Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Longest Revolution, Part I

Or the Woman Question, if you wish. When I was a very young goddess with soft scales and all I thought that this gender business was easy: just share things equally and let everyone have a piece of the cake. Some day I will tell the story of how I lost my innocence and what happened next, but right now I want to talk about Linda Hirshman's recent article in the American Prospect, entitled Homeward Bound. It has created quite a furore in the feminist blogosphere and some very good debate, too. You might do a lot worse than reading the posts by Bitch PhD and 11D and the attached long comments threads.

Hirshman's article talks about the elite women who decide to drop out of their careers and stay at home when they have children. In this she follows the general fashion in writings about women these days: it seems that we are all white, highly educated and homeward bound, that our education was a waste and our biologies the destiny. Where she differs is in her take on all this. She is definitely not delicately analyzing the problem or bemoaning the death of feminism or even really ridiculing the uppity ex-career women who are now ladies-who-lunch. Rather, she is giving us a feminist bootcamp and telling us how to change things. More about that in The Longest Revolution, Part II. In the first part I want to address the validity of Hirshman's basic premise and why the blogosphere discussion on the article is so heated.

Hirshman sets the stage by arguing that a real shift has taken place in the rate at which educated women drop out of the labor force:

Half the wealthiest, most-privileged, best-educated females in the country stay home with their babies rather than work in the market economy. When in September The New York Times featured an article exploring a piece of this story, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," the blogosphere went ballistic, countering with anecdotes and sarcasm. Slate's Jack Shafer accused the Times of "weasel-words" and of publishing the same story -- essentially, "The Opt-Out Revolution" -- every few years, and, recently, every few weeks. (A month after the flap, the Times' only female columnist, Maureen Dowd, invoked the elite-college article in her contribution to the Times' running soap, "What's a Modern Girl to Do?" about how women must forgo feminism even to get laid.) The colleges article provoked such fury that the Times had to post an explanation of the then–student journalist's methodology on its Web site.

There's only one problem: There is important truth in the dropout story. Even though it appeared in The New York Times.

I stumbled across the news three years ago when researching a book on marriage after feminism. I found that among the educated elite, who are the logical heirs of the agenda of empowering women, feminism has largely failed in its goals. There are few women in the corridors of power, and marriage is essentially unchanged. The number of women at universities exceeds the number of men. But, more than a generation after feminism, the number of women in elite jobs doesn't come close.

Why did this happen? The answer I discovered -- an answer neither feminist leaders nor women themselves want to face -- is that while the public world has changed, albeit imperfectly, to accommodate women among the elite, private lives have hardly budged. The real glass ceiling is at home.
Even Ronald Coase, Nobel Prize–winner in economics in 1991, quotes the aphorism that "the plural of anecdote is data." So how many anecdotes does it take to make data? I -- a 1970s member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a donor to EMILY's List, and a professor of women's studies -- did not set out to find this. I stumbled across the story when, while planning a book, I happened to watch Sex and the City's Charlotte agonize about getting her wedding announcement in the "Sunday Styles" section of The New York Times. What better sample, I thought, than the brilliantly educated and accomplished brides of the "Sunday Styles," circa 1996? At marriage, they included a vice president of client communication, a gastroenterologist, a lawyer, an editor, and a marketing executive. In 2003 and 2004, I tracked them down and called them. I interviewed about 80 percent of the 41 women who announced their weddings over three Sundays in 1996. Around 40 years old, college graduates with careers: Who was more likely than they to be reaping feminism's promise of opportunity? Imagine my shock when I found almost all the brides from the first Sunday at home with their children. Statistical anomaly? Nope. Same result for the next Sunday. And the one after that.

Ninety percent of the brides I found had had babies. Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.

And there is more. In 2000, Harvard Business School professor Myra Hart surveyed the women of the classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991 and found that only 38 percent of female Harvard MBAs were working full time. A 2004 survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy of 2,443 women with a graduate degree or very prestigious bachelor's degree revealed that 43 percent of those women with children had taken a time out, primarily for family reasons. Richard Posner, federal appeals-court judge and occasional University of Chicago adjunct professor, reports that "the [Times] article confirms -- what everyone associated with such institutions [elite law schools] has long known: that a vastly higher percentage of female than of male students will drop out of the workforce to take care of their children."

There is only one thing wrong with this analysis: it is wrong. In fact, as Ampersand points out on Alas a Blog, married women are not opting out in any greater numbers than they did in the 1980's:

Media outlets, and in particular the New York Times, have frequently suggested that mothers - and in particular, well-off, well-educated mothers in their 30s - have been more and more frequently "opting out" of jobs and careers in order to become full-time homemakers. Linda Hirshman recently declared in The American Prospect that "among the affluent-educated-married population, women are letting their careers slide to tend the home fires."

All of these articles were based on a mixture of anecdotes, bad data, and quasi-relevant data. The most relevant data - the labor force participation rates of women with and without children - is collected by the federal government, but hasn't been looked at in these articles. Economist Heather Boushey has put together the data and published the unsurprising truth: women with children are not more likely to opt out nowadays than in previous decades. In fact, the "child penalty' to the likelihood of women working has been in steady decline for years.

