What can I say about Linda Hirschman's "Homeward Bound" piece in American Prospect that is any more insightful or eloquently put than what Ampersand or Amanda or Echidne or Bitch PhD or 11D or Majikthise have said?
So rather than talk about what Linda says, I thought I'd talk about the attitudes she reveals.
When in September The New York Times featured an article exploring a piece of this story, â€œMany Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,â€? the blogosphere went ballistic, countering with anecdotes and sarcasm.
What a quaint notion: a monolithic "blogosphere" -- a nefarious horde of contrarians who just won't let the professional pundits alone.
But, more than a generation after feminism, the number of women in elite jobs doesnâ€™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.
Ah, there is only one answer. She has the real truth!
Now, I have no doubt that there's a grain of truth in what she says. Being a "childless" -- and what a way to clarify my status in society! -- child of the '70s, there's no doubt in my mind that the most entrenched attitudes against women stepping out of traditional roles are when it comes to family and intimate relationships.
But why the easy claim to the Ultimate Word? Is it mere rhetorical posing? I'm not sure. But look at the next point in her argument:
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 â€™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 â€œchoosingâ€? 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 youâ€™ve got a perfect recipe for feminismâ€™s stall.
First of all, I don't see the state of the workplace today as a failure of feminism. Why isn't this a failure of the patriarchy? Are we to blame the disruptive movement for failing to transform and reform the established hierarchy of privilege?
Also, there's an unexamined assumption here that women are leaving for something -- the homemaker life. Could not a significant, if not major, component of this career exodus be a result of general distaste for playing the male-dominated-competition game?
People who donâ€™t like the message attack the data.
Now we're back to the attack-the-messenger pose -- anyone who disagrees with her cannot respond to her argument, and must resort to what are sure to be questionable tactics.
What evidence is good enough? Letâ€™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.
Or ... women are so turned off by the frat-boy (or good-ol'-boy) atmosphere that dominates the higher echelons of business that they turn away to other things to fulfill their lives. If one has no real career prospects, unless one is willing and eager to swim in the testosterone, where else is a woman to go?
I think there's another dimension to this that's perhaps more important -- and more revealing as to where the real failures are:
During the â€™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, â€œBut she chose it.â€?
Could it be because she did not want to leave the raising of their child to the guy who leaves his socks on the livingroom floor and watches TV while she does the dishes?
Could the real story be the failure of men -- and the absence of support or even acknowledgment from the patriarchal culture to support men -- to let go of some privilege and open their hearts, their minds and the time and energy of their days (and nights) to the raising of children?
To this progressive, it's quite clear that our patriarchy does not really appreciate children. Just look at the sad and despicable state of our schools. How can we say we truly love our children when we, as a culture -- a patriarchal culture -- spend so much more on bigger and better ways to kill people?
But let's get back to Linda.
What better sample, I thought, than the brilliantly educated and accomplished brides of the â€œSunday Styles,â€? 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 feminismâ€™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.
Ninety percent of the brides I found had had babies. Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.
Again, this proves nothing -- except that, given the choice of working in a male-dominated business world or hanging out with loved ones, most women chose the latter.
But let's be clear: that's only because they could? Realistically, how many women have the luxury of not having to work? Of the women who are not working, how many are unemployed, living on public assistance or are otherwise living below the poverty line? (Are we to consider the ongoing relative poverty of women in our society to be the failure of feminism? Or is it the fault of an unresponsive culture?)
The arguments still do not explain the absence of women in elite workplaces. If these women were sticking it out in the business, law, and academic worlds, now, 30 years after feminism started filling the selective schools with women, the elite workplaces should be proportionately female. They are not.
I still fail to see how this is a failure of feminism. Why is this not a failure of patriarchy?
It is possible that the workplace is discriminatory and hostile to family life. If firms had hired every childless woman lawyer available, that alone would have been enough to raise the percentage of female law partners above 16 percent in 30 years.
There's that word again: "childless."
It is also possible that women are voluntarily taking themselves out of the elite job competition for lower status and lower-paying jobs. Women must take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. It defies reason to claim that the falloff from 40 percent of the class at law school to 16 percent of the partners at all the big law firms is unrelated to half the mothers with graduate and professional degrees leaving full-time work at childbirth and staying away for several years after that, or possibly bidding down.
I'd say it also defies reason to assert that this represents a failure of feminism. And given the entrenched sexism and good-ol'-boy atmosphere that dominates the major firms.
