Tuesday’s New York Times piece on women at schools like Yale who plan to become stay-at-home moms addresses an important phenomenon. Unfortunately, it makes little more than passing mention of the underlying issues of class and gender which shape the choices the article pitches largely as curious lifestyle decisions.
Class divisions deeply inform women’s and men’s decision about parenting in work in multiple ways. They make it possible for some women to picture living and raising children comfortably off of the income of an exceptionally well-paid spouse without making the economic sacrifices most families have to when one parent stays home. At the same time, class divisions leave other women in positions where the work-family compromises they would like to strike as working mothers are unfeasible because they lack the bargaining power to achieve the schedules and receive the support from employers that they need. So while class makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to maintain economic security while leaving the workforce, class also makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to balance work and family responsibilities.
Underlying the responsibilities in play here are gendered conceptions which haven’t yet changed as much as many of us would like to think. It’s difficult to argue with those who suggest that a woman’s choice to stay home and raise kids deserves respect, but it’s important to consider the ways in which social structures and pressures constrict and inform that choice. The debate need not be confined to one side which argues that women and men should both be evaluated by the standards by which we’ve traditionally judged men and another side which argues for an essentialist, “difference feminist” understanding of what women are and should be that trots out old tropes about their essential nature. Instead, progressive feminists can and should take on traditional paradigms of male and female identity behavior, arguing for a shared, less gendered repetoire of goals and actions which makes traditionally male and female jobs and tropes accessible to both genders. Women who want to build homes with men can’t make fully free choices about how to balance family and work until men are equally challenged and expected to make equivalent sacrifices as well.
We’re not there yet.
An energized rally today on the Green before folks set out for this afternoon’s rally in New York with strikers from Columbia’s CGEU, unionized graduate teachers from NYU preparing for a contract fight, and workers and allies from across the Northeast. I and fourteen other undergads will unfortunately be unable to attend, at this afternoon we’re being brought before Yale’s Executive Committee for consideration of disciplinary action over our sit-in in February. I hope the Committee will recognize the action we took as an act of conscience which used non-violent means with a long history at the university to pursue changes central to realizing Yale’s best values. I hope Yale can turn its time and energy now to furthering the work of realizing equal opportunity for undergraduates and graduate employees alike.
The past few weeks have seen a good deal of sarcasm and indignation from various pundits, print and virtual, in response to criticism of the very real lack of women among the ranks of high-profile opinion journalists. As usual, we’ve seen conservatives and a fair number of self-identified liberals advocating blindness to inequality amongst groups as a sign of respect for individuals. And claims that if different women can have different opinions, then there can’t be any particular problem with having most of the opinions voiced prominently be those of men. And that really valuing individual women writers means not seeing them as women at all. Thing is, while different women and different men will of course each have different perspectives, when a medium overwhelmingly represents the voices of men it represents only the voices of a spectrum of people much more narrow than its audience. And if one really believes in the equality of two groups, then inequality of results cannot but suggest the absence of full equality of opportunity. As Katha Pollitt writes:
It may be true that more men than women like to bloviate and “bat things out”–socialization does count for something. So do social rewards: I have seen men advance professionally on levels of aggression, self-promotion and hostility that would have a woman carted off to a loony bin–unless, of course, she happens to be Ann Coulter. But feminine psychology doesn’t explain why all five of USA Today’s political columnists are male, or why Time’s eleven columnists are male–down to the four in Arts and Entertainment–or why at Newsweek it’s one out of six in print and two out of thirteen on the Web…The tiny universe of political-opinion writers includes plenty of women who hold their own with men, who do not wilt at the prospect of an angry e-mail, who have written cover stories and bestsellers and won prizes–and whose phone numbers are likely already in the Rolodexes of the editors who wonder where the women are. How hard could it be to “find” Barbara Ehrenreich, who filled in for Thomas Friedman for one month last summer and wrote nine of the best columns the Times has seen in a decade?
…That opinion writing is a kind of testosterone-powered food fight is a popular idea in the blogosphere. Male bloggers are always wondering where the women are and why women can’t/don’t/won’t throw bananas…There are actually lots of women political bloggers out there–spend half an hour reading them and you will never again say women aren’t as argumentative as men! But what makes a blog visible is links, and male bloggers tend not to link to women…Perhaps they sense it might interfere with the circle jerk in cyberspace–the endless mutual self-infatuation that is one of the less attractive aspects of the blogging phenom. Or maybe, like so many op-ed editors, they just don’t see women, even when the women are right in front of them.
To the editor:
If President Levin offered a plan for financial aid reform last night (“Levin states plan to alter financial aid,” 2/23), I must have missed it. Levin made no specific proposals and maintained his refusal to sit down at the table with students who have. He asked students to choose between unspecified reductions in the family contribution and the student contribution, on the grounds that Yale can’t “be a leader along every dimension.” Yale students, including the over a thousand who’ve pledged support to the UOC’s financial aid reform platform, expect better. It’s time for Yale to eliminate the family contribution for low-income families and halve the student contribution for everyone as a step towards equality of access to Yale and equality of experience for students here. Asking students to choose one reform or the other is an impossible choice. And for the many students working additional hours to help close the gap between what Yale thinks their families can afford and their actual circumstances, it’s a meaningless one. That’s among the things Levin might have learned last night if he had taken students’ stories seriously rather than dismissing them as exceptions or questioning their honesty.
Josh Eidelson ‘06