The case for staying critical
Last October, the New York Times Magazine ran a piece entitled “The Opt-Out Revolution,” proclaiming, “Why don’t women run the world? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.” Last week, Time magazine issued a similar claim, offering, “You can have it all, just not at the same time.” What both articles purport to examine is the very difficult decision that mothers must make when balancing advancing their careers with raising their young children. What goes unsaid in both, however, is their shared primary function: eliminating half of the potential workers in a climate governed by a failing economy and rising unemployment. And what more logical population to exclude than the women?
The United States Department of Labor cites today’s true unemployment rate as 9.9 percent, accounting for over 9 million Americans. This statistic includes the jobless, the underemployed, and those who have “stopped looking for work.” But while the economy and joblessness fluctuate over time, pieces like “The Opt-Out Revolution” and Time’s “The Case for Staying Home” seem timeless. The argument for limiting women to the domestic sphere existed long before works like The Feminine Mystique and continue to persist despite the rising numbers of women completing higher education and entering both traditional and nontraditional jobs. The decision as to when to run articles advancing this argument, however, is calculated and purposeful.
Any parent’s decision to leave young children at home while going to work is challenging and potentially upsetting, both logistically and emotionally. Locating economically feasible, reliable, and trustworthy childcare services is arguably as difficult for the new parent as coping with the reality that your children will spend most of their waking hours with a primary caregiver who is not you. Assigning this dilemma solely to women, however, is as unnatural as it is intentional.
To imply that only mothers are faced with the predicament of what to do when children are born is to do a disservice to both mothers and fathers. On the one hand, it suggests that women possess an insatiable “maternal instinct” that overrides the emotional, intellectual, and financial fulfillment of work outside the home. On the other hand, it insinuates that men lack even the ability to desire staying home with their children in the first place. Since all families need at least one income to support themselves, the unwritten but understood argument proceeds, it is only logical that the man should be the breadwinner.
Looking solely at financial factors, the unwritten argument is unfortunately accurate: if a family is to sacrifice one income, it makes the most fiscal sense to maintain the higher one-and that is generally the man’s. Accepting this fact as “the way it is,” though, constitutes a failure to recognize the factors maintaining the 76 percent wage gap between full-time male and full-time female American workers. And one of the most powerful of those factors is a culture that insists, as the New York Times’ Lisa Belkin and Time’s Claudia Wallis implicitly do, that a woman’s place is in the home.
Feminists have long since rejected the notion that women occupy fewer management positions, receive lower salaries, and constitute less of the full-time labor market simply because they value raising their children more than they value the benefits of employment. But until comprehensive and affordable-if not free-childcare services are available to all parents looking to solve the inevitable work/family dilemma, casting the decision as a “choice” is dishonest. And relegating it to women alone serves only to exacerbate the conditions that have always limited and continue to stall our advancement.
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