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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

What Women Want

The New York Times reports today that the Bush Administration is looking to replace Sandra Day O'Connor with a woman.  I'm usually all for getting women into positions of power.  I don't think mirror representation is the ticket to our collective freedom and equality, but I can certainly see the value in replacing SOC with a woman.

Then I read the other major story in the paper today about what women want.  Apparently, the next generation of women attending elite educational institutions are very open to assuming their "traditional gender roles" by leaving the workforce and becoming full-time mothers.  To be sure, it was difficult to tell from the article whether a majority of those interviewed were planning on leaving the workforce altogether or were merely planning a hiatus for child-rearing; but only two respondents of 138 would expect their husbands to stay at home while they pursued their careers. 

Two potentially provocative lessons: (1) I would argue that women are still not making their "choice" to pursue "traditional gender roles" against the background of a full panoply of options, since only a few respondents seem to appreciate that men can make sacrifices for family too.  (2)  It is hard to keep fighting for women's rights in higher education and the workplace if a large percentage of our women with the widest range of opportunities are bowing out of public life. 

I suppose it is perfectly consistent to say that women should be able to do whatever they want professionally and personally--and our role as a society is not to denigrate any choice they make and make the paths to professional fulfillment open to anyone who wants to take advantage of them.  But isn't it clear that we aren't providing real alternative models to daddy the breadwinner and mommy the mommy just yet?  More, must we affirmatively and symbolically go out of our way to put women into positions of power when the majority of our most educated women are opting to stay at home? 

These are hard questions; different days inspire different answers to these questions in me.  But this morning when I read these stories side-by-side I remained bewildered trying to figure out what women want....

Posted by Ethan Leib on September 20, 2005 at 03:36 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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I can't tell Ethan Leib what women want. Let's skip the question of O'Connor's replacement. What I want is for men to have the real opportunity to be child rearers in our society. This means that if I had the... [Read More]

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Comments

I was quite troubled by the NYTimes article profiling the young women who anticipate "bowing out" of the workplace to raise their children. It's not that I begrudge them the choice, but I wonder about whether they are truly representative of most young women between 18-21. I, for one, would have been interested to see whether these findings were consistent across young women of different racial backgrounds. I suspect that quite a lot of young black women do not anticipate having the choice to stay at home to raise their families. The disparity in income between white men and men of color, coupled with an historical legacy of woman working outside of the home, may make stay at home motherhood a fairly unlikely choice for minorities.

Posted by: anon | Sep 20, 2005 5:01:30 PM

There was a nice rebuttal to the NYT piece in the salon.com "war room" section earlier today (9/20).

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Sep 20, 2005 6:39:04 PM

An alternative hypothesis is that most men would be equally happy to quit their jobs and stay home if (a) someone else would work full-time to pay their bills, and (b) if this behavior was socially acceptable.

I don't know why everyone is so surprised to learn that when people can afford not to work, and when the society doesn’t treat them as losers when they choose not to work -- they choose not to work... Why is this a blow to feminism? Escapes me.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 20, 2005 8:36:08 PM

It's not a blow to feminism for women to choose not to work. It *is* a blow to feminism that most high-prestige, high-income jobs remain virtually impossible to combine with having children and bringing them up yourself-- and it a blow to feminism that most men continue to regard it as inconceivable that they might take time off to be the kids. Of course many women, if forced to choose between "career" and "family" choose family: for a lot of women corporate lawyers, it's a zero sum game.

Bottom line: work sucks, men suck! Huh. Sounds like we kind of need a feminist movement.

Posted by: Red | Sep 20, 2005 10:32:14 PM

Top-of-the-line child care is sufficiently expensive that, if one parent is making $200k+, it doesn't make sense to have a double-income family both working full time unless the second parent is also making well into the six digits. At which point it really is a black-and-white dilemma: one parent stays at home or both parents face work/family-conflicts. I know a woman billing ridiculous hours, unhappy with that circumstance, but it's either that or stay at home, because progressive income taxes on a second income and the nanny would swallow up so much of a government/academic/in-house salary that she'd effectively be taking home a few bucks an hour. (Maybe we'll see feminists support a flat tax to solve this problem?)

At which point Kate's observations come into play; if one parent is going to stay home, stay-at-home fathers face a reduction in status that stay-at-home mothers don't. (Too, don't underestimate the ability of wives to play the "traditional gender role" card to achieve their preferred result in any dispute over who stays home.)

Some evidence of the effect of social pressures comes from observations of the Hasidic Jewish community, where many men do stay at home. Why? Because it's socially acceptable, if a man marries into a wealthy enough family, to stay at home and study Talmud instead of going out and working, and, here, "wealthy enough" is not that much above poverty level.

