Desperate Housewives of the Ivy League?
September 20's prime target for press critics, social scientists and feminists was the New York Times front-page story "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," by Louise Story (Yale '03). Through interviews and a questionnaire e-mailed to freshmen and senior women residents of two Yale colleges (dorms), Story claims to have found that 60 percent of these brainy and energetic young women plan to park their expensive diplomas in the bassinet and become stay-home mothers. Over at Slate, Jack Shafer slapped the Times for using weasel words ("many," "seems") to make a trend out of anecdotes and vague impressions: In fact, Story presents no evidence that more Ivy League undergrads today are planning to retire at 30 to the playground than ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Simultaneously, an armada of bloggers shredded her questionnaire as biased (hint: If you begin with "When you have children," you've already skewed your results) and denounced her interpretation of the answers as hype. What she actually found, as the writer Robin Herman noted in a crisp letter to the Times, was that 70 percent of those who answered planned to keep working full or part time through motherhood. Even by Judith Miller standards, the Story story was pretty flimsy. So great was the outcry that the author had to defend her methods in a follow-up on the Times website three days later.
With all that excellent insta-critiquing, I feared I'd lumber into print too late to add a new pebble to the sling. But I did find one place where the article is still Topic No. 1: Yale. "I sense that she had a story to tell, and she only wanted to tell it one way," Mary Miller, master of Saybrook, one of Story's targeted colleges, told me. Miller said Story met with whole suites of students and weeded out the women who didn't fit her thesis. Even among the ones she focused on, "I haven't found that the students' views are as hard and fast as Story portrayed them." (In a phone call Story defended her research methods, which she said her critics misunderstood, and referred me to her explanation on the web.) One supposed future homemaker of America posted an anonymous dissection of Story's piece at www.mediabistro.com. Another told me in an e-mail that while the article quoted her accurately, it "definitely did not turn out the way I thought it would after numerous conversations with Louise." That young person may be sadder but wiser--she declined to let me interview her or use her name--but history professor Cynthia Russett, quoted as saying that women are "turning realistic," is happy to go public with her outrage. Says Russett, "I may have used the word, but it was in the context of a harsh or forced realism that I deplored. She made it sound like this was a trend of which I approved. In fact, the first I heard of it was from Story, and I'm not convinced it exists." In two days of interviewing professors, grad students and undergrads, I didn't find one person who felt Story fairly represented women at Yale. Instead, I learned of women who had thrown Story's questionnaire away in disgust, heard a lot of complaints about Yale's lack of affordable childcare and read numerous scathing unpublished letters to the Times, including a particularly erudite one from a group of sociology graduate students. Physics professor Megan Urry had perhaps the best riposte: She polled her class of 120, using "clickers" (electronic polling devices used as a teaching tool). Of forty-five female students, how many said they planned "to be stay-at-home primary parent"? Two. Twenty-six, or 58 percent, said they planned to "work full time, share home responsibilities with partner"--and good luck to them, because 33 percent of the men said they wanted stay-home wives.
The most interesting question about Story's article is why the Times published it--and on page one yet. After all, as Shafer pointed out, it had run an identical story, "Many Young Women Now Say They'd Pick Family Over Career," on the front page December 28, 1980. (He even turned up one of its star subjects, Princeton alum Mary Anne Citrino, who says she was completely misrepresented by the Times: She never wanted to stay home and never did.) I'm particularly grateful to Shafer for digging up that old clip, because somehow I had formed the erroneous impression that the Times used to be less sexist than it is now--the week Story made the front page also saw an article uncritically reporting a drug-company study that claimed female executives are addled by menopause, and a Styles piece about the menace to society posed by mothers pushing luxury strollers on Manhattan sidewalks. All that was missing was one of those columns in which John Tierney explains that women, bless their hearts, lack the competitive drive to win at Scrabble.
Story's article is essentially an update on Lisa Belkin's 2003 Times Magazine cover story about her Princeton classmates, whose marginalization at work after having children was glowingly portrayed as an "opt-out revolution" and which claimed that women "don't run the world" because "they don't want to." What's painful about the way the Times frames work-family issues is partly its obsessive focus on the most privileged as bellwethers of American womanhood--you'd never know that most mothers who work need the money. But what's also depressing is the way the Times lumps together women who want to take a bit of time off or work reasonable hours--the hours that everybody worked not so long ago--with women who give up their careers for good. Cutting back to spend time with one's child shouldn't be equated with lack of commitment to one's profession. You would not know, either, that choices about how to combine work and motherhood are fluid and provisional and not made in a vacuum. The lack of good childcare and paid parental leave, horrendous work hours, inflexible career ladders, the still-conventional domestic expectations of far too many men and the industrial-size helpings of maternal guilt ladled out by the media are all part of it.
Wouldn't you like to read a front-page story about that?