Thursday, June 27, 2013

"That was way harsh, Tai": a response to a no-holds-barred manifesto I somewhat agree with

Flavia has a guest post from one of her readers, a claim that there is indeed an "opt-out revolution," as it's been put elsewhere. The guest-post is, in "Clueless" parlance, "way harsh, Tai," towards women with Ivy League degrees of not-such-distant vintage (spotted at the writer's husband's 25th reunion) who do not work for pay. It's also super compelling and getting a great discussion going. The letter-writer, who implicitly acknowledges the anecdotal nature of her evidence, finds that women with fancy degrees (Ivy college, graduate degrees) are staying home to raise large families. If it's their 25th college reunion, that makes them 47, give or take. So it's unlikely, though not impossible in that milieu, that they're staying home with very young children, let alone physically recovering from pregnancy. They're staying home with older children, it seems.

Which is interesting, sure. Do their husbands encourage this (as Flavia says in the comments, the status-symbol phenomenon, or for less sinister if still upsetting from a feminist perspective reasons) or merely tolerate it? How much of this is choice and how much is, as the author hints at one point, something more bleak - a kind of internalized misogyny holding back women with great potential? The danger of choice feminism is that we risk not considering that very real phenomenon as a possibility. Is there any positive to an arrangement where one parent stays home, if we make it more of a gender-neutral option? Could be, but as long as it's not gender-neutral, we must go on having this conversation.

And a useful conversation it is. But it's a message that would have come across more strongly had the author not held herself up as a shining example of adherence to feminist ideals, of general together-ness. She writes, as an example of why two-working-parent families are better, "When our child was small, we could afford excellent in-home care and also save for hir education. We don't have to debate whether or not we can afford camp, music lessons, or orthodontia. We can!"

Eh, not everybody can. Another family - even Ivy-educated - may have calculated that if the lower-paid partner (often the woman) worked outside the home, this wouldn't pay for childcare for multiple children. Now, maybe that's short-sighted - maybe the woman should keep working as an investment in her future career-and-salary - but it's still a different situation.

Also this: "Maybe it's my background as a scholarship kid who always assumed she'd work her whole life, but I've never seen the world of work as a faceless enemy," and "[...] I've managed to work my way into a decent position, and I have hopes that new opportunities might open up for me in the future."

Is that a frank assessment of good life choices, good character, or a kind of boasting that fails to take into account the role that luck plays in all of our lives? Maybe a bit of both, and I say this as someone who's probably also done my share of good-life-choices humblebrag without intending to. I mean, it's good to think your own choices are consistent with your own values. And there's also some genuine humility in there, so perhaps I'm being unfair. But it just seems like, if you're talking individual cases, maybe there were not-so-cheery reasons these women stopped working, and it wasn't all about being bad feminists. Like the anonymous commenter at Flavia's says, certain things can go wrong in the reproductive process that disproportionately impact the one with the uterus.

Anyway, it seems clear enough that children of the middle-class-broadly-defined who weren't Chua-parented aren't done any favors if told that they won't always have to work no matter what. Because they will. Children of the super-ridiculously-rich, no, and by all means let them pursue careers as unpaid fashion assistants. But if you're of the set risking impoverishment if a husband leaves, someone's done a number on you if they gave you the impression you don't really need to work.

-Like Withywindle, who linked to some data about this there, I do think a j'accuse on the topic of elite women opting out kind of does call for numbers, if it's making sweeping claims, and not just questioning the choice on an individual level. Unless the reunion published a book with what everyone's up to (which can happen) and is basing this on something larger, it could be that the author simply ran into an unrepresentative group. I wonder if the women the author met really don't work for pay at all, or if the author's rounding down their less-ambitious or from-home jobs to 'housewife'. Or even if - if these were just women met briefly at a social function - some of these women do have powerful careers, but in a social/reunion setting for whatever reason choose to identify first and foremost as "moms." Which would also be interesting, but which would be quite different.

