Pick up a newspaper or magazine and the story seems unavoidable. From Ivy League lawyers and executives to Hollywood stars, professional women are dropping out of the work force to raise kids.
A New York Times headline put the story in a nutshell: “Stretched to the Limit, Women Stall the March to Work.” Harper’s Bazaar reports that up-and-coming fashion designers are leaving their blossoming careers to raise children. Even celebrity tabloids scream the message down every grocery aisle, claiming that Tom Cruise wants Katie Holmes to stop acting to care for their new baby.
The details differ, but the story boils down to the same thing: Women find it almost impossible to have successful careers and successful families; so, if they can afford to, they choose one or the other. But that’s just the first paragraph, not the whole story.
Ask a different question of this phenomenon and quite a different tale would be told. Why are we still struggling over this conundrum four decades after the second wave of feminism brought it up? When will we figure out how to make work actually work?
The friction between women’s roles as professionals and mothers has been intense since they entered the work force in huge numbers in the 1960s. Ever since, some critics have insisted that women can’t be “managers” in the home and in the office at the same time. The women’s movement failed us, they say, by promising we could do it all when we actually can’t, and mothers who give up their careers only prove that feminism was a wash. As Gloria Steinem once said, they’ve declared feminism dead every Wednesday at teatime since 1969.
Lately, however, the discussion has taken on a new tone. Women no longer seem angry or argumentative on this subject, only resigned. Quietest are those with the most at stake — young women just starting their careers and planning their families.
If we are to believe the media, it’s as if over these last four decades the women’s movement has been on trial and recently the verdict came in — women tried to have it all and were found guilty of failing. Now, it seems, they’re simply accepting their sentence.
But it’s possible to think of this another way. Perhaps the judge handed down his decision before hearing all the evidence. After all, the original feminists never intended women to “do it all” — at least, not by themselves. They expected the workplace, government and men to step up and do some significant changing, too. That largely hasn’t happened. Until all those parties weigh in, until some structural changes in the workplace are made to accommodate women’s desires to have careers and children, how can we conclude the effort has failed?
The second-wave feminists of the 1960s opened the doors for us. We now have equal access to universities, the right (however embattled) to control when and whether we have babies and laws that protect us against overt discrimination in the workplace.
But America is only half-changed. The office still favors employees who put in uninterrupted 10-hour days, which automatically excludes primary childcare-givers. It’s almost impossible in many offices to get promoted if you can’t make evening meetings, leave mid-day to pick up your kid from school or take off a year after giving birth.
Of course, the number of women who can afford to stay home is tiny. Studies have shown that most women still work. But the barrage of stories about those who are “opting out” catches something of the zeitgeist. If the first generation of women to come of age after the feminist revolution is already giving up, that’s a frightening but not completely surprising development.
After all, we’ve largely been left to struggle with the work-family issue on an individual level. Our mothers told us we would be the first generation of women who could do anything we set out to do; when we can’t, we assume it’s a personal failing. All the recent media pieces affirm just that, framing the opt-out story as an issue between a woman and her boss, a woman and her husband, or a woman and her child.
Aren’t we forgetting an important lesson from the last generation of feminists? Naming a problem can be the first step toward solving it. Acknowledging and naming the feminine mystique, domestic violence and sexual harassment turned them from problems-that-had-no-name to injustices that could no longer be ignored.
Women got started by gathering in rooms, letting their individual problems pour out and discovering that all the other women in the room shared them, too. Maybe we need to leave both the office and the baby’s bedroom for a while, gather together, let it all pour out, and come up with a few names of our own.
Claire Miller is a journalist in Berkeley, Calif.
Claire Miller, AlterNet