Friday, August 24, 2012

The no time for a boyfriend brigade

Hanna Rosin's Atlantic story about how the hook-up culture benefits - and is perpetuated by - young women is kind of great. Finally, someone is acknowledging that not all female-desire-for-a-man is desire for a boyfriend/husband/father-of-future-kids. Often, especially when young, girls desire boys, women men, for the very same reason as straight men lust after women, gay men men, bisexuals you-get-the-idea. It is, or long was, socially unacceptable for the ladies to express desire in these terms, so they would often profess to wanting a relationship when they really just want some dude. If young women no longer feel they have to do a whole charade of pretending they want every guy they kiss to be their husband, that's wonderful!

And what Rosin describes might be the LĂ©on Blum idea in action: men as well as women who've seen what's out there end up in more stable marriages later on, because they have a sense of what they want, and because they don't find themselves wondering what another person - any other person - could possibly be like. Otherwise, Madame Bovary happens, which everyone but Lori Gottlieb agrees isn't ideal.

But the piece brings up some window-of-opportunity questions. One female college student interviewed, for example, is all live-and-let-live, but adds, as if it's no big deal, that she intends to be married by 30. Clearly lots of women (and men!) do manage to keep things casual until The Official Age, whatever that may be, and then conveniently enough manage to change their Facebook statuses to "engaged" in unison with the rest of their cohort. But that's a lot of pressure, to go from ugh-no-boyfriend-please to must-find-husband-now within the span of, oh, five minutes. Why not accept that some women will meet the loves of their lives at 19 (after having dated others - 19's not that young), while others will never want to settle down? As life plans go, this one's better than most, but it's still restrictive and still has its problems.

As it stands, what Rosin describes as the default for ambitious young women is certainly what women of my generation were advised to do by women of our mothers' generation back when we were in high school and college. The worst thing any of us could do would be to settle down too early and put a man before our educations/careers. Of course, the need to move for one's career doesn't magically stop at age 30, and often enough, what will happen these days is, a woman will have nobly resisted sacrificing her potential by marrying at 19, only to give up a career at 30 or 35. So I suppose it would be interesting to see if that's going to change, if college women who didn't dare have boyfriends because Career end up staying in said career even once the requisite marriage-at-30 takes place.

Which brings up one last concern, namely that there's something awfully depressing and maybe even retrograde about women embracing the "hook-up culture" in order to have time to do internships (!) and the like. It implies that these young women would prefer relationships, but fear hurting their futures by having them, a kind of junior version of the women who wait to have kids until they're 45 because they want to first be sufficiently established professionally. Depressing, then, both because it suggests that women aren't simply interested in exploration/variety/etc. while young (thereby once again casting doubt on the existence of female desire), and, more importantly, because there's no corresponding narrative about how if a guy meets the woman of his dreams at 20, staying with her will mean curtailing his ambitions.


caryatis said...

So the idea is that a serious relationship would mean giving up career aspirations? Because being with a boyfriend (even with no children) is a full-time job, because caring for a man takes effort and you can't expect any support from him? Because it's assumed that if, say, one of you has to move for a job, it's the woman who will have to sacrifice? Am I getting this right?

Sounds like these women have given up on the ideal of the egalitarian relationship.

Phoebe said...

It's hard to say. The second-wave feminist interpretation was that heterosexual relationships are by definition about women abandoning their identities to be Mrs. So and So. But the way that message has trickled down to women now in their 20s or early 30s is, we're meant to be hyper-feminist until some magical age, at which point we're meant to be no less panicked about marrying before it's too late than were women of previous generations.

In principle, the idea is that if you marry at 30 rather than 18, you can have a more egalitarian marriage. That's probably true to some extent, but in practice, a great many women end up abandoning a career rather than never getting started in one to begin with.

