Homeward Bound Feminists

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This column was written by Linda Hirshman.
I. The Truth About Elite Women
Half the wealthiest, most-privileged, best-educated females in the country stay home with their babies rather than work in the market economy. When in September The New York Times featured an article exploring a piece of this story, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," the blogosphere went ballistic, countering with anecdotes and sarcasm. Slate's Jack Shafer accused the Times of "weasel-words" and of publishing the same story -- essentially, "The Opt-Out Revolution" -- every few years, and, recently, every few weeks. (A month after the flap, the Times' only female columnist, Maureen Dowd, invoked the elite-college article in her contribution to the Times' running soap, "What's a Modern Girl to Do?" about how women must forgo feminism even to get laid.) The colleges article provoked such fury that the Times had to post an explanation of the then–student journalist's methodology on its Web site.

There's only one problem: There is important truth in the dropout story. Even though it appeared in The New York Times.

I stumbled across the news three years ago when researching a book on marriage after feminism. I found that among the educated elite, who are the logical heirs of the agenda of empowering women, feminism has largely failed in its goals. There are few women in the corridors of power, and marriage is essentially unchanged. The number of women at universities exceeds the number of men. But, more than a generation after feminism, the number of women in elite jobs doesn't come close.

Why did this happen? The answer I discovered — an answer neither feminist leaders nor women themselves want to face — is that while the public world has changed, albeit imperfectly, to accommodate women among the elite, private lives have hardly budged. The real glass ceiling is at home.

Looking back, it seems obvious that the unreconstructed family was destined to re-emerge after the passage of feminism's storm of social change. Following the original impulse to address everything in the lives of women, feminism turned its focus to cracking open the doors of the public power structure. This was no small task. At the beginning, there were male juries and male Ivy League schools, sex-segregated want ads, discriminatory employers, harassing colleagues. As a result of feminist efforts — and larger economic trends — the percentage of women, even of mothers in full- or part-time employment, rose robustly through the 1980s and early '90s.

But then the pace slowed. The census numbers for all working mothers leveled off around 1990 and have fallen modestly since 1998. In interviews, women with enough money to quit work say they are "choosing" to opt out. Their words conceal a crucial reality: the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism. Add to this the good evidence that the upper-class workplace has become more demanding and then mix in the successful conservative cultural campaign to reinforce traditional gender roles and you've got a perfect recipe for feminism's stall.

People who don't like the message attack the data. True, the Times based its college story on a survey of questionable reliability and a bunch of interviews. It is not necessary to give credence to Dowd's book, from which her Times Magazine piece was taken and which seems to be mostly based on her lifetime of bad dates and some e-mails from fellow Times reporters, to wonder if all this noise doesn't mean something important is going on in the politics of the sexes.

What evidence is good enough? Let's start with you. Educated and affluent reader, if you are a 30- or 40-something woman with children, what are you doing? Husbands, what are your wives doing? Older readers, what are your married daughters with children doing? I have asked this question of scores of women and men. Among the affluent-educated-married population, women are letting their careers slide to tend the home fires. If my interviewees are working, they work largely part time, and their part-time careers are not putting them in the executive suite.

Here's some more evidence: During the '90s, I taught a course in sexual bargaining at a very good college. Each year, after the class reviewed the low rewards for child-care work, I asked how the students anticipated combining work with child-rearing. At least half the female students described lives of part-time or home-based work. Guys expected their female partners to care for the children. When I asked the young men how they reconciled that prospect with the manifest low regard the market has for child care, they were mystified. Turning to the women who had spoken before, they said, uniformly, "But she chose it."

Even Ronald Coase, Nobel Prize–winner in economics in 1991, quotes the aphorism that "the plural of anecdote is data." So how many anecdotes does it take to make data? I — a 1970s member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a donor to EMILY's List, and a professor of women's studies — did not set out to find this. I stumbled across the story when, while planning a book, I happened to watch Sex and the City's Charlotte agonize about getting her wedding announcement in the "Sunday Styles" section of The New York Times. What better sample, I thought, than the brilliantly educated and accomplished brides of the "Sunday Styles," circa 1996? At marriage, they included a vice president of client communication, a gastroenterologist, a lawyer, an editor, and a marketing executive. In 2003 and 2004, I tracked them down and called them. I interviewed about 80 percent of the 41 women who announced their weddings over three Sundays in 1996. Around 40 years old, college graduates with careers: Who was more likely than they to be reaping feminism's promise of opportunity? Imagine my shock when I found almost all the brides from the first Sunday at home with their children. Statistical anomaly? Nope. Same result for the next Sunday. And the one after that.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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