Friday, October 31, 2008

Near History

By Chris Moses

“Because until recently women haven’t done anything important.”

These words hit me like a cudgel swung from behind. They were wielded by a highly intelligent seventeen year-old woman amidst a discussion of college application essays—she spoke in response to the day’s reading, the opening pages from Joan Didion’s “Where I was from.”

I hadn’t chosen to teach Didion’s essay as an example of feminist history. I selected it for the way it talked about photographs, snapshots of Didion’s ancestors. I imagined comparing pictures and personal statements, how each captured and communicated self-expression.

We were having a great discussion but the students struggled a bit with interpreting how the piece used language as much as content to tell its story.

So I stepped back and tried to take stock of the essay as a whole. Didion describes generations of her family from early America through the present—often scurrilous, glamorous only in their own eccentricity, these forbearers appear through a wry portrayal of individual drama played out on the contradictory stage of American history. Indians get killed, time marches on with each push westward and big ideas and grand narratives get trammeled by the dust kicked up along the way.

Does this sound like the past you learned about in high school, I asked. Could I assign this essay as an overview of US history?

After some curious murmuring the students emerged with an easy consensus: no. It didn’t explain the important stuff—no famous people. Politics and progress arose nowhere—this America had neither modest beginning nor glamorous end. It was just a story about some random women.

I pushed back—of course it’s not everything, certainly we must know about the wars and Presidents and so forth. But doesn’t this at least have some place in history? A focus on women’s lives—why does it seem so strange?

“Because until recently women haven’t done anything important.”

The words came forth not as an act of resignation but rather as a testimonial of self-defense. This student knew her history, she was smart, she had just taken an honors-level course in US history. Who was I to tell her she hadn’t gotten it right?

In the struggle to engage and challenge without garnering further offense, I pulled back from specifics and queried—well, what do women do? Has it changed over time—is that history?

Certainly the female students in this group expected to be successful. They understood equality as a default position even if real life could often prove contradictory.

So if today women—if they, sitting then and there—had importance and deserved recognition, how could we prove this?

I pointed to the realm of high politics. Lets count positions of authority, I said—how many women sit on the Supreme Court? Serve in the Senate? Hold Cabinet positions?

If governing power and prestige equate to the amount of history-making done by female actors, then a few moments of multiplication produce a very somber balance sheet for future historians giving millennium-turning women their due.

The equally well accomplished male students marked the conversation most with their silence. They were uncertain what to say; most comfortably they acknowledged—this isn’t something we’ve ever really thought about.

To highlight the privilege of male-as-normal, I wondered aloud—how do we set things apart as everyday or extraordinary; what makes the life of a woman or a man seem ‘regular’? And then—what virtues and accomplishments make something or someone exceptional, worthy of inclusion in the historical record?

Without practice their refrains struck a single harmony: a woman became historical when she acted like a man, when she got a ‘real job’ or tried to vote. A man stood apart when he lived as an exemplar of strength or courage, a selfless wielder of brute force who left emotions to everyone but him.

To overcome made people real; even gender had to be an accomplishment.

As excited as the next person to inspire ambition and determination, still I had to ask—what makes these situations from which people must escape? Why and how have they faced such adversity? Can it be, I asked—does accomplishment always win out over defeat, or does history-making leave a human detritus, a concentration of failure left behind in order to avoid giving the future a bitter taste?

As class wound to a close, I reflected that just as we need to think creatively about college essays and self-expression, so too about history.

Without fail solutions are sought without ever inquiring after the problem—a perennial desire to resolve life’s quandaries with a clear moral on par with the conclusion of an analytical argument or mathematical proof—whether it be a trip to the soup kitchen or the abolition of slavery.

Rather than dwell on starkly small numbers or the imagined limits of adolescent women- and manhood, change the equation, or chuck the math altogether—even if that risks departing from the certainty-inspiring equal sign that shapes so many peoples’ first-order thoughts about politics and history.

One student pointed the way with a tremendously astute observation about Didion’s title. How can you say you were from somewhere—if you’re once from a place, aren’t you always from there? How do you leave? Where did you go?

Here I think we came as close as ever to seeing what feminism could lend to history, to life and to our understanding of it. As Simone de Beauvior famously wrote—that she became a woman rather than having been born one—still there remains a powerful need to question this process rather than simply learning that it happens. As students become enveloped by sexuality, such reflection interacts powerfully with their ability to understand the world beyond themselves.