-We really do need to be sure these are women who might have had illustrious careers, but then decided against. "Elite" isn't a monolith. Nor does 'graduate-educated' mean 'employable in the professions.' See Emily Matchar. See my Second-After-Sartre theory. While women who become high-powered executives tend to come from a certain part of society, it's not accurate to look at everyone with an MA in Medieval Tapestry as a potential Sandberg or Slaughter who opted out. This doesn't mean women don't self-sabotage along the way, closing off various opportunities open to those at their universities, of their social class. It only means that said self-sabotage has often happened long before any husband-and-babies entered the picture.

-In response to: "Is it just me, or is the unemployed spouse and large (3-5 children) family back with a vengeance among the economic elite?": These women are/were home with a million kids, presumably over the span of many years, unless quadruplets. They weren't idle. They weren't "unemployed" really. They didn't opt out of doing things with the day.

-Re: "Why aren't women who drop out of the paid workforce being treated for depression, or at least urged to get counseling before they go?": Unemployment has been known to relate to depression, as, they say, has stay-at-home parenting. I suppose I don't love the way "depression" here is used almost interchangeably with making the wrong life choices. (OK, so there's this: "If you are educated for and capable of a decent job, the disinclination to work should be seen as a symptom of an underlying problem, not a lifestyle 'choice.'" But in context, it reads as if the letter-writer doesn't think these women are depressed, just foolish.) If these women really are depressed - and perhaps so - then this is upsetting, not a reason to chastise them for their failure to adhere to feminist principles. We may then want to look at what it is in the culture - the "beauty myth"? something in the water? - that's led them to that state. We'd want to investigate correlation and causation. We'd sooner view these women as victims of social norms than as bad feminists or spoiled housewives.

-If you're going to have a post that asks what message it sends to daughters if mom doesn't work, you also need to address the argument that kids are better off if one parent stays home. Once the think-of-the-children angle enters into it, once you're arguing that other people are bad parents, you do open yourself up to the same accusation. And as much as I personally think working-for-pay is important, I'd have to say, there are far worse things a parent can do to a kid than stay home and look after him/her.

-Having an egalitarian, 50-50 marriage, but basing this entirely on work-for-pay, seems like a dangerous road to go down, even if both partners work. Two spouses rarely have the exact same salary or work-hours at all times. It matters, in terms of power balance, if one spouse isn't and could virtually never be economically self-sufficient, i.e. if that person could never, if need be, leave. But do we really think the hedge-fund-manager plus nursery-school-teacher marriages a) are typically 50-50 household-chore-wise, or b) need to be in order to be egalitarian in the internal-power-balance sense? 

-Refreshing anecdotal evidence time! I know of quite a few women who divorced at a certain age and promptly went back to (a more practical version of) school and, in at least one case, went on to out-earn the ex-husband. This is going to be easier for women who already have a college degree, and who are relatively young (40-ish, say) when all this happens, but it's been done. I mean, there's always air-conditioner-repair school, even for the happily-married. It never hurts.


Andrew Stevens said...

Thank you. A very balanced and level-headed analysis. I'm sure I could find things to disagree with, but I do too much of that on your blog so I'll just say, "Well done."

Flavia said...

Thanks for this, Phoebe. The only thing I'll add here is that I think most women--especially those who are raised and educated to believe they'll have careers--are pretty intentional about the decisions they make, especially their work and home life decisions. Most of the women I know who have slow-tracked once they had kids (I don't have any close friends who are full-time SAHMs) are terribly anxious about what this means, about what message they're sending their daughters, about whether they're defaulting on their potential, etc.

My favorite slogan of the pro-choice movement is "trust women." The point is that women should be given enough credit for their ability to make tough decisions and to determine, when all the options are hard, which one is the least bad. And not to assume they make decisions frivolously or without reflection.

I think that same principle applies here.

Flavia said...

(Also: as someone who quotes Clueless at least once a week, I endorse this title.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I could offer a theory, by the way, for why women might be shifting back to stay-at-home motherhood in greater numbers than they once did. Oxytocin.

