Choice or Rationalization?

New York Times still shopping "Choice Feminism"

I've blogged before about the curious and circuitous path the New York Times has taken with regard to following up on reporter Lisa Belkin's controversial 2003 Sunday magazine piece, "The Opt-Out Revolution." The story, which described the decisions of several women who went to Belkin's alma mater, Princeton, waded out into the working world and, despite enjoying relative professional success, chose to leave paid work once they had children. "Why don't women run the world?" Belkin asked in the spot we journalists like to call the nut, where one frames one's central question. "Maybe it's because they don't want to."

Belkin's narrative--think MBAs and patent attorneys chasing their Hannah Anderson-clad accessories around the neighborhood coffee shop--was salvo number one in an inflamed debate over the existence of something that's been dubbed "choice feminism"--as in, the fact that women can now choose to chuck the power suits simultaneously proves both feminism's ultimate victory (we're empowered to choose) and failure (given that choice, we choose to home and hearth).

The piece in question is more than two years old, which means the legal version is in the Times' paid archives. So no helpful link. What I can tell you is that every sociologist in the country has assigned the story to his or her students at some point, and Google can prove it.


"I don't want to be famous; I don't want to conquer the world; I don't want that kind of life," says Sarah McArthur Amsbary, who was a theater artist and teacher and earned her master's degree in English, then stepped out of the work force when her daughter was born. "Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not. Having a baby provides a graceful and convenient exit."

Wander into any Starbucks in any Starbucks kind of neighborhood in the hours after the commuters are gone. See all those mothers drinking coffee and watching over toddlers at play? If you look past the Lycra gym clothes and the Internet-access cellphones, the scene could be the 50's, but for the fact that the coffee is more expensive and the mothers have M.B.A.'s.

We've gotten so used to the sight that we've lost track of the fact that this was not the way it was supposed to be. Women -- specifically, educated professional women – were supposed to achieve like men. Once the barriers came down, once the playing field was leveled, they were supposed to march toward the future and take rightful ownership of the universe, or at the very least, ownership of their half. 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. It was about running the world.

A shitstorm has ensued. First, and most obviously, there's the fact that few of us can afford to divide our days between Gymboree and Pilates. Which is a kissing cousin to the fallicy that there in fact was a golden era when men worked and women stayed home, period. There's a hearty debate going on as to whether Belkin's comrades are in fact describing a choice, or the failure of the workplace to accommodate parents and/or, depending on which university department is slicing the data, eliminate the glass ceiling.

I raise it this week for two reasons. First, Betty Friedan's death has sparked a fresh (and more interesting) round of discourse on the relevance of "The Feminine Mystique." The best of these pieces was penned by Judith Warner and graced Wednesday's NYT Op-Ed page. Which is good, because the Times has now run so many opt-out stories about privileged white women my fingers ache to consider hunting up the links.

Although it often seems anecdotally to be true that domestic tasks and power are pretty evenly divided in families where both parents are working full time, the statistics argue quite differently. The fact is, no matter how time- or sleep-deprived they are, working women today do upwards of 70 percent of household chores for their families. The gender caste system is still alive and well in most of our households. After all, no one really wants to do the scrubbing and folding and chauffeuring and mopping and shopping and dry-cleaner runs. (I'm leaving child-minding out of this; in a happily balanced life, it doesn't feel like a chore.) Once the money for outsourcing runs dry, it's the lower-status member of the household who does these things. It is the lower-status member of the household who is called a "nag" when she repeatedly tries to get other members of the household to share in doing them.

This is just one indication that the feminist "revolution" that was supposed to profoundly reshape women's lives remains incomplete. Another is the fact that there are no meaningful national policies to make satisfying work and satisfying family life anything but mutually exclusive for most men and women.

Now Warner, who I happen to agree with and admire, is a white woman of privilege--a member of a socioeconomic caste not until Belkin's. She's also the author of the best-selling and widely dissected "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the age of Anxiety." And most recently, the blogger behind the Times' popular (and fee-only) blog "Domestic Disturbances." In short, she's a draw.

On to my other reason for wanting to revisit this debate this week: Curiously, yesterday the Times ran a lengthy, relatively thoughtful article about how the opt-out thing is a mystery to many African-American mothers--struggling and professional alike.

For professional black women, debates about self-fulfillment can seem incomprehensibly narrow against the need to build sustainable wealth and security for their families. The discussions also pale in comparison to worries about shielding sons and daughters from the perils that black children face growing up, and overlook the practical pull of extended families in need of financial support.

What's wrong with this? The Times placed the piece in the "Fashion & Style" section, alongside articles on ponytails, jumpers, and--the ironies are killing me here--a fashion trend called New Innocent that's characterized by sluttily altered first communion dresses.