Importance arises from nowhere other than where we search for it. To leave sex and gender to women as a matter of recent emergence—just now gaining inclusion into the real stuff of history—this perversely narrows our ability to search for a sense of past, to understand the reality of the present, and to imagine the possibility of the future.

Just like this there have got to be better questions and more meaningful answers—because we’re the ones who will ask them and live within the bounds of their answers.

"Fat" women have more sex

A new study has revealed that women who are overweight have more sex than "normal" women.
Dr. Bliss Kaneshiro, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Hawaii, who ran the study, explained the findings:
"Our analysis demonstrated that obese and overweight women do not differ significantly in some of the objective measures of sexual behaviour compared to women of normal weight."

The study negates the widely held stereotype that overweight and obese women are not as sexually active as other women; in fact, the researchers concluded that the opposite is true.

I guess that whole "no fat chicks" thing isn't a hard and fast rule. So if overweight women are more sexually active, does this also make them more sexually attractive?

Beyond parody: the butt wonderbra

By Chloe Angyal

Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, known for tackling the tough issues, has a story today on the "Double O Thong," best described as a wonderbra for the butt. Fashion columnist Mindy Laube insightfully suggests that the garment might indicate:

"... a radical cultural shift, in which the male gaze has switched its focus from bosom to bottom, creating a vast new reservoir of female insecurity, with attendant economic opportunity for attuned retailers and mercenary plastic surgeons. Or is the significance of a half-arsed girdle just too ridiculous to contemplate?"

I'm going to say it's a little from column A and a little from column B. It does seem ridiculous, but there's clearly a market for the product, and that suggests that something interesting is going on here.

It's important to note that Australian culture is generally a much less butt-obsessed one than American culture, devoid as it is of the historical influence of African American culture. The mostly white and Asian population of Australia seems to just now be picking up on the idea that a "junk in the trunk" can be sexy. So while this kind of garment (if you can rightly call it that) might not be totally unthinkable or inexplicable over here, it's indicative of a somewhat novel trend for Australia. Of course, this just means additional pressure on Australian women; the "perfect body" now has an extra requirement. And with that new requirement will come all the body image hangups and insecurities, potions, lotions, workouts and surgeries that go along with the idea that sexiness is uniform, and that it can't be achieved naturally.

But gender politics analysis aside, am I the only one who thinks that that contraption looks awfully uncomfortable?

Women charged more for health insurance?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Very frightening article in the New York Times today about yet another failure of our healthcare system. Apparently women are being charged more for identical health insurance. Although providers claim that this is because women utilize healthcare more frequently (what??), "representative Xavier Becerra, Democrat of California, said that 'if men could have kids,' such disparities would probably not exist."

The article is here. It blows my mind that this country is finding yet more ways to throw women into poverty.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Judith Warner on Sarah Palin... in Yiddish!

By Chloe Angyal

I'm a little late on this (forgive me; I've been on holiday), but Judith Warner had a great column in The Times on Sunday:

In 1977, Bella Abzug, the former congresswoman and outspoken feminist, said, “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”

In other words: women will truly have arrived when the most mediocre among us will be able to do just as well as the most mediocre of men...

So first of all, high fives to Abzug and Warner for their mastery of Yiddish words for "idiot." Might I also suggest "schmuck" and "putz" - both serve me quite well. And secondly, while it would seem that Abzug's prediction has come true in the form of VP nominee Sarah Palin, Warner notes that Republicans - prominent pundits and voters alike - don't think this woman schlemiel is going to cut it (neither do I). Warner concludes:

With her five children, successful political career, $1.2 million net worth and beauty pageant looks, Sarah Palin is really not an average woman, much less the worthy schlemiel envisioned by Abzug. She’s actually, as Colin Powell carefully said, quite “distinguished” — for her looks, her grace and charm, her ability to connect with an audience, her ambition and her drive. Those are admirable, even enviable qualities. But the American public, defecting from the McCain ticket in a slow bleed, is clearly not convinced that they amount to vice-presidential qualifications.
Seems like “real America” wants something more than a wife, mother or girlfriend in a female political leader. Maybe we’ve come a long way after all.

I heart Samantha Bee

John McCain has finally put the concerns of women where they belong: in derisive air quotes... "hemorrhages," "severe uterine infections," "dying," blah blah blah. And while we're at it, enough whining about "incest," "rape," and "incest-rape."

