Saturday, March 04, 2006

Where Has the Feminism Revolution Taken Us?

From the NY Times; Stretched to Limit, Women Stall March to Work.

For four decades, the number of women entering the workplace grew at a blistering pace, fostering a powerful cultural and economic transformation of American society. But since the mid-1990's, the growth in the percentage of adult women working outside the home has stalled, even slipping somewhat in the last five years and leaving it at a rate well below that of men.While the change has been under way for a while, it was initially viewed by many experts as simply a pause in the longer-term movement of women into the work force. But now, social scientists are engaged in a heated debate over whether the gender revolution at work may be over.

Is this shift evidence for the popular notion that many mothers are again deciding that they prefer to stay at home and take care of their children?Maybe, but many researchers are coming to a different conclusion: women are not choosing to stay out of the labor force because of a change in attitudes, they say. Rather, the broad reconfiguration of women's lives that allowed most of them to pursue jobs outside the home appears to be hitting some serious limits.

This is just another article in a serious of articles about women and the workforce. I've commented about how much I hate Loiuse Story's piece entitled, Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood, which was rightly criticized for its flawed "research" methods. Also, there are camps forming around the infamous Linda Hirschman article, and I tend to side with her critics against Hirschman's argument that it is a mistake for educated women to remain at home with their kids.

What I disliked the most about the bad "trend" reporting by the NY Times in the Louise Story and Lisa Belkin pieces was that they ignored the dimensions of race, class, and privilege that give the elite college women the "choice" to stay home. Women of color and of lower socioeconomic status are simply not able to comfortably make the choice between a two-income family and staying at home--much less if they are single mothers. That said, once women of whatever race/class make the choice to stay home, I don't fault them the way Hirschman does--it's an intensely personal decision, and I don't want to make every personal choice a political one. But in every personal choice there must be at least an acknowledgement of who we owe for the ability to make a choice--our mothers, our fellow feminists, our daughters.

I've written about how a ten-year, $100,000 investment into your education and career cannot be thrown away lightly without considering the consequences. Leaving your intellectual work product can be as devastating as leaving your child--and you can't always rely on your partner being there to support you. Job loss, divorce, and death are all things that can take away the security of a single income supported lifestyle. The resume you spent so long building can be rendered practically worthless with too long a resume gap. That said, not raising your children yourself, missing those years--this is no easy sacrifice. So if you make that choice with full knowledge of what you are giving up, and to whom you owe the ability to make that choice--your partner, your day care provider, the feminists who came before you--it is your choice. I would respect that, because if I were faced with such a decision and I was able to make a choice between a dual-income family and a single income family, and I was in the best position to stay at home with my child--well, maybe I would. I wouldn't call you any less of a feminist for "giving up" your career to be with your child--if you choose to take a leave of absence or quit entirely, it was your choice to make. So long as you are aware of how you got that ability to make a "choice," and are aware that there was a time when there was no choice between work or motherhood, I'm certainly not going to turn a personal decision political.

For all those judgmental people who would say that motherhood isn't work, or fulfilling work--well, fuck you. I'm not a mother yet, but I know what I do for my siblings is valuable and it is very worthwhile. I also know that personally, for me, this is not what I want to do for the next ten years--I will be working my butt off to get a tenure-track position and then get tenure, and so family may not figure into this 10 year plan. So even if I don't myself have a child and then drop the dissertation to take care of him or her--I support everyone who does. Because they know what they are giving up. They know, better than Linda Hirschman, how many years and how much tuition they put into their careers. And armed with that knowledge, they decided to make a choice reflecting a personal priority. And I would not fault them for it. I would fault them if they made this decision uncritically, or from a position of blithe privilege. This is probably why I hate the Louise Story article so much--a bunch of dumb fuck sophomores claiming to have life planned out, happy play dates and all, before they have even graduated from college, faced the real world, or even met their future partners on whose salaries they will depend. And remember: women of color are less able to make this sort of "choice" between work and family. Often, you need the income and work--there's no choice about it.

And I hate this system. It has to change. Women should have equality in the home, so that they are not the primary caregivers. Biology is not destiny, and just because your body is a vessel for carrying the baby does not mean that you are bound to be the sole caretaker for the child until s/he is 18. Women should have equality in the workplace, so that tenure/partnership/promotion requirements do not punish them for starting families. We should have better family leave polices. Men should have equality in the workplace, so that they can get paternity leave. The healthcare system in the U.S. should change from an employer-provider model to a nationalized healthcare system so that people can more freely move in the workplace without worrying about losing their benefits. This would benefit families as well as mobile individual workers. Everything should change. Everything.

I don't think feminism is dead, or that the revolution is over. At least I hope not. The work is far from being over. I say this to you as a quite young 25 year old woman, acutely aware of what I owe to the feminists who have come before me, and the nieces and daughters who come after me. I know what I owe to myself, my parents, and to the years of study and work I have put towards my career, but I will also be sensitive to what I owe my family should I choose to start one before I get tenure. That said, I know that I probably shouldn't have kids until after the tenure review process is over--so pretty much, not until I'm 40. It seems sad that a 25 year old has to think like this, so far into the future, and so beholden to the past.

I started writing this post early in the afternoon, while my nephew was taking an afternoon nap in the bed beside me, and while my niece was eating an afternoon snack before I taught her how to count and add. In fact, the only reason I was able to surf the net and start writing was because the kids were unconscious or eating. Then they woke up/finished eating and I had to attend to them again. They left at 9 pm, and after doing some laundry, watching NUMB3RS kind of tired out, I am now finishing up the post. I am watching them for my brother and sister-in-law while they work. When I leave for my LLM program in July, the childcare duties will fall back to my aged parents, who will probably not be around when I have my own kids. It's never an easy choice to make--your job, or your kids. Having worked in day care for years, officially for a center and then informally for my family, I know of the sacrifices parents make whether they choose to stay home or go to work. Often, there's never a choice--you do what you have to do. And as I look at this child sleeping in this room, I can only focus on this moment and be glad I'm here for it, and try to remember that I'm only 25, and it's not yet time for me to make this decision.

But it soon will be time. And so far, knowing how much care kids need and deserve, I know that I don't want to have them until I'm ready to focus 100% on the children. After I've stopped chasing tenure (and probably, by then, I'll be an at-risk pregnancy or infertile), when I can focus on them and not worry about my career so much--then I will have kids, biological or adopted. If you really love children, if you really know the care they require and deserve--you won't have them until you can fully commit yourself. But often, life is not so convenient. It doesn't wait until you are "Okay, I'm ready, I'm committed, let's get pregnant!" Sometimes you're not ready and you find yourself in a position where you have to make a choice, which is really no choice at all. Things happen--condoms break, you forget and take antibiotics while on birth control without a backup method, or you simply decide that the tenure committee cannot do your family planning for you--and you will have a child. And you will love that child. And you will make a difficult choice. I don't want to make that choice, which is why I don't want to have a child before I'm ready. But all my planning will mean nothing if life forces my hand and takes away that false illusion of control. If I have a baby before tenure--well, then I will deal with it then. As intelligently and senstively as I can--but it will be a personal decision. Don't read the death of an entire political movement into it.

And so, as Hirschman implies, I wonder if it's me, and women like me who have to change --or whether it's the system of family-leave policies and employer-provided health care that should change to accommodate us. I think it's the latter.

See also what Dr. Bitch, PhD has to say about this.


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