January 15, 2005

The Counter-Feminist Noble Lie

The Tool's latest is a nice illustration of what I call the Counter-Feminist Noble Lie, which runs as follows: Ladies! That biological clock is ticking! Better have kids when you're young, and put that career on hold, or you'll wind up barren and miserable!

The first, and most obvious, problem with this is that it presumes women want both children and a profession; and many of those who end up not having children will suffer 'a profound, soul-encompassing sadness'. Yes, I'm sure Gallup asked whether those women who never had children experienced deep Angst over their decision. For my purposes here, though, I'll assume most people would, ceteris paribus, like both a few (1-3) children and moderate career success. I will also readily concede that the current model for the life of a professional is based a man dedicating himself to his job for several decades, while his wife maintains the house and raises his children; the gendered terms in there are deliberate.

Now, let's take a look at The Tool's central argument for the Noble Lie:

For example, consider a common life sequence for an educated woman. She grows up and goes to college. Perhaps she goes to graduate school. Then, during her most fertile years, when she has the most energy for child-rearing, she gets a job. Then, sometime after age 30, she marries. Then, in her mid-30's, when she has acquired the maturity and character to make intelligent career choices, she takes time off to raise her kids.

In short: 'Being a stay-at-home mom takes lots of energy, so you'd better do it when you're young, ie, in your 20s! Lots of tough decisions to make in your career, so better do it when you're in your 30s and 40s, and you know what exactly you're looking for!' The thing is, both full-time childcare and pursuing a professional life require lots of time, lots of energy, and lots of tough decisions; his argument is, to use some debate lingo, not unique to his conclusion -- an argument of the same form leads to the opposite conclusion.

Why is this actually a lie, and not just a crappy argument? Because, for a couple of twentysomethings who want both a couple of kids and a couple of successful careers, there are many many more options than `she should raise the babies now' and `she should raise the babies later'. For example, here's what I can imagine as a perfectly plausible day in my life, ten years hence:
In the mornings, my partner makes sure the kids are awake, fed, and get to school, then goes off to her office -- she's an up-and-coming doctor or lawyer or engineer, and they start bright and early. A short while later, I head off to the university, where I'm a few years into a tenure-track position: my day consists of teaching a few classes, starting around midmorning, a little time grading and meeting with students, and a lot of time doing research. Midafternoon, the kids are out of school and either show up at my office or I'm waiting at home for them. We spend the afternoon together, and I have dinner ready when my partner gets home from work. We eat and spend time together as a family, then I have to spend the evening working on my current article, while my partner enjoys her time with the kids. Once they're in bed, she and I have our time together.

Obviously, a schedule like this requires the flexibility of an academic career, so that I can be home early in the afternoon most days; a pair of, say, a doctor and a lawyer might not be so fortunate. The solution, I feel, is to change the model of career development -- to move away from 'the professional man supported by his wife', and not offer women 'graduate school for homemakers', but instead give young professionals the sort of scheduling leeway they need to divide their time evenly between job and family. In this model, professional development and family development are both equally important components of one's personal development, irregardless of gender.

In other words, women -- and men -- should be able to have both a career and a family, if that's what they want; not terrified by the spectre of empty nest syndrome and falling into the old pattern of domestic wife supported by her professional husband. Once a couple is in that pattern, it's hard -- especially for her, so many years out of school and so set in one routine -- to get back out of it. As the Chronicle of Higher Education documented a few months ago, once someone leaves school for more than a year or two, their ability to return drops spectacularly, whether they leave after their high school diploma, bachelor's degree, or master's degree. This is why the supposed tension between family and career is so insidious anti-feminist.

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