I love you, Samantha Bee. Check her out on last night's Daily Show.

Pro-life feminism

By Franki Butler

A few days ago, one of my colleagues on this blog posted about the concept of pro-life feminism. I believe that one can be pro-life and feminist, but I also believe that such a position is only truly possible in a world where other options exist – that is, supporting a woman’s right to choose life doesn’t mean squat if giving birth is the only option she has. I was also troubled by the assumption that aborting and keeping the child are the only options a woman has, mainly because it ignores the women who simply don’t want to have children. I’m not just talking about the women who find themselves pregnant at an inopportune time. I mean the women who don’t want kids, ever.

One of my biggest issues with the mainstream pro-life movement in this country is its dismissal of the fact that motherhood is an option for women, not a requirement of womanhood. I’m sure that having a baby is a beautiful, life-changing experience, but it is an experience many women don’t want.

Reducing the number of abortions doesn’t just mean making it possible for low-income women to keep their babies. It means educating people about birth control and efforts to increase coverage of birth control in health insurance plans. It means acknowledging that voluntary sterilization is an option, and making that option open to all women, while not trying to foist it upon the poor and disadvantaged. It means educating people about adoption as an option and improving child services nationwide so that mothers who choose to give their children up to the state aren’t resigning the kids to a lifetime of being shuffled around in foster care. It means providing the option of counseling to those women who make the difficult choice to give a child up for adoption. It means recognizing that women aren’t brood mares, and that the choice to have child is just that, a choice.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Adoption: Never the Easiest Option

By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

“Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed.
Little Green, have a happy ending.”

I’ve always loved Joni Mitchell. But it was only last year, when a friend explained the lyrics, that I realized that I had never really listened to one of her most poignant songs. “Little Green” is the third track on an album of melancholy songs, Blue. Sandwiched between two songs about her relationships with men, it’s easy to dismiss. But it’s now one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, because of the simplicity and grace with which it captures one of the greatest tragedies of her life: the child that she gave up when she was 21, when she was still Joan Anderson, an unknown art student in a Toronto boardinghouse. The baby’s father “went to California/hearing that everything’s warmer there,” essentially abandoning her. She didn’t tell her parents she was pregnant, and when her brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell fell apart, Joni Mitchell signed the papers and her daughter was adopted by two teachers in the Toronto suburbs. Mitchell named her “Kelly” (as in kelly green). Even though the two would be reunited in 1997 (under an obnoxious media spotlight), the heartbreak in Mitchell’s lyrics is undeniable:

“Born with the moon in Cancer
Choose her a name she will answer to
Call her green and the winters cannot fade her
Call her green for the children who made her
Little Green, be a gypsy dancer.”

I am reading Ann Fessler’s collection of oral histories, The Girls Who Went Away, for my women’s studies class, very slowly. The book has been difficult for me to finish, for the same reasons that Joni Mitchell’s song is hard to hear. It recounts the stories of eighteen women who gave up children for adoption in the twenty years before 1973, when Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. The book is written in a frame of sorts; each chapter begins with an overview of an aspect or stage of the adoption process (“Birth and Surrender”, “Good Girls vs. Bad Girls”), with small quotes from dozens of other women scattered throughout, and is followed by two women’s longer narratives, told in their own words.

Although I can tell that I'm going to have some problems with the sentimentality after a few more narratives, the book is very affecting. Each woman tells a different story of loss and betrayal, of grieving cut short, of rejection and humiliation. To be young, pregnant and single in America in the 1950s and 1960s was essentially to be ostracized. The women were shamed and blamed, shipped off to maternity homes to give birth, and then forced back into their old lives, to be groomed for the life of legitimate (married) motherhood that society demanded of them. They were not permitted to grieve for the loss of their children, and the experience was, in many cases, traumatizing. In many cases, they wanted to keep their children.

There are so many things wrong with the way that the women were treated that I can’t go into them here; neither am I going to address my frustration with the fact that the book has yet to take into account the feelings of the young fathers. But the part that makes me saddest, and angriest (and I haven’t finished the book), is the ignorance of the young mothers. “I mean, the lack of information in 1966 was astounding,” one of the women recounts. “If you wanted to get birth-control pills, you had to be flashing a diamond solitaire. Doctors really didn’t give them to you. Why would you need those? You shouldn’t be having sex anyway.”

