegal as in the “old days.”

    One problem I see is that such a pattern, if widespread enough, will in fact cause women employees to be taken less seriously.

  6. Anonymous

    I am loathe to bring race (because it always seem to be a turnoff for most white folks) into this, but black women have always worked. So I guess I am having a hard time
    understanding the origin of this angst. Or is it simply an Ivy League thing?

    Without making any value judgements, can the case be made that some of these issues are more self-fulfilling and self-inflicted than not.

  7. Anonymous

    Many more seek admissions to medical school than there are places for them. Ought not admissions committees look less favorably on those who might be expected to give less time and effort to practicing medicine after graduation, no matter how well they might be expected to do while in medical school and residency? What is the societal interest here?

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