And, as also seems relevant, this notion that young women are out-performing their male peers may be more true in the working classes than among the elites Rosin is talking about. (Remember that graduate degrees can be in basket-weaving or whatever, so level of education doesn't tell us everything.) Anecdotally, I find it hard to imagine that of graduates of top colleges, the women are out-earning the men.

caryatis said...

I guess what surprises me is the idea that you're giving up on your career _before having children_, just by virtue of being with a man. But, ahem, maybe I should read the article.

Phoebe said...

Oh, that's a message I've heard for years. Possible future babies are part of it, but the idea is that once you're the-wife-of, that becomes your whole identity. I don't think these college women came up with that fear on their own.

caryatis said...

But even "the girlfriend of"? I mean, what ever happened to expecting a relationship to be supportive, to benefit both parties, to make life better? Now a relationship can be expected to "derail education and career" and "get in the way of future success"? (Yes, I'm reading the article now.)

Phoebe said...

I mean, to clarify, that it's not about hours-per-week spent with a partner. Otherwise there'd be college men fearing that a girlfriend would ruin their educations.

Phoebe said...

And, I see I commented before seeing your latest! But I guess the point holds - there was a time not so long ago when marrying meant the end to a woman's independent identity, when a boyfriend meant marriage was imminent, etc. And none of this ever entirely went away - egalitarian marriage remains more of an ideal than an on-the-ground reality. (Consider that our most celebrated example of today's egalitarian marriage would be the Obamas - all may change after he leaves office, but as it stands, he runs the free world, she supports him and urges Americans to grow vegetable gardens.)

Of course, I'd be the first to admit that my anecdotal evidence is skewed by being a humanities person married to a science person - all might be different in less gendered professional areas (law or medicine, these days, apparently).

Anonymous said...

Yes, agreed on all counts, that's exactly what bugged me about this piece. And I love that Leon Blum made a special guest appearance in your post:)

caryatis said...

Yeah, I understand what you're saying. But I guess I'm not ready to give up on that ideal. Especially if we're talking about college women--with no children, probably not living together, same age and pretty much the same income and career or lack thereof, wouldn't it be easier to try for an egalitarian balance of power in the relationship then? If anything, we should be avoiding relationships later in life...

Or, you know, hope that the negotiation skills developed at 20 will work to keep relationships more egalitarian at 26.

Have you read Kidding Ourselves?

Also, I keep failing your captcha test. Surely my many strong opinions have convinced you I'm not a robot.

Phoebe said...

Anonymous who knows Leon Blum,



No idea why they think you're a robot, but this happens often whenever I use one of those things. It's nothing personal!

"If anything, we should be avoiding relationships later in life..."

That's one more way the window-of-opportunity way causes problems. A relationship begun as students, say, is almost by default egalitarian. No one has any money, or if they do, it's because of rich parents, and so it's as likely to be the guy as the girl. The ones formed by 29-year-old women who feel they all of a sudden must settle down - with men who feel under no such pressure - may also be egalitarian, but not by default. (Ones formed by 29-year-old women who don't feel in any particular rush are another story, but if the woman wants biological children...)

What bothered me with the Rosin piece, or maybe just the world she describes (but seems to approve of), is that these young women seem to overshoot the mark, feminism-wise, until 29, then boom, time to get that husband. Ideally straight women who do want a relationship at 20 (which arguably makes it easier to get work done than does seeking out hook-ups whenever the mood should strike) could have one without feeling as if they'd let down feminism, and women who aren't keen to marry at 30 would take into account only biology (if applicable), and not social pressure, when making these choices. Not every woman wants kids, not every woman cares to have biological kids, fertility does not stop at 30 on the dot in most cases, etc.

Haven't read, hadn't heard of, Kidding Ourselves, but Google tells me it would be relevant here.

i said...

Hah, you know what? Among the people I went to grad school and undergrad with, among my friends and acquaintances in my generation, I have a hard time thinking of a couple in which the woman makes less than the man. More often than not, the woman was the one to get a TT job first, or some kind of seriously-paying gig. The menfolk have been trailing spouses, are still students, or are in a lower-paying field.

