a bird and a bottle

Two sides in an old feminist debate
January 9, 2007, 6:16 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender

The readings for the Thursday meeting of my Feminist Jurisprudence class explore an old feminist debate that has come back to life over the last several years, which is this:

Why do highly educated women who do not have to stay home (because they can afford childcare), choose to stay home when they have children? Why are women “choosing” to be stay-at-home in greater numbers today than at any time since feminism’s advent?

Inescapable in this question is an acknolwedgment of feminism’s roots as a white middle-class women’s movement, a narrowness that has plagued feminism since its inception. But the way we answer the question above has implications for women across racial, age, and socioeconomic boundaries.

My class readings suggest two totally opposed answers. The first, suggested by Linda Hirshman in a recent and much-ballyhooed American Prospect article, claims that the public world (employers) have changed and now accept women as leaders and employees. Instead, Hirshman posits, it’s the private world of the home that lags behind. Men and women on the whole still believe that household work and childcare are women’s work. So women have not been able to succeed in the workforce because they dropout, unable to juggle the demands of a “man’s” worklife and a “woman’s” housework. As Hirshman puts it, “The real glass ceiling is at home.”

And in the other corner, we have Lisa Belkin in another much ballyhooed article (pdf), this time in the NY Times. In “The Opt-Out Revolution,” Belkin claims that women are using maternity as an excuse to escape the rat race that is finance or law firms or some other high-pressure, high-paying many-degree-requiring career. She says that women don’t run the world becuase they don’t want to. Which is where I get stuck. Even if we concede that women don’t run the world solely because they choose not to, we should ask WHY it is that women choose not to. My answer: because of a socially constructed norm of what a mother “should” be. Since a mother “should” be with her children as much as possible, if a woman can financially afford to opt-out she should want to, and she should do it. Since we can never get back to a time of the tabula rasa of gender relations, there’s no way to prove or disprove this. But it sounds about right to me.

Either way, Belkin’s and Hirshman’s claims are diametrically opposed. One puts the current “floundering” of feminism squarely on the shoulders of women, and the other places blame on society as whole for its failure to change its expectations for the genders (or maybe on men for not doing their part around the home). Besides the fact that Belkin’s article made me feel sick to my stomach, on the whole I think that Belkin totally fails to approach the issue at all critically. I don’t expect objectivity (I’m not sure it’s ever possible), but Belkin’s status as a mother (about which she writes) who has made some career sacrifies because of motherhood seems to obscure her ability to think critically about the “choices” the women she interviews are making.

But  maybe there is some good to come out of Belkin’s approach and her rose-colored glasses. Maybe, “instead of women being forced to act like men, men are being freed to act like women.” By leaving the workforce, highly educated women-mothers may be allowing men to make the same choice, which would allow us all as a society to move away from the 100-hr-a-week kill or be killed capitalism of today’s America. And there’s some evidence that it’s already happening:  “the number of married men who are full-time caregivers to their children has increased 18 percent.” That sounds good. But I think the statistic is misleading. That there has been an 18% increase could mean very little in terms of real numbers. I’d bet that the percentage of men who are full-time caregivers is still very very small (game, set, and match to Hirshman).

Maybe it’s all for naught anyway; Alas, a Blog says that the Opt-Out Revolution itself is a myth.

(photo source)


3 Comments so far
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“The other places blame on society as [a] whole for its failure to change its expectations for the genders (or maybe on men for not doing their part around the home)”

Men not doing their part sounds right in part. Com’ on, guys, you know its true !!

“Sacrifies because of motherhood seems to obscure her ability to think critically about the “choices” the women she interviews are making.”

Traditional social and family expectations are a Biggee! Not just from lazy hubbies, but from now proud grandmothers who were once even “libbers” themselves. Face it! The great chain of being binds us all.

Comment by Jeff Berger

To see “opting out” only in terms of leaving the work force is to diminish dramatically the power of a female counter model. For high performing men and women, “part-time” positions that include 30-40 hours per week (i.e. where full-time is 70-100 hours) strike me as an compelling “female” model that men will likely clamor after. The choice between 100 hours/per and stay-at-home parent is no choice at all.

Comment by professorplum

ProfessorPlum, I really like your idea and your vision of a world in which men rush out of the rat race and into the home (at least part time), but I am less hopeful than you are that we will see that any time soon….I think the part-time dad will remain a rare bird indeed until a combination of work and parenting is accepted as a respectable life choice that allows one to continue to achieve work success while raising a family (I would argue that it’s not accepted as such even for women).

Comment by bean

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