In the 1970s, it was common to feed your baby via formula. Over 75% of babies were formula-fed in the early 1970s, according to Wikipedia anyway. That's now down to 36% according to the Surgeon General. So that's a lot more oxytocin being produced than back in the '70s.

What I do know is that I've had women tell me how, after returning to work following 16 weeks of maternity leave, they were in tears for the first week or so back to work. Meanwhile, most men I know are back to work after a week or two with minimal anxiety. Perhaps that difference is all social or cultural conditioning, but it's also quite possible it's oxytocin.

Britta said...

Judging from my FB feed, I feel like there's also been a resurgence in SAHMs among elite women in our generation as well. Certainly, about 90% of married women my age on my FB have taken their husband's last name, and my FB feed skews highly liberal. I have conflicting opinions about this. A part of me thinks that opting into the rat race simply because is kind of a stupid reason to have a job when you'd rather be doing something else and can afford to, but the second wave feminist part of me thinks that a lot of people my age are fooling themselves if they think they're never going to get divorced or have to deal with death or disability. It reminds me of that Slate article written by a smug woman gushing about how she'd found the secret of a great marriage...after about one year of being married. Yes, everything might seem perfect now, but 10-20 years in the future, your marriage might fall apart, or your husband might leave you for his secretary, and not to at least have some sort of contingency plan seems a bit foolish. Also, there's the issue, and maybe this is my Protestant work ethic on overcharge, but once your kids are out of full-time monitoring stage, what do you do all day with your time? I can see dropping out of the workforce to look after young kids, but there are ways, especially for people with fancy degrees, to get back into the workforce, which seem to make sense once the kid is in school most of the time.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Glad you appreciated it. I saw this post as pretty rambling and all-over-the-place, but the ideas are somewhere in there.


I like "trust women" - that seems right.

I agree that people - not just women - are intentional and not simply falling randomly into various life situations. (Certainly didn't mean to imply I thought that, if that's what came across!) If anything, I think that this may have been why the letter read, to me, as so harsh. Who's to say these women fell passively and without ambivalence into their current situations?

But I do think the life-happens angle is important, all the more so for a feminist analysis of this. If life just keeps meaning that men and women who make about the same when they meet find that at 30-35, he makes vastly more, perhaps something is going on.


Yes, there are biological differences between men and women. But why would it need to be all biology or all culture? I'd be reluctant to insist "biology" as long as the cultural aspects of this are so pronounced.


I'm glad you mention name-change, although it's - alas - because I disagree. If that post of mine had been even more graphomaniacal than it was, I was going to have a bit about how I wondered if the guest-poster really knew all these women were SAHMs, or if she was simply inferring on the basis of trappings. (A changed name, a diamond engagement ring, a certain self-presentation - use of "husband" as vs "spouse" or "partner", say.)

Which is kind of understandable - symbols send messages, so if your worst nightmare is being confused with a housewife, you may want to stick with "spouse" and the name you were born with.

But it's also kind of unfair, and bound to lead to inaccurate assumptions. There are many women who embrace some or many old-time trappings, who are also wildly ambitious, and SAHMs who give the initial impression, when you meet them, that they're walking embodiments of second-wave-feminist ideals. (No rings, no makeup, etc.)

"there are ways, especially for people with fancy degrees, to get back into the workforce"

Ideally, yes. But as I understand it, this is a *lot* more difficult than it sounds. Employers are wary of hiring those not currently employed. And if it's a fast-paced industry (and all industries may see themselves as such), it's hard to just jump back in if there's another person up for the job who does know the new computer system.

Point being, it's not right to look at a mother (or anybody!) who isn't working and assume that they're not trying to find a job. Maybe they don't always announce this in social settings. But I wouldn't assume these are women with any less of a work ethic, esp. if the time they took off was to raise 3-plus kids.

Petey said...

"The guest-post is, in "Clueless" parlance, "way harsh, Tai," towards women with Ivy League degrees of not-such-distant vintage (spotted at the writer's husband's 25th reunion) who do not work for pay."