Now, I'm in the humanities, so that skews things quite a bit, but I also have some examples in mind that are not academic. Maybe it's just that I've tended to stay in touch with women who are either very strong in their relationships or single? And men who are enlightened/comfortable with powerful women? Alright, I can think of a couple of examples from work around my age, but not from my own educational path. Hmmm....

That said, I take the point about women giving up careers they've already started. I saw that happen with several very smart women about a decade older than I am. Man did I find it depressing.

Phoebe said...


Your comment brings up several interrelated issues: what you've observed, which women you personally are drawn to as friends, and (not unrelated) which choices you do and don't approve of. It's definitely possible to filter out and ignore people whose life choices you can't wrap your head around. So I guess I'm wondering (without knowing what field you're in, how old you are, which grad school, etc.) whether there weren't some women in your cohort who went on to leave the field, and not in favor of investment banking, say, and for some reason they just didn't register? I can certainly believe that there are cohorts where that wouldn't be the case.

PG said...

(Consider that our most celebrated example of today's egalitarian marriage would be the Obamas - all may change after he leaves office, but as it stands, he runs the free world, she supports him and urges Americans to grow vegetable gardens.)

But remember that for a prior generation (say, Jennifer Egan's), the Clintons were the prominent example of egalitarian marriage. That makes our generation wince because what we really remember was her getting publicly humiliated over his affairs, but in 1992 it was all "Billary" and "two for one." And maybe the kids a decade after us think of Hillary Clinton primarily as a senator and presidential candidate and Sec. State, not as "wife of Bill."

Also, remember that some women who dated seriously in college and married that boyfriend upon graduation, and started having kids, fully intend to have a career after the youngest has started first grade. The last person with whom I had any conversation about that Slaughter article on how to balance career and family was a Princeton honors grad who married her Princeton boyfriend and hasn't worked outside the home since (being fully occupied with 4 kids), but plans to do so eventually.

Phoebe said...


I remember these things, but am not sure what your larger point is with them. What I can add is that mine, in bringing up the Obamas, was not that the First Lady will never ever have any other role (which I allude to), but that one fairly prominent UMC ideal is to be on a parallel track of one's future husband, to stick with something high-powered long enough to have that in the Vows (and none of that "until last month" stuff), but then to set this aside, maybe permanently or maybe not, once there are kids/once the husband gets an important-enough job. This might even be *the* ideal. Not sure, though.

PG said...

I guess what I meant was that the Clintons were presented as a couple in which both spouses were ambitious and interested in political power, and that in electing Bill the U.S. also would be getting Hillary's abilities in integral policy-making -- unlike Mrs. Obama's work, which is in line with traditional First Lady projects like "Just Say No" and literacy. So it's not just that after their White House tenure, Mrs. Clinton had a high-profile government career, but that they were supposed to be a political partnership. Given that Mrs. Clinton's most public portfolio was in health care reform and her proposal failed even to make it out of a Democratic-controlled House committee, I'm not sure America was ready for that partnership, but it was distinctly different from what came before and after. Michelle Obama has never expressed an interest in politics for herself, and indeed seems to have been OK with corporate life until Barack wooed her away from BigLaw into working for the community.

And depending on how one defines "important-enough job," I wouldn't say either had set aside her career. Mrs. Clinton was still a law firm partner while her husband was governor; Mrs. Obama was a VP at UChicago Medical while her husband was a U.S. senator; both women were out-earning their spouses at that time. So if there's a UMC ideal of dropping work once you have kids or your husband gets a prime time speaking slot at national conventions, I don't think Clinton or Obama is part of it.

What was explicitly stated in "Audacity of Hope," however, is that Mrs. Obama still carried the majority of the domestic burden (childcare, housework) even when Barack was just a state senator (because he was constantly away from Chicago and in Springfield), and that she was not happy about this. I don't know how equally the Clintons shared domestic work.