Girls were pregnant at sixteen and had no idea about the logistics of vaginal birth. Women got pregnant the first time they had sex, despite the fact that around 25% later reported that they did not want to have sex the first time they did so. There was no information. And the women carried all the blame, were often haunted throughout their lives by the shame of giving up their children, even when it was not a choice, and the pregnancy was arguably not their fault. A sexually active teen who does not use contraceptives has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year.

I’d like to think that things have changed today. And in fact, teen pregnancy rates have been falling since they peaked in 1991, and the teenage women who do become pregnant now have a choice; around one third of teenage pregnancies end in abortion. But then again, I think back to my high school health class, which (thank God) was not my only source of sex education, although for many of my fellow students, it was. Like many public school health classes, it was based in abstinence-only sex education, and I don’t remember my teacher ever referring to contraceptives or any method of pregnancy or STI prevention besides abstaining from sex. Instead, we talked about the negative repercussions of syphilis and gonorrhea, and studied human anatomy, with a heavy dose of guilt. Some of the information that we were given actually turned out to be incorrect. It didn’t seem that much had changed since 1966.

The federal government has funded abstinence-only sex education for the past twenty-five years, despite countless studies which have shown that it just doesn’t work. I feel sometimes as though we’re still living in the dark ages. It doesn’t matter that we tolerate the pregnancies teenagers like Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin today (and when I say tolerate, I mean that in the loosest sense of the word, because they are still censured for their choices) if their pregnancies are not a choice.

And really, what is the choice that teenage mothers are given? Abortion and adoption are both hard roads. I was struck by the numbers of Fessler’s interviewees who had wanted to keep their children. But very few women have Bristol Palin’s luxury. We give young women an impossible choice: we refuse to educate them about pregnancy, condemn them for becoming pregnant, and then give them a choice of two traumas, because our society is too unbending and too sexist to accept, or help, a child raised outside of a heteronormative family.

Margaret Talbot has a great article in the November 3rd issue of The New Yorker about the gulf between red states and blue states on sex education. The rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs are much higher in red states, where abstinence-only education is prevalent, even though these are the homes of chastity pledges and evangelical Christianity, and those teenagers theoretically shouldn’t be having sex at all.

But I keep going back to the Joni Mitchell song. There are many ways to prevent having children, so now every child should be a wanted child. And even though I agree that abortion is a tragedy, neither is adoption an easy venture. Let’s just accept it: teenagers can, and will, have sex. And to deprive them of education, and then blame the women for the result, is utterly cruel.

Paid Parental Leave for All

by Christina DiGasbarro

In my life, I have only met two men who took paternity leave. I didn’t stop to think about that until this summer, when a family in my neighborhood had a second baby and the dad stayed home for 2 weeks. I wondered why taking paternity leave wasn’t more common.

So I decided to look it up. Then, I was terribly surprised to find that even paid maternity leave is not standard in the United States. Some women are lucky: they get paid during their maternity leave. But, many (perhaps most) women who do take maternity leave don’t get any sort of pay during the time they spend with their new babies. Even worse, many women have to use up their sick days and vacation days to patch together a maternity leave that’s still inadequate. And for so many women who need an uninterrupted income to make ends meet, taking maternity leave just isn’t an option.

How is this right? If a woman has a child, she ought to be able to take time off to care for her child and for herself. It’s no secret that childbirth is a difficult process, potentially riddled with dangerous complications; and Caesarian sections, which are becoming more common, require even longer rest and recovery periods. Even if a woman’s recovery is blessedly short, she’s still going to be waking up several times a night for the first several weeks to tend to the baby, and she’s still going to be exhausted on multiple levels. And it’s pretty hard for a woman to breastfeed her child if she’s at work and the baby is somewhere else. While it’s still each woman’s prerogative to feed her child as she sees fit, breastfeeding has benefits for both the woman and the baby: it’s better for the baby’s health, and women who breastfeed are less likely to develop certain cancers and other life-threatening diseases. A woman who wants to breastfeed ought to be able to do that. A woman who wants to devote some time to her family ought to be able to do that.

This is a fact: only women are actually capable of bearing children. If they choose to take on motherhood, we should respect that and not make it more difficult than it needs to be. Why in the world would we want to penalize women who have children, to deprive them of income, to force them to return to work before they’ve fully recovered physically and mentally, to deny them the potential long-term benefits of breastfeeding?