Although all women have been less likely to be working in recent years (due to the job market's slow recovery from the last recession), the labor force participation rate (LFPR) of women with children hasn't gone down any faster than the LFPR for women in general. And although it's true that mothers are less likely to work than non-mothers, that difference has become smaller over the years - just the opposite of what "opt-out revolution" articles claim.

This is where I should end the post, because all this opt-out revolution has in fact not happened. Yes, there is anecdotal evidence of women dropping out, especially among the very affluent class that puts wedding announcement in the New York Times, but there has always been such anecdotal evidence. I suspect that there is even anecdotal evidence of men dropping out if someone bothered to dig it up. Of course that would require some fascination with the topic of men dropping out. Not gonna happen. Ask yourself why that would not be news and you immediately enter the wonder halls of feminism.

So married women are not dropping out in larger numbers than before. In fact, women's labor market participation rates are beginning to respond exactly like men's rates which is a fancy way of saying that women no longer view themselves as secondary earners.

But if you cruise the blogosphere you will find that nobody cares about the fact that there is no opt-out trend to talk about. People want to talk about it anyway, and the discussion gets extremely lively. Ponder upon this and you enter even deeper into the labyrinths of the Woman Question. You will also find battles in the mommy wars: affluent versus poorer women, employed women versus mothers at home. And the popcorn is served to those in the audience. They are not mothers, by the way.

There are good reasons for all this. The value of a woman, both to herself and to the wider society, may seriously depend on her perceived track record as a mother and as a worker. Almost every mother fears that those other mothers who made different choices make her look bad. If she is at home she has opted out, is a lady-who-lunches, lazy, a traitor to feminism. If she is working her children are going to turn into mass murderers or Bush-voters, she is a selfish and ambitious mother, a bad mother, and she will roast in hell, too. And a woman who has taken time off for her family will forevermore be labeled as someone uninterested in her career, not promotion-material, whereas the woman who hung on to her job all through her mothering years will be worn to a shred of her former self and probably still won't get the promotions.

I am exaggerating slightly, by the way. Most of the discussions I link to are courteous. It is my internal debates that rage and flame like that. And I haven't even gotten past the elite group of women who can easily afford to have children and then afford to decide on either staying employed or not. The majority of women struggle much more.

The society gives women a heavy burden of guilt, of accusations, of demands for perfection, and the society gives women almost zero help and support or understanding in how they struggle with the mutually impossible demands for their time and energy. For these are mutually impossible. We have the traditional idea of what a Perfect Mother does (stays at home, bakes pies, sacrifices all, endures all) and then we have the traditional idea of what a Perfect Worker does (always works hard, never fails to turn up, has no dependents) and the two cannot be squeezed into one person. But it seems that we are still trying.

And we hold this mirror of perfection in front of every single mother and decide that she doesn't reflect too well. Or that is how it feels to many mothers, and this may explain the extreme sensitivity of this topic, its hurtfulness and its ability to provoke anger. It also explains why the media is so eager to do stories with these messages, for angry people are more likely to read them and publicity is what the media wants. I find that pretty nasty of the media, myself.

Note also that the idea of a Perfect Mother means that we are comparing millions of individual women, all different in various ways, to one single standard. That is crazy. We don't expect all marriages to be exactly the same or all children to have exactly identical needs but we do expect every single mother to be some sort of a hybrid between Virgin Mary, a masochist and an earth mother with no self, yet with the instincts of a Ninja when the children are threatened. This means that if two mothers differ in their childrearing choices, well, one of them must be further away from the Perfect Mother and there will have to be a battle to determine which one it is.

I am not denying that people have strong opinions on whether to have children and on the way to bring them up, just as they have on the type of car to drive or whom to vote for. But hidden in these strong opinions about children and childrearing are strong opinions on how women should behave, how women should lead their lives, and given this I'd expect that people would think twice before giving me their opinions on the whole womankind. When they don't I get truly pissed off, because we rarely if ever tell the whole class of men how to lead their lives or even how to be good fathers. And also because it is impossible to be both a Good Woman and a Good Careerist, given the definitions we have chosen to use.

In my muddled way I have tried to show in this part of my post one reason why the feminist revolution is such a long one. In the United States it has to do with the myth of good mothering, the myth of the lone rugged individual making it all unassisted in the labor force and the incompatibility of the two. It has also a lot to do with the societal mirror which reflects only the woman, all alone with her babies and her job, all alone with the problems and all alone responsible for their solutions. This is the myth which is the most poisonous one and the one I meet all the time when I read articles about feminism. It is as if the society didn't exist, as if fathers didn't exist and as if maternity leave wasn't a pitiful few months.

Hirshman is wrong in her thesis that the rate at which educated women opt out of the labor force has increased recently. But she has clearly struck a nerve with her article and some of the other concerns she addresses are worth a post of their own. This will be the second part of The Longest Revolution