The catch-22 of feminism
Maureen Dowd wrote a feature in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, Oct. 30 in which she looked at the evolution and modern manifestation of feminism in American culture. One of the column’s most striking themes was the American woman’s challenge of balancing motherhood and family with a career.
Specifically, Dowd references a book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett that observes, “It’s actually much more difficult now than 10 years ago to have a career and raise a family.”
Thus our generation is the group that is benefiting most, but, according to Dowd, also suffering most from the feminist movement of our mothers and grandmothers.
“Sex and the City” has become the tagline for our generation of aspiring professionals. Though shunned by most males and many a feminist for its “girly” focus on Monolo Blahniks, Magnolia Bakery and, of course, sex, one of the continuing issues encountered by these successful women is that of balancing career, love and children. The catch-22 is that often in order to do one or two of the above jobs well, one or two others may have to be sacrificed.
Many of the females at Washington University will be on the forefront of this catch-22 as they pursue their careers. I do not mean this as some ominous foreboding-just consider the numbers. We attend one of the top universities in the nation, and the female population here has excelled academically. The average male GPA is 3.32, while the female average is 3.48.
On one hand, much of the expectation for girls, especially at elite institutions like Washington University, is to pursue a future career.
Senior Sarah Weiss, a political science major, observed that “at a lot of places like WU there’s the assumption we’re pursuing careers.”
“Very few assume, ‘I’ll never work,’” agreed senior Sarah Steinhardt.
The focus on career by so many University females says a lot about the character of the school. “People who are here are here because they’re driven,” said Weiss.
This emphasis on career seems to be the manifestation of a 30-year movement of women into the workplace, resulting in the increasingly large number of women in corporate leadership positions. During our mothers’ generation, women were expected to be “nurses or teachers,” agreed Weiss, Steinhardt and their friend, senior Rachel Simon.
Even more taboo is the suggestion that a woman cannot perform a career for some reason. The swift and harsh reaction to Harvard President Lawrence Summer’s January 2005 comments suggesting that innate differences might limit women’s success in science-related fields is evidence of the evolution of gender-related thought.
“Women are more financially secure and more confident in themselves and more willing and able to blur the lines of gender because women are more independent,” said an anonymous respondent in a survey conducted in connection to this piece.
Yet many women today are choosing to either amputate or forego their careers altogether in order to focus on motherhood. A recent survey of female Ivy League students found that many plan to put aside their careers for motherhood, and to forego working to be full-time mothers.
“I know some people who want to work, then have kids and stop,” said Steinhardt.
To see if this extended to our University, I conducted a survey of 65 University females from all years. I found that 100 percent of them planned to get a job, go to graduate school or pursue Teach for America or the Peace Corps. Contrary to the Ivy League study, 96 percent of those surveyed who said they plan to have children said that they also plan to work.
The results of this survey highlight the complexity of issues facing women of our generation. Much of this may derive from the pressures felt from both sides of the “catch-22.” Susan Stiritz, a professor in the women’s studies department, said that the movement of these women towards motherhood could lead to a stigma from those females who focus more on their careers.
“I see a lot of students who are embarrassed to say, ‘After college I want to get married and have children,’” said Stilitz. “An at-home parent is a productive job.”
Many of the women who make the decision to take time off to raise children lose significant earnings potential. According to Stiritz, this sacrifice in earnings power may total as much as one million dollars.
The women I surveyed wanted to get married an average of six years after college, and wanted to have children an average of 6.5 years after college. The number of years estimated decreased by year in school, perhaps signifying that there is a transition in thinking over the college years.
Stiritz observed that women today have the challenge of weighing many options and finding time in their futures to incorporate both career and family goals.
“A lot of people haven’t thought it out-how they’re getting things in,” said Stiritz. She also said that “brilliant students are more troubled how to fit things in.”
Since most of the women who are in the financial position to give up a career for motherhood are extremely successful and top earners, this seems to counter the gains that have been made in terms of advancing women in executive roles. But while many feminists may balk at this choice, some believe that the fact that the choice does exist is an achievement in itself.
“Some extreme feminists would say that we’re squandering our gains,” said Simon. “But more moderate ones would say we’re taking advantage of choice.”
“The more extreme would feel we’ve gotten complacent,” agreed Weiss.
Stiritz said that at its core, the feminist movement is about transforming existing institutions so that women have the ability to balance their life choices. She said that looking at feminism from this perspective, it’s not mutually exclusive with the decision that some women make to forego a career for motherhood.
According to Cynthia Russett, professor of American history at Yale University, as quoted by Maureen Dowd, “Women today are simply more ‘realistic,’ having seen the dashed utopia of those who assumed it wouldn’t be so hard to combine full-time work and child rearing.”
Thus our generation of women is left with the feminist world of opening institutions and opportunities, but the difficulty of balancing these numerous choices, specifically in terms of motherhood and career, remains. As we move through the motions in an effort to determine our future choices, at least for now, it seems that the future will not be without the presence of the female catch-22.
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