If "important-enough job" is leader of the free world, I would be surprised if a male spouse continued to have a full time job either. There are issues of conflict that would arise for most jobs (like what Todd Palin faced working for BP when his wife was governor of Alaska and negotiating pipeline deals with his employer). Hypothetically Howard Dean's wife wouldn't have dropped her work -- she didn't campaign with him because it would have been too hard on her medical practice -- but that's pretty much the only example I can think of.

i said...

Phoebe: I suspect a lot of it is biased recollection. There were a few women in or around my cohort who either left grad school or finished the PhD but left academe and went to live with some dude somewhere, but I honestly don't know if the dude was all that important in the decision. It's also skewed by the fact that my husband is German, so a good proportion of his close male friends do the greater part of childrearing in their respective marriages, and seem happy to do so. I will say that being in Berlin, and seeing so many men doing things like pushing prams and carrying babies and biking along with a pack of diapers in the basket, is just a feminist's wet dream.

PG: I.e., the last person you discussed the Slaughter article about balancing career and family is someone who "balanced" them by not having a career. She can "fully intend" all kinds of things, but the longer she's out of the workforce the harder it will be for her to get in in a meaningful way. Who knows, there might be some advantage to not having started working at all, since her career won't be interrupted. But unless she has connections who can provide her with a job (which she may), she's likely to start where she would have as a 22 year-old, or even lower, only she will be older and will find it harder to put up with boring, bottom-of-the-ladder stuff. If she graduated at 22 and had a kid a year for four years, and her last kid starts school at six, that will still make her a thirty-two year-old who has had a blank resume for the past decade. Would you hire a thirty-two year old whose resume is empty for the last ten years?

Phoebe said...


Was it anti-feminist not to be "ready for that kind of partnership"? This is something I never understood, how at that time, thinking the wife of the president having more say in governing the country was somehow a feminist cause. If Hillary had been elected, I wouldn't have been "ready" for Bill to have a powerful political role in her presidency. (Maybe this makes me a Dan Savage libertarian, though - women needed an in somehow, and in politics, the right last name goes far...)


I'd say there's probably a huge selection bias going on (or a neighborhood one, maybe?) in terms of what you're observing in Germany. That's a country known for being a place that's maintained traditional gender roles in parenting long after the other Western democracies began expecting mothers to work outside the home (whether achieving that with social programs, or with a lack of social programs necessitating that virtually all adults work). So maybe in Berlin, or in a part of Berlin, it goes otherwise, but it's definitely not a German thing.

Re: the 32-year-old mom with no resume, I believe this is why they invented law school. (Tongue only partially in cheek.)

PG said...

I don't think it was necessarily anti-feminist not to like having an unelected, not-confirmed-by-the-Senate person running health care reform. And while last names help (most of the female "firsts" in politics until the late 20th century, both in the U.S. and abroad, were women whose male relatives had held the office first), one reason I didn't support Clinton in the 2008 primary was that I didn't like the idea of our first female president having gotten there partly on her husband's coattails. But I think the Clintons were a different case from, say, Todd Palin sitting in on meetings while his wife was governor, in that Bill ran explicitly on the idea that his wife would be a big part of his presidency and that she was just about as qualified as he. Also, it seems undeniable that a significant chunk of antagonism toward Mrs. Clinton, particularly on the right, is anti-feminist.

Would you hire a thirty-two year old whose resume is empty for the last ten years?

Probably not one whose resume is empty because she did absolutely nothing. But it seems like most women who can afford to stay at home also do unpaid work outside the home, i.e. in schools, church, community, etc. (Indeed, the movement of women into the workforce has obligated many social insitutions to pay for or forgo what they used to get as free labor.) If I got the resume of a 32-year-old with a degree in computer science who had held no paying jobs since graduation but had volunteered her time and skills such that I could still see her work product, I don't see any reason not to compare that product to the portfolios of other job applicants.

