I just attended my husband's 25th college reunion at an Ivy League university, and I'm left wondering if his classmates--women and men alike--are aware that there was a feminist movement around the time we were all born. (I did not attend this university--I went to a liberal arts college that was definitely not Ivy League. Few if any of my women classmates have left the paid workforce.) Is it just me, or is the unemployed spouse and large (3-5 children) family back with a vengeance among the economic elite? Out where we live in flyover country, most of the families who look like this are evangelical Christian homeschooler/Quiverfull types.
Maybe this is just the stage I'm at in life, but it seems like elite women who came of age in the 1970s made much more intentional decisions about their lives with respect to feminist values than women like me who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. Are these elite families aware of the similarities between them and evangelical families in the way they've chosen to arrange their household economies and to allocate the labor of adults? Is the shared value of patriarchal privilege in fact a feature, not a bug, even among so-called "liberal" families?
The women and men I'm writing about are the same demographic that Sheryl Sandberg addressed in her recent book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. What, I wonder, do these elites tell their daughters about the importance of working hard in school and getting a college education? Don't they ever wonder what kind of example they're setting? Do they care? A woman at the reunion (no job, 3 kids) told me that a friend (no job, 3 kids) called her recently in tears because her daughter said to her, "Mom, if you went to such a great school, why don't you have a job?"
I'm not the type to sympathize with a surly tween, but that's not a bad question. What was the point of that college/M.A./M.S./Ph.D./M.D./J.D. degree if you're not going to use it somehow? I can't believe I've lived long enough to see my age-peers give credence to that age-old antifeminist claim that it's pointless to admit women to college/professional school or to hire them "because they're just going to get pregnant and quit. Why waste it on them, when their spot could go to a man who will use his education/opportunity?"
What's going to happen if (or when!) these women get divorced? Courts rarely if ever grant alimony any more. What's the marriage- or job market value of a middle-aged woman with little or no job experience over the past twenty years? I sure hope they're stocking a massive treasure chest full of jewelry they can cash in if need be, or even better, funneling cash into a retirement fund for themselves. In the Cayman Islands.
Why do straight women still view their work and professional lives as extras, frills, or expendable? I was discussing this with a friend of mine who is an extremely hardworking woman in a very demanding profession. She remarked that "no one likes 'work.' That's why it's called 'work!'" In other words, as Don Draper said to Peggy Olson last season in Mad Men: "That's what the money's for!" Work is not supposed to be fulfilling or fun most of the time. It's supposed to be a means to an end.
This retro-vision marriage and family arrangement looks like an incredibly shitty bargain with patriarchy to me. So what's the answer? Can't the world of work also be a crummy place for women, and more especially for mothers? Absolutely! Believe me, I write as someone who has had her share of craptastic jobs with sexist bosses and coworkers. But, 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. Even when I was in a crummy job, the cash (as they say) was good to eat, as are the health benefits, the 401 K, and the Social Security (eventually). 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.
How can we ever expect or hope that the world of work will work equally for women and men if women persist in dropping out and men persist in supporting them, at least so long as it suits them? 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? Just imagine the social and moral panic if a large number of upper middle-class men between the ages of 30 and 55 decided that they didn't want to work. Here's a useful tip: if you have a college education and unemployment seems like a good idea, seek treatment. 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."
In my experience, having a two-career family has meant that we have sacrificed some things, but we're more flexible in facing life's headwinds when they blow, as they surely will. We had to move out of state and far away from our families, and my husband's job is far from perfect right now. But these disadvantages are far outweighed by the advantages of having two jobs in the family. For example, my husband changed jobs last year, something that was made so much less complicated because we are insured by my employer. 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!
Finally, we're raising hir consistently with our feminist and egalitarian values: everyone in our home works, and everyone contributes as they can to the household. Everyone helps with shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. No one's time or work is more important than anyone else's. Maybe this is what I find so disappointing: the abandonment of egalitarian as well as feminist ideals. But then, my observations here expose a weakness in Sandberg's focus on elites as the key to feminist change in the workplace. Elites are the last people to lead a revolution, as the world works pretty well for them. Elite women continue to make the shitty bargain with patriarchy for their children's sake--their sons's sake, in any case. I don't see at all how their example benefits their daughters in the long run.
I guess that's as good a bargain as they can strike, once they give up on an independent income.
Parts of my guest writer's account ring true to my experience and parts of it don't: almost none of my classmates have left the workforce entirely, and most are still working full-time. But as I'm almost a decade younger, it may just be that the things she describes haven't yet come to pass among my age peers. Certainly, it seems that if push comes to shove in the marriages of my heterosexual friends, it's pretty much always the woman's job that gets shoved.
(And here's where I should add that, like Sandberg, I don't think there's anything wrong with choosing to stay at home or with downshifting or slow-tracking for a time--but like Sandberg and my guest, I'm troubled when it happens on a larger scale and when we lose crucial voices in public life and the working world as a result.)
I'd love your thoughts, readers, about my guest's observations: is this a widespread phenomenon? And if so, do you share her disappointment. . . or do you have a different interpretation of what's going on here or what kinds of outcomes we might expect (for women, for their kids, or for individual marriages) over the long term?