It may not pay, but mommyblogging from WonderPlanet is obviously hard work.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe: Just because it seems to me the cultural stuff leans the other way. Culturally, I would expect more women to be working than previously. (Of course I could be wrong on this.) If less women are working (and I don't even know that's true, but suppose it is), then I would find this surprising. But the cultural movement toward more breastfeeding would offer a potential explanation.

Anyway, it's just an idle theory I was throwing out there. I'm certainly not attached to it or anything. I don't actually believe it or anything, but I do find it plausible.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, are people really going to assume I'm a housewife if I say "husband?" As I have probably said length...spouse seems so bloodless. Gender is an important part of why I'm with him, so why hide it?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I mean, as I see it, people shouldn't assume a woman's a housewife simply because she's taken her husband's name. In some alternate universe in which doing so announced this path, fine, but that's not how the world seems to work. Lots of women with careers and husbands' last names. A decent number of women keep their names but not their jobs. There's probably *some* relationship between these two things, but given how many high-powered women have changed their names, it seems a bit problematic to assume a name-change means an end to ambition. (I could give myself as an example, but n of 1 and all that.) So I'd be curious to know if Britta's seen name-changes precede SAHM situations, or if she's speculating that one choice would readily lead to the other.

But one might say, re: "husband," that this person's gender is important to you, but there's no reason others need to know it, at least not in a business-type situation. A choice to specify could well be seen as a choice to make clear that one's in a "traditional" life situation. Perhaps it shouldn't be so, but there are absolutely people who a) don't like to use "husband" and "wife" and b) judge those who use them.

I do not, however, know of a single instance of someone assuming "housewife" because "husband." I know of only one instance of someone assuming "housewife" because "name-change," and that comes from Britta.

caryatis said...


"there are absolutely people who a) don't like to use "husband" and "wife" and b) judge those who use them"

I didn't know there were people who are more judgmental feminists than I. I certainly wouldn't make that assumption because of husband, husband's last name or jewelry preferences.(I do tend to assume that >2 children = housewife, though.)

Flavia said...


No, my response (about trusting women to make thought decisions) was implicitly aimed at my guest writer, not at you!

And FWIW, I'm quite certain she's not making assumptions based on engagement rings, last names, etc. As for whether it's possible that the women do some work-for-pay from home, maybe? But I'm taking her at her word that they have no outside employment. My friends who work half-time or doing intermittent contract work in the field in which they're trained are still working--and I'm pretty sure my guest would apply the same standard.

A more serious potental critique is that it's hard to tell how long a woman whom one has only met casually has been unemployed, or for how long she'll remain so. Taking 10 years off is still a major hit to lifetime earnings and professional advancement, but if the critique is about the kind of example being set for the children, then there's a big difference. My mom, who has a college degree but never had a "career," quit working when she had kids and was not employed outside the home at all for 10 or so years. Then she worked part time in various capacities for a few years, and eventually went on to work full-time at a job she loved for nearly 20 years. Seeing her desire for work and for fulfillment outside the home had a big impact on me.

Flavia said...

Er, that's thoughtFUL decisions.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I see - thanks for the clarification!

"A more serious potental critique is that it's hard to tell how long a woman whom one has only met casually has been unemployed, or for how long she'll remain so."

True enough. I'd only add to that - and I suppose repeating part of my response to Britta - that we also don't generally know (unless it's a close friend or relative) who's an enthusiastic housewife and who's been trying in vain to find work for 15 years. And one might say, there's always McDonalds, but there's also always overqualification, as well as reluctance on the part of someone with lots of higher education to take a job that requires none at all, if there's no financial incentive to do so.

Moebius Stripper said...

Nice post.

I find that so much of the debate over the value of having one parent (as you say, nearly always the mother) staying at home even when the children are well out of diapers tend to focus on balancing the mother's well-being with the children's: SAHM advocates generally taking the position that the children should come first; working-mom advocates saying that the children's well-being shouldn't come at the expense of the mother's mental health, often arguing that if mom's miserable, that's not much good for the kids. But even the standard pro-working-mom argument buys into the framework that ideally, sure, it's good for the child to have one parent at home; it differs from the SAHM argument only in that it allows that things don't always work ideally, and that mom working may be better for the kids than the available alternatives.

