Monday, July 18, 2005

The New Wife

Ms. musings has an excellent post about a Today Show on the "new wife". It turns out that this is the old 1950's stereotype of a wife: one who desires to stay at home while the husband brings in the bacon. Astonishingly, it turns out that the new one is highly educated and has decided that feminism didn't work, that it is impossible to have both a career and a family, and that the family must come first.

The show was really a way for Susan Barash to sell her book about this topic, and as far as I can ascertain there is no real evidence on the prevalence of this "new wife". But talking about a return to the 1950's is a popular thing these days, like it has been repeatedly during the last thirty years. As celebrated as the repeated funerals of feminism. The most recent trumpet blower of the stay-at-home engineers, lawyers and physicians before Barash was Lisa Belking in 2003. But talking about this has been going on almost continuously as far back as I remember.

Thus, it is hard to judge how real the most recent trend is, or if it exists at all. The female labor market participation rate (the percentage of adult women who work outside the home) has been rising for the last thirty years, and may now have peaked. This means that the relative number of women with jobs may not change very much in the future. It doesn't necessarily, or even probably, mean that the percentages would start going down. For one thing, the vast majority of people can't afford to have just one breadwinner in the family.

Maybe this is why these shows and books always focus on the small number of families who indeed can afford to live on one salary. This is pretty elitist, as the ruminations and doubts and happiness or boredom presented in these scenarios is unattainable for most. It is also dangerous: if educated women stop working outside the home who is going to be out there demanding that work is made more suitable for people with families, for two-earner families or for single parents? If educated women stop working outside the home, how long will it take before we will read demands about limiting the number of women in higher education, in medical, law and business schools? Will we, once again, hear laments about all those societal dollars spent educating girls who will just then stay at home? Will we, once again, decide that it is safer not to promote women because they will leave soon anyway? There were reasons why the 1950's stereotypes died a relatively quick death, and one important one is that equality of men and women is unlikely to be realized under this scenario.* Another one is, as I already mentioned, that having just one breadwinner in a family has historically been an anomaly, not something that has been routinely practised.

How to take care of children is truly complicated in this country. The societal options are extremely limited except for the wealthy, and the labor markets punish career interruptions mercilessly. This is at least partly because of the prevailing cultural norm that it is the mothers, and pretty much the mothers alone, who are responsible for hands-on childcare. And many mothers want to do exactly that. Others may be forced into making a Solomon's choice because of external constraints, and in all these cases the costs are borne by the mother and her family, not the rest of the society. Maybe this is why the whole job-family balance is viewed as a women's issue, and tends to cause sleepiness in all the powers-that-be (with the exception of people like Rick Santorum who prefer to tell women to get themselves back into the kitchens and fast). So for educated women with well-earning husbands the choice is between their brain and their uterus. Other women have no choices at all, really. But this is just girl stuff.

Bitter. I am bitter. I truly thought that we would have solved this all by now. But there is no willingness to go there. "There" being the need for not a "new wife" but a "new society" and a "new husband"**, all new in the sense that they feel the same draw and pull as the educated mothers appear to do today. The books and programs about the "new wife" say pretty much nothing about the ("old"?) husbands of these women and not much more about the society's role in all this. No, the problem is a women's issue. Oops, make it educated women's issue. No, what I meant to say that there is no problem here at all! So.
*An erudite article on this is in the works!
**I know that there are men already who feel these effects, that there are men who take time off to stay with their children. These (relatively few) men suffer from the same cost consequences as the women who made the same choices, though, and that is not the answer we are looking for.