Posted by: Ted | Sep 20, 2005 11:30:04 PM

But don't you see that feminism should be making stay-at-home fatherhood "socially acceptable"? To the extent that it has failed to do that, it has failed.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Sep 20, 2005 11:36:03 PM

"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?"

Academics and other opportunities should be open to women as a matter of equality regardless of whether some decide to be stay at home moms at some point for some amount of time. The feminist movement gave us options. We can be educated, have careers, or choose to stay at home with our kids. Or, we can do all of those things at different points in our life.

Sure, it surprises me when my well educated professional friends decide to give up their careers to stay at home with their children. But, I find it vaguely insulting to think it a waste of academic resources to have children raised by well educated women who temporarily (or permanently) opt out of the workforce.

There are essentially three options – mom stays home, dad stays home, or there is a nanny involved (unless you like your family enough and they are willing/ able to help out). Why is it not viewed as insulting that I would pay a nanny to raise my child rather than opt out of public life to do it myself for a while?

Posted by: Sarah | Sep 20, 2005 11:47:01 PM

The real puzzle is not why *women* who can afford to quit work are doing so; the puzzle is why *men* who can afford to quit work aren’t doing so – at lest, not quite as often.

A much more interesting puzzle is why many adult able-bodied women can force/persuade someone else (husbands) into working full-time to pay for their lifestyles, but most adult able-bodied men can’t force/persuade their women to work full-time to pay for guys’ lifestyles.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 21, 2005 1:18:22 PM

You can read another perspective on this article at DotMoms, a group weblog for mothers.

Posted by: Julie | Sep 21, 2005 2:19:16 PM

Ethan, "feminism" has failed? How about... "men have failed" or "the workplace has failed"?

And, Ted, as a female law professor who works full time, has two small children, and pays for both a full-time nanny and nursery school, it's not *that* expensive. For those of us fortunate enough to have good salaries, the problem is time, not money. We academics are lucky: we get to have it both ways, since we have both money and flexibility in terms of hours. But though my husband and i are both legal academics and pay our nanny top dollar, plus taxes, bonuses, health insurance, plus school tuition at private nursery school, we're still doing just fine and can throw away the rest of our money on vacations, clothes, and useless junk. The money tradeoff is a problem for women earning well under six figures, not for those who earn well over, as most legal academics and corporate lawyers do.

Posted by: red | Sep 21, 2005 4:11:24 PM

So, it's a question of persuading one partner to support the other's "lifestyle"? Sheesh, I hope not.

My wife and I are considering this "lifestyle" question right now, and there is not an easy answer. Frankly, I'm kind of shocked in the attitude that seems to be present in some of the comments that choosing to stay home and raise children is choosing "not to work." I don't have children--yet--but if any of our close friends who do are representative of raising children, it sure does seem to be a lot of "work" to me.

I would be delighted to stay home and raise my children; to be able to be close to them in a way that both my father and mother (both of whom worked as professionals) were not able to be with me and my siblings. But there is the ideal of acceptance of the "stay at home dad" and the reality.

The reality is that it would be hard for either myself or my wife to re-enter the workforce after a few years working at home. But in all honesty, employers right now *are* more apt to accept a woman returning to the workplace after taking time to raise children. That's just a reality--and so it's a factor we, and many young couples, have to consider when making these choices.

Another is the misguided perception that taking a few years to work at home doing child care is somehow riding the gravy train of the other partner's hard work or somehow forcing or persuading the other partner into a choice they don't want. Pardon me, that's bullshit. If I wanted to work in a job while my wife wanted to work at home taking care of the children, that means she "forced" me? Or "persuaded" me to do something? What if the roles were reversed? Then I suppose I'm a smooth talking con artist who duped my attorney wife into supporting my butt? Puh-lease.

I would hope that in this day and age, marriages are partnerships. But then again, I would have hoped this was a moot discussion by now.

Posted by: Dave! | Sep 21, 2005 6:03:12 PM

I work from home on very interesting and sometimes cutting-edge cases and get dirty looks from people: "What, you couldn't find a real job?" As if doing document review under fluorescent lights in an office is superior to writing appellate briefs from home! I can't imagine the scorn I'd receive if I were a "mere" stay-at-home husband and father. If feminism means making it so that men can quit working while the wife slaves away at BigLaw, then I only have one question: where do I sign up?

Posted by: Mike | Sep 21, 2005 6:33:41 PM

Red, I'm happy you've been able to make the two-working-parents model succeed. May I ask whether you did so in NY/DC/LA/SF/Seattle/downtown Chicago, or whether you're in a red state with a much lower cost of living? If the former, I'm just simply wrong; if the latter, I should have qualified my statement to my narrow experience in the wildly expensive regions of the country.

Posted by: Ted | Sep 26, 2005 1:52:27 PM

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