This post was inspired by a recent discussion at Historiann’s. It’s a bit scattered and should probably be two posts…
There are a lot of different definitions of choice feminism floating around on the internet, but no wikipedia article to arbitrate. So for the purposes of this post, I will define choice feminism as being consistent with the idea that women should be allowed to choose between having careers and being housewives or stay-at-home parents without guilt or judgment. I am not defining it as a feminism that allows women to choose to defer to their husbands at all times for religious reasons (though some folks on the internet do include that definition). I’m sticking to this labor market definition.
Note it is a middle-class debate, mostly upper-middle-class. Folks making less money or who have less education make choices much more defined by salary, job options, and daycare costs– their constraints are more binding. Of course, the guilt and the cultural ethos still spills over. It’s easier to justify being in the labor force in order to pay a mortgage or rent in a safer neighborhood etc. if the cultural ethos is telling you you’re also striking a blow for feminism and being a strong role model for your children. It’s more difficult if the cultural ethos is telling you you’re abandoning your kids (whom you’re supposed to be waiting on hand and foot 24/7) to strangers. [Note: You're not.]
The idea is that 1970s feminism was more of the former. We, the privileged, the smart, educated, determined, middle class owed it to all women to show our female power, to break glass ceilings, to open up opportunities for the next generation. By not opting out, we were making it better for those who did not have a choice because we were changing culture, and we had the imprimatur to do it. (Of course, I’m willing to bet that there’s some selective memory going on, and it was still much more acceptable to stay at home rather than break those barriers. Also, I think we could have a whole ‘nother blog post about how it is no longer popular to claim that the privileged have any responsibility to society…) Today, the argument goes, the pendulum has ticked the other way and this current generation gives equal merit to the choice to stay at home, and in doing so, they’re hurting current and future generations of women.
A logical conclusion from the above is that men and women should be working for pay in the labor market in high impact jobs even if their family income is enough that they do not need to in order to meet their monetary needs. But… what if you’re the recipient of an inheritance? What if you worked a few years at a high-paying job and saved diligently and are doing early retirement extreme? What if your IPO from the company you slaved over for a few years made you a millionaire and now you want to relax?
Don’t most people wish they could keep their American salaries with French working hours? Rom coms sell balance for both genders, not just women. It’s dad whose work causes him to miss the championship baseball game, signaling to the audience the need for whatever transformation is going to occur in the next 80 min.
This cult idea of the perfect career is also damaging. Am I doing the right thing for women because I work on the fringes of the powerful and have a child, or should I instead be working harder to be at a top 10 or top 20 school? If I worked more hours, my chances of being able to do so would be higher. But I sure as heck wouldn’t have time to blog. What about women who leave post-docs to work for industry? Or decide they don’t want another year of adjuncting? Or maybe a masters degree is enough higher education… there’s more money to be made on wall street anyway.
What are these high powered careers that highly educated women are dropping out of or phasing down?: lawyering, doctoring, academia… who says these are a measure of success? They’re pedestrian … they’re stereotypes. What less-privileged parents see as entree into the upper middle class, and maybe they are, but the upper middle class don’t see them as the only option for their children. Note that they’re becoming female dominated.
I don’t know any happy lawyers, at least not ones with kids. Well, that’s not quite true. My aunt and uncle have had fulfilling careers (while raising two children), but you know what? They work for the government. They exchanged smaller salaries for 40-50 hr/week jobs. (#2 says, my aunt is a happy lawyer. My cousin is a very busy lawyer. Both have kids and pets.) I know women who should not be SAHM who left stressful jobs as lawyers to “stay at home with their kids”… but that’s not really why they left, no matter what they try to convince themselves. They discovered on maternity leave that they hated their jobs. Like the Historiann post said, their job was not compelling enough to return to. Are they failing the sisterhood? If not, are they causing problems for all women when they insist that the reason they left the labor force was because their children needed them and they just could not farm their little spoiled hellions out to strangers (sorry… that’s one specific example!), and not because their job sucked?
Add to that, strong women will sometimes be only nominally SAHM. They will engage in entrepreneurship, philanthropy, activism. Businesses that are hidden until they start bringing in large sums of money (like Kate Middleton’s mom!) or that are high powered work without pay. Is that less important than becoming a senior partner at a law firm or a senior full professor at a top 10 school? What is the brass ring?
One of my big problems with this debate is how gendered it is. Coming from a personal finance perspective, one of the great goals in life is financial independence. When women opt-out, it’s called being a housewife. When men opt-out, they’re “financially independent”, or “exploring their muse”. Even when said housewives are running businesses or charitable organizations and said men aren’t breaking even. If men call it SAHDing rather than something more euphemistic, their labor market outcomes take a bigger hit than an equivalent woman’s.
Is it right that men and women have different cultural expectations? That it’s more ok for a woman to leave the labor force, that it’s easier for a man to succeed at a career job? No. Those little choices Historiann’s post talks about are also dangerous.
So that’s a lot of blathering. I’ll end with a few summing paragraphs.
Big tenet of choice feminism: individual women should not be made to bear society’s guilt. I should not be feeling guilty for not being a professor at Stanford on top of having to live in a small town in a red state. I made these trade-offs. Most of us could do more. But most of us also don’t want the health problems associated with stress. Most of us want time for hobbies, even if the hobby is watching TV.
Bad part: any idea that if you don’t choose to stay at home there’s something wrong with you. Many women stay at home because their jobs sucked, but they don’t want to admit that. They’d rather pretend to be martyrs, sacrificing for the good of the family. I like the financial independence perspective. Your job is a way to get money. Your vocation is whatever you want to do with your time. There’s no shame in not working (unless you’re serious about the Protestant work ethic like my mom… she believes people have a moral obligation to contribute to society), so long as you pay your bills and feed and clothe your kids.
Bottom line: Let choice feminism win the day. No need to feel guilty for choosing not to work if you don’t have to and you understand the risks you may be taking. You’re not failing anyone. BUT only on the condition that parents who choose to stay at home admit that they’re doing it for themselves, and not for their kids. Let’s take the martyrdom out of feminism and allow true choice.
Note the deliberately controversial post tag… and … Go! Hit us with your thoughts.