To the extent that one is a bit concerned about hiring someone fresh out of school because you're not sure how well they handle responsibility, someone who's raised four kids to first grade without getting cited by Child Protective Services is probably responsible enough. I'm skeptical of Slaughter's argument that having parenting on your resume should count for much, but I think it can reasonably count for "at least averagely responsible person."

Re: the 32-year-old mom with no resume, I believe this is why they invented law school.

Law school, plenty of other kinds of professional schools.

i said...


Germany's definitely behind the Scandinavian countries, but its social programs for mothers and fathers are simply great. Utopian compared to the US. German women have essentially gone on reproductive strike, leading to very generous government support for children, for parents taking time off (and to get the maximum amount both parents have to take time off, as of a few years ago), for daycare. Berlin is unusually good, but here families where the parents work (this includes studying or freelance work or art) or where the home language is not German can get a coupon for childcare. It's based on income, but the lowest level is about 30 Euros a month for full-time care, and the highest is about 270 Euro/month. Starting from a certain age, all families, even those with a parent at home, are entitled to the coupons. Of course, there's still more demand for daycare than there is supply -- that seems to be the case everywhere -- but if you can get in, you can afford it, even if both parents are freelance student artists.

The article you linked to is problematic. One of the commenters on that page pointed out that the numbers are simply wrong. I've gone and checked the original German report, and he's right. Those numbers are not valid for all of Germany, but are part of a study done on women who had children in one year, 2007. The majority of women who had been employed before the birth of the child were employed again in two years after the birth.

Berlin is unusual in Germany not only because of the really high kita/daycare support, but because a lot of people here do have babies at all. And walking around, the majority of people I see with little kids are still women. But make no mistake, it makes the US look like it's in the Stone Age.

i said...


Oh, I wouldn't for one sweet second doubt the ability to handle responsibility of someone with a child who is still alive. I also have no question as to how difficult it is to be the primary caregiver -- I say this with a five-month old baby at my feet. I would also easily hire someone who had taken care of multiple children as a spy, because I figure they'd withstand the torture of some foreign government with ease after childbirth, sleep deprivation, and so on.

I'm more wondering how often someone whose primary line of work has been childrearing for a decade is really going to be competitive. I've seen women leave the workforce, I've seen women transition to more flexible work like running a part-time business on the side, and I know several women who did a PhD later on (as in, in their 50's) and are starting a new career now. I just don't know anyone who was out of the workforce for that amount of time and went back to their careers.

PG said...

I don't think someone who was at home for 10 years will be an equal competitor with someone who has been working full time during that period, but so long as that isn't what one expects, I don't see the problem. It's nothing peculiar to child-rearing; someone who worked on an oil rig for 10 years after high school, then went to college and law school, is probably not going to be competing for senior positions with a fellow 35-year-old who went HS-college-law school and has been practicing for the past decade. But lawyers seem to date where they should be in their career by when they finished their training*, so someone who went to law school later doesn't get (overtly) upset about working as a first year associate under the direction of someone younger in years but older in legal experience than himself. Hopefully this is also the attitude people have in other fields.

* I think it would be troubling to an employer to have someone go through law or medical school, then take years off for childrearing, and then try to get a job. But I don't think the same issue arises for most undergraduate degrees, particularly in the liberal arts, which are sort of vaguely all-purpose "I know how to read, analyze and write" things. Even practicing lawyers and doctors are required to obtain continuing education in order to remain licesed, on the theory that they have to keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date, whereas there's no "continuing religious studies education."

PG said...

Oh, and I thought this was a nice story of evaluating someone based on demonstrated skills and references rather than on whether he'd gotten paid for his prior work.

Phoebe said...


You know more than I do from reading a couple of NYT articles re: Germany, so point taken.