Let's look at another side that Linda ignores (or of which perhaps was not even aware):
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, the estimated growth rate in the number of women-owned firms was nearly twice that of all firms (17 percent vs. 9 percent) between 1997 and 2004. Responses from this fastest growing group of small business owners in the United States showed that they are seeking more than financial rewards. For women surveyed, giving back to the community (75 percent), teaching others (66 percent) and being a role model (60 percent) were high priorities. When asked what prompted them to start their own businesses, only 55 percent cited creating wealth.
"Women have growing economic power and influence, so it is not a surprise that women-owned businesses are on the rise," said Karen Kerrigan, president and chief executive officer, Women Entrepreneurs Inc. "The results of the survey confirm what we are seeing among the growing ranks of women entrepreneurs that are looking to adopt technology to strengthen their business."
If women are such homebodies, then why are so many leaving the traditional corporate culture to start up new ventures at twice the national rate?
Looking at the SBA report Women in Business, 1991 (.pdf), we see:
Womenâ€™s labor force participation and income
Â· In 1999, women made up 46 percent of the labor force. The labor force participation rate of American women was the highest in the world.
Â· Large disparities remain between men and women in personal earnings and income. For example, 52 percent of female householders earned less than $25,000, compared with 27 percent of male householders. Only 4 percent of female householdersâ€”but 11 percent of their male counterpartsâ€”earned as much as $85,000.
Â· Business ownership has been one of the most effective means of improving womenâ€™s economic well-being. In 1998, women-headed households with a business had an average income level 2.5 times that of those without a business; similarly, those with a business had average net worth nearly six times those without.
And in the corporate realm:
Women in management
Â· In 1999, women made up 46 percent of total decision-making power: 9.4 million women were in executive, administrative, and managerial occupations. The smaller the business, the lower the percentage of women involved in decision making.
Â· Among executives, there were gender differentials along age lines. Most executives under the age of 35 were women, but male executives predominated overall.
Â· A large gender disparity remained between female and male executive earnings in 1999. Only 5 percent of women executives earned more than $80,000, compared with 23 percent of men executives. Of the women, 26 percent earned less than $20,000, compared with 13 percent of men.
Failure of feminism?
Â· Various measures of the number of women-owned businesses exist, including measures of self-employment and business tax returns. The Bureau of the Census publishes figures on businesses, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes figures on self-employment as a labor category. The Census Bureau reports that in 1997, women owned more than 50 percent of 5.4 million businesses.
Â· Women-owned business generated $819 billion in revenues in 1997. Among all women-owned businesses, 847,000 had employees; they employed more than 7 million workers and had nearly $150 billion in payroll in 1997.
Â· Women-owned businesses represented about one-quarter of all nonfarm businesses in the United States and accounted for almost one-third of sole proprietorships. More than four fifths of all women-owned businesses were sole proprietorships in 1997.
This is starting to sound like women are seeking out other ways to pursue fulfilled lives -- or even survival.
Is the glass ceiling really at home? Really?
Maybe the real lesson is that feminism as worked beyond what people imagined. Maybe feminism's victory is not measured by attendance in the corporate boardroom, but in the empowered choices women make every day, be they for family or entrepreneurial ventures or (dare we say it?) blogging without a man's permission.
And maybe the real failure is in our patriarchal society -- our cultural norms and entrenched business ethics and structures -- that refuses to acknowledge the contributions women make every day.
Linda tries to lay the failure at the feet of feminists who embraced empowerment, or "choice."
Great as liberal feminism was, once it retreated to choice the movement had no language to use on the gendered ideology of the family. Feminists could not say, â€œHousekeeping and child-rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting and not socially validated. Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power, and honor.â€?
But does this mean that empowerment is somehow wrong? Did it "fail" feminism because women refused to abandon children to aloof patriarchs who've failed to embrace any meaningful sharing in the home life?
Hereâ€™s the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family -- with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks -- is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust.
This seems like rather cold-blooded calculus to me. And it reveals Linda's bias towards the patriarchy. To her, women must embrace and adopt the patriarchal culture, rather than change our collective culture to embrace values heretofore unacknowledged -- values that are embraced and appreciated in female culture.
In other words:
Female culture = bad. Male culture = good.
And I'm left wondering why we don't see the real tragedy that men have failed to embrace the virtues and values of a culture of female empowerment.
Maybe I'm wrong. I don't claim to have "the" answer. That's okay. I'm not threatened by that.