The guest post you link brings up the possibility that working moms are just plain better for daughters - that with daughters, there may be no balancing of child's interests versus parent's. It's interesting, because (and, anecdote != data) the strongest cases AGAINST permanently-non-working moms I've seen have come in the case of the sons. With Mom at home, someone's generally taking care of the meals and laundry and such; daughters in such families, if not actively learning how to run a household, at least seem to realize it's something they'll eventually have to do. Whereas I've known more than a few teenage-and-older sons of SAHMs who expect that they'll never have to do any of the grunt work. Then again, they may be right, so.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...



Now that you mention it, I think I've also heard that argument re: sons. Could be.

One thing that came up at Flavia's was that in terms of parenting, if your parents are reasonable enough, can provide for you, etc., at a certain point your life is your own, and you can't pin whatever doesn't go right on your parents. Which I think ends up being the only way to look at this. In terms of daughters, yes, a mother with a great career may be a good role model, and may help navigating various concerns along the way. But it seems (again, the perils of anecdotal evidence) that lots of women are drawn to doing the reverse of whatever it was their mothers did. Children of mothers left impoverished after a divorce, for example, may not think not working is the wisest move.

-k- said...

Moebius's scenario, to the extent that it's an argument vs. simply anecdotal, fails to allow for mothers who make it a point to teach their sons how to actively participate in the running of the household, of whom there are many.


"[D]aughters in such families, if not actively learning how to run a household, at least seem to realize it's something they'll eventually have to do."


Anyway. More broadly, I think the role model argument overestimates the role of the mother as an influence on what an autonomous daughter will grow up to want, underestimates the role of the father (working outside of the home, in this scenario) in providing a picture of what a career might look like, and largely ignores the countless other women and men--by default working outside the home--that girls encounter over their 12, 16, some-of-us-try-not-to-count years of schooling. Friends' mothers when younger? Coworkers when somewhat older? The world is a much bigger place than that view gives it credit for.

As Flavia said upthread, "trust women" is pretty much where this begins and ends for me.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I took Moebius's point - the one to which you responded "yikes" - to mean simply that these days *everybody* has to do household chores. Women are rarely raised thinking they will be somehow spared, whereas some men may have that impression. (Which brings up that notorious first-world-problem: how to raise children to do chores if your family has a housekeeper.) Not that women today assume they'll be doing all these chores *alone*. Of course, this is me guessing.

I agree with you and Flavia that there are other role models out there. There's clearly some difference between knowing a woman can do X and having seen this up close (think of all the people doing exactly the same paid work as their parents), but all you really need to see is the former.

-k- said...

Phoebe, now that you've called my attention to it, I can see that. I like that reading much better.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

-k-, Moebius,

This seems relevant.

fourtinefork said...

Adding my anecdote: name changing and being a SAHM don't necessarily go together.

One of my close friends kept her name, is Ivy-educated (but was woefully underemployed), and is a SAHM for 2 children between 3 and 7 years old. One child, a girl, has mom's last name. The second child, a boy, got the father's last name. (And yes, both children have the same father.)

The father isn't exactly a hedge fund guy: he's a high school teacher. And from what I've heard (but who knows what happens in anyone's marriage) would be a good dealer happier if the wife went back to work.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


What you describe, I have a nice heap of anecdotal evidence to match.

It is a tough question, though, whether husbands in these scenarios (with or without name-change!) do want their wives to work. Some yes, some no, but I'd imagine that men who a) want their wives busy and earning money, yet b) want to be taken care of, for all household/childcare chores to be dealt with by their wives are not uncommon.

fourtinefork said...

Hi Phoebe,
In my friends' case, the father-- who works out of the home-- also does quite a lot of housework and child care. So it's definitely not a 50s situation, with a home-cooked meal and slippers awaiting him every night.

They're an interesting couple.

Anonymous said...

Just to add something to the mix. I'm a man and took my wife's name when we married in 2011. I'm now staying home with the kids while she works.