PG and i, re: taking time off,

I can't imagine in any but the rarest cases, volunteer work would be at close to the same level as work-work. And as someone now going from two fellowship years to a teaching semester in grad school, I'm struck by how different it is to start up again after a break, and can't even begin to imagine how that goes if the break has been for 20 years. There's a good bit of technology involved even in teaching a French class, so this isn't just medicine, etc., where you need to be on top of things.

The cases I know of women going back to work and making a real go of it have been where they've gone to law school or another professional school and started an entirely new career.

PG said...

I'm struck by how different it is to start up again after a break, and can't even begin to imagine how that goes if the break has been for 20 years. There's a good bit of technology involved even in teaching a French class, so this isn't just medicine, etc., where you need to be on top of things.

What's the difference you're seeing? I have to say based on many of my professors, I don't see how a break in teaching certain subjects would make a huge difference. Calculus, basic economics courses, a Dickens seminar -- even some courses like contracts and torts stay pretty much the same from one decade to the next, without significant changes to the caselaw. I can imagine that language instruction uses a lot more technology than plain reading-and-lecture courses, and is constantly trying to make acquisition easier and find ways for it to work for students whose learning styles don't fit traditional method. But if you're teaching a seminar on Proust-in-the-original, what's the tech?

Phoebe said...


"But if you're teaching a seminar on Proust-in-the-original, what's the tech?"

Yeah, I can see how it might look that way to someone not in this field, just as for me, it's a mystery why there are situations where lawyers can't wear ballet flats. But most of the time, if your job is teaching French, this means verbs, not Proust, or if you're lucky, verbs and Proust. This is true whether you're a TA or a professor, unless you're the Distinguished Chair of Only Teaches Grad Seminars at Harvard. (Obviously if you end up teaching high school French or below, Proust won't enter into it.)

I could go on, but will sum that up by saying that yes, to be in French, you need to be able to do more with technology than open a Word doc and answer email. But this is true now in any field - to be savvy about plagiarism, you need to know how kids these days go about it. To interact with students, there's generally going to be some online whosawhatsis, where the login is always ten times more complicated than it needs to be.

But it's also something above and beyond technology - if you're not used to work-work, with a boss and everything, it's just a different experience from either working as a SAHM for people who love you, or volunteering where your efforts, whatever they are, are appreciated. Even if there's no new technology, returning to work after 20 years would be jarring. Companies would recognize this, and the job that could be gotten, barring some key fact like this woman just earned an MBA, isn't going to be anything like what her original potential suggested.

i said...

PG: My reply to you was primarily based on the imagined case of someone doing volunteer work or the like, and questioning whether they could really compete. I think starting over is different. There might still be bias against older people, but in my field at least, I've seen older PhDs get good jobs. Youth, or at least freshness, does seem to be dated from the PhD. So yeah, you can go to law school and then start on the ground floor again. But going *back* to a career after ten years? I'm not so sure.

Actually, let me just say it outright. I vote on departmental hires, just as all the ladder faculty do, and I simply cannot imagine a case in which I would vote to hire someone who had been out of the field for that long. Unless they had also had a flourishing research programme, in which case, from my perspective, they would have been real work work anyway.

And just to be more of a negative Nellie, I don't think starting over is always that easy. Or rather, I think a lot depends on how necessary the income of the person starting over is to the survival of the individual or household. It's one thing to need money and start in a new job -- then you may well work as hard as the 22 year-old next to you, even though you need the sleep much more. But, anecdotally, I've seen multiple cases where women whose households were not dependent on their income tended to quit or scale down at work when work got stressful, because they really didn't need to be stressed out for the money. In other words, it's one thing to be 22 and be doing crap, bottom-of-the-ladder work when you know it may lead you somewhere great in a decade or two. But the 35 year-old who doesn't really need to work and is not particularly used to it anymore and has to do unglamorous, annoying tasks might not be quite as dedicated to sticking it through.