Why is it that “think pieces” about women and work and kids and marriage always leave one suspecting that the minute these corporate-lawyers-turned-stay-at-home-moms hang up the phone on the reporter, they rip off their rubber masks, reveal themselves as space aliens and pour themselves an enormous martini? Lisa Belkin’s confused, myopic New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” is the latest version of that journalistic evergreen, “The Death of Feminism,” in which privileged white women quit their high-powered jobs to find “balance” and “sanity” raising their kids, volunteering and hanging out at Starbucks. “Don’t make me look like some 1950s Stepford wife,” one interviewee pleads, but the photographer couldn’t resist. On the cover a thin, elegant, blandly expressionless young woman sits cross-legged with her toddler next to the glowing ladder she is no longer climbing. Inside, sleekly groomed Atlanta book clubbers stand or sit as stiffly as androids. Why are we supposed to see these socially conservative women, whose husbands earn more in a year than most households earn in five or even ten, as representative, much less as bellwethers of social change? Because they went to Princeton, as Belkin did? Princeton always gets the preppies.
Belkin’s thesis is that “women” are turning away from demanding careers because they realize that there’s more to life than work-work-work. As Joan Walsh points out in her witty riposte in Salon, Belkin hedges her argument with the sorts of qualifiers editors tend to insist on: Yes there’s discrimination, yes Princeton isn’t Everycollege, yes black women (they get a whole parenthesis to themselves) are working more, not less. But none of the caveats seem to matter as she states her central conclusion: “Why don’t women run the world? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.” Any woman who has ever been passed over for a deserved promotion in favor of a less qualified, but maybe louder, schmoozier man can just leave the room quietly, please.
Belkin, who is married to a pediatric cardiologist, cites herself as an example of happily downsized ambitions; once she dreamed of running the New York Times, now she enjoys mothering while writing a biweekly column from home. Interestingly, her interviewees tell a darker story. Several describe being pushed out of their workplace after they had children: A TV reporter saw her hours grow longer–from fifty to sixty hours a week–after her son was born; a lawyer with a major firm exhausted herself as a new mother preparing for a big trial, only to have the judge postpone it so he could go fishing for two weeks. Neither woman could get a part-time contract–it was “all or nothing.” They didn’t want to go back home, they wanted normal hours or, failing that, part-time jobs at decent salaries with real opportunities for advancement. If quitting was a “choice,” it was a very constrained one.
Do Belkin’s subjects represent a trend? There has indeed been a small decline in the percentage of married mothers who work, from 59 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2000. But Heidi Hartmann, MacArthur-winning economist and founder of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, calls this a “blip” connected to the weakening economy: When the job market sours, people with options tend to leave the work force because their conditions of employment deteriorate and they can’t advance or get a better job–while others simply give up on finding work. (Meanwhile, single mothers are working more than ever, a fact Belkin overlooks, and far from all are poor: The number of unmarried professional women who have babies or adopt is exploding.) In the early 1990s, the percentage of married mothers in the work force also went down, and this decline was also trumpeted as a major turning point, a free decision by women who’d come to their senses (remember The New Traditionalism?). But that was just a blip, too: When the economy heated up again, women went back to work. The long-term trend, Hartmann points out, is for married women to work more, not less; for women to work more the better educated they are; for women to work more the more they earn. On the other hand, women married to rich men have always been less committed to work than comparable women married to less rich men: They don’t need the money, and being a rich man’s wife is already a kind of job. Why look to them as honing the cutting edge of history? Social change is made by people who can’t live with the status quo, not by the most protected and comfortable.
Belkin’s idea of feminism is a caricature of the actual women’s movement. “The women’s movement was largely about grabbing a fair share of power–making equal money, standing at the helm in the macho realms of business and government and law,” she writes. But feminism was never about shoulder pads and power suits, or taking “only the shortest of maternity leaves,” or “becoming a man.” Feminism is about changing the ground rules, not just entering the game. Feminists, in fact, are the ones who first put forward the idea of balance between work and family–for both sexes–of a more humane and flexible and less hierarchical workplace, of childcare as a task for both parents and for society as a whole. Belkin puts these ideas forward as the antidote to feminism, when they are, in fact, what feminism is.
Belkin ends on a note of hope: By quitting, elite women will force employers to offer better terms. Since most of the women see their time at home as temporary, a brief hiatus, one hopes she’s right. But why would the workplace that wouldn’t accommodate them as new mothers accommodate them several years later when their skills are rustier and their résumés dustier? Whether her subjects get the deals they want will largely depend on forces outside their control: where their husbands’ jobs take the family, how tight the labor market is. In today’s bad economy, companies are cutting “family-friendly” policies–not an encouraging sign.
The best thing these women could do for themselves would be to organize a new, muscular, inclusive women’s movement that would fight for a fairer deal for working mothers in their jobs, at home and in government policy. True, that would be feminism, the dreaded and despised. But it just might work.