There are some companies—though precious few—in the United States that offer at least three months of paid maternity leave. We can also look at numerous other countries around the world that mandate at least three months’ worth of leave with 100% of wages paid*, such as: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Colombia, France, India, Togo, and dozens of others.

Let’s get with the times here; if all these countries can mandate paid maternity leave, let’s find a way to make it work here in the U.S.A. too. This isn’t to say we ought to require women to take maternity leave, or to take a certain number of weeks; it is to say they ought to have the option to take maternity leave without taking a hit to their wallets or their jobs.

Of course, we don’t insist that women are ‘more equal’ than men (unless we change our names to things like Snowball and Napoleon). So while we’re at it, let’s make paid paternity leave standard too.

It’s true that the fathers don’t go through labor, and they don’t derive any health benefits from breastfeeding (because they obviously can’t do that). But why should the mother solely bear the burden of caring for the infant both parents willed into the world? I don’t think it’s unfair to say men would like to spend time with their children, but right now, with very few men receiving paid paternity leave, it’s not economically feasible for most families for the fathers to take paternity leave; this is especially the case for families where the mothers aren’t receiving paid leave. However, if fathers received paid leave, it would enable them to involve themselves more in their children’s lives; it would relieve the burden that is too often placed squarely on the mothers’ shoulders.

And who could complain about that?

*If you don’t believe it, check it out here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Spectacle of the Halloween Slut

by Elizabeth Winkler

It’s the morning after Halloween and in reviewing the night’s events, the prime question remains: How many sexy bunny costumes did we count in total? German beer girls? Barbie dolls? Nurses? Catholic school girls? French maids?

Even – it’s awfully popular this year – Sarah Palins?

And perhaps even more importantly, how many of these girls have deluded themselves into thinking that they’re dressing as various takes on porn stars because it makes them feel good, because they want to, because it is their “choice.”

When free will is influenced by the reality that men enjoy, pay attention to and legitimize the “slutty cop” and her entourage, how much of an unbiased choice still realistically exists? Would the cop be dressing like that if we lived in a society that had no history of turning women into pure objects of male sexual fantasy? Where else would she have gotten this idea? Can concealing it in the illusion of ‘choice’ every really transform the fundamental nature of the sexy Halloween costume?

The problematic idea here – that women can reclaim “playing slut” by convincing themselves that it makes them happy, rather than men – uncovers one of the basic, most pervasive distortions of modern feminism: that choice makes a difference. For one, choice is heavily influenced by a social environment that caters to the male, and two, choosing to be a sex object can never be liberating by the act of choice itself, when the all-important result – the sex object – remains the same.

So the fundamental question that girls fail to ask themselves here is: why does this make me happy? Is it possibly because women are born into a world of male meaning-making where women seek approval from those who matter – those who own and control the means of production in every form – by pleasing them?

As de Beauvoir famously quipped, “one is not born a woman but becomes a woman.” The male exists as both the masculine and the neutral, so that when a woman is set in juxtaposition with the masculine Essential – say, by his pleased gaze and wink when she walks across campus, or even in the moment when she stands alone in front of the mirror before a night at the street, contemplating her wardrobe – she feels her femininity, the consciousness of her womanhood, imposed upon her. She is no longer just a person walking down the street, just a human getting dressed; the flickering identity of being female is felt once again.

In these moments (and often more than moments), the male presence – in physical, emotional, or psychological forms – exists as a sort of audience to which she feels a compulsion to cater: the woman walking across campus, victim of catcalls and snide comments, the girl donning her sexy French maid costume, all function as a sort of “spectacle.” The ‘stage,’ after all, exists as the most explicit form of otherness to the realm of the real. Thus, the woman locates her identity not only in the ‘not-male’ but also in the psychic space into which the male projects his insecurities and fears as well as his distant fantasies and desires.

The costume-wearing nature of Halloween thus seems to simply exaggerate the performance of gender roles and the spectacle of femininity that already exists in everyday life. Unlike the gender critique that is drag, however, it buttresses the system of the woman-entertainer to male-viewer, condoning and reinvigorating the performative exchange until next year… or just until tomorrow?

Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying it’s bad to look sexy, or pretty or desirable. It’s absolutely natural for both men and women to want to look attractive, but when looking attractive becomes mimicking porn stars, something is seriously wrong. And even worse when one realizes that it is only dramatizes the actual relations that turn the female body into the perpetual sight of the spectacle and the female self into a flickering non-identity, contingent on the projections of the male.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sarah Palin's Wardrobe Troubles

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Almost daily, a new McCain hypocrisy is exposed. The latest is almost too absurd to articulate: Sarah Palin, the folksy, down-home, gun-loving mama, has apparently been kitted out in a wardrobe costing approximately $150,000. Her stylist is apparently paid better than the campaign’s policy analysts, and the whole situation just became more bizarre when Palin denied that the clothes were “her property” (just like the "lighting" and "staging" at the sounds as if Palin needs a little refresher on the difference between something that you are given and wear repeatedly, and the lighting display at a public event). The stores themselves are claiming that the purchases never took place, even though the McCain campaign released a statement saying that the clothes would be donated to charity, so it seems that they had to have been bought.

Some people are saying that we really shouldn’t be worrying about the price tag of Palin’s clothes. So what if Palin bought some expensive duds? The expectation is that politicians will look adequately (read: expensively) dressed on television, regardless of their “Wal-Mart mom” image (and really, what Wal-Mart mom wouldn’t love to be given a gold card, shoved into a Neiman Marcus, and told to go crazy?). Others say that this is a problem which has occurred before - Jackie Kennedy was criticized for her extravagant bills, and even Mary Todd Lincoln’s expenditures were decried as extravagant and pretentious, especially during a war. Even more recently, John Edwards spent much of his failed presidential bid struggling against accusations of elitism which stemmed from his $400 haircuts.

So why can’t people accept that this is both a political necessity and a Wal-Mart mom’s dream? Why can’t we see Sarah Palin as Cinderella rather than Caribou Barbie? Because Palin has spent the past two months acting out a role which is essentially false: she is, as Judith Warner pointed out in her latest column, really not an average woman (unless you follow the McCain/Palin definition of “middle class”, supposedly where the Palins, who are worth $1.2 million, have spent their lives). But the character that she is playing - because it is a character - claims to have a right to the White House, not based on her qualifications or talents, but precisely because of that averageness. Palin’s appeal is based on the lie unmasked by these expenditures: that she is not a politician who needs to be decked out in expensive suits to convince the people that she is qualified, because her qualifications are not those of a normal politician.

And those who are brave enough to cry sexism at these fresh criticisms need to realize that in a presidential campaign, it is blatantly misogynistic to assume that the candidate has so little to offer that it is more worthwhile to make sure that she looks good on TV than to pay for her to be informed on the issues. It is further proof that Palin is of the shallowest use to the McCain campaign - she is a face, a way to pull in her “dude” supporters and gal pal fans. And the fact that McCain is willing to potentially violate campaign finance regulations (perhaps the real reason why we’re having trouble getting straight answers about when, and where, and why these clothes were bought) shows just how desperate he is, and how little he trusts the American people, if he thinks that he can dress up an unqualified outsider in designer clothes and make sure that she has the best makeup money can buy, and assume that these are the only qualifications we need.

The Balancing Act

by Jordan Kisner

The other day in seminar somebody posed the following question: Do women still worry about having to choose between having a career and having a family? Every female hand in the classroom shot up. After listened to my classmates’ responses, I was pretty disappointed, if not entirely surprised. Almost every girl reported that it did feel like a conflict (though not an insurmountable one) that she would someday have to face. I heard a startling variety of rationalizations for making each choice. I heard careful plans for accomplishing both. I heard anxiety about trying to “have it all.” Apparently, for the thousands of women who are preparing to leave university for the real world, the choice between career and children still looms large. 

We had been talking about The Feminine Mystique before the conversation turned to our personal lives. As I sat there listening to the other women in my class I gloomily wondered if much has changed since Betty Friedan wrote her controversial attack on an American society that told women that true happiness lay in vacuuming, diapers and dinner parties.

Certainly some things have changed. Society tells women of my generation we can –and should!—do it all. Websites, books, even day planners are devoted the working mom, and most college aged women I know have been raised to want both a wildly successful career and a beautiful family. The widespread societal acceptance of women doing and wanting it all is a big leap forward since Friedan’s time. Thank you, feminism! Problem solved!

Oh, but wait. Women still get passed over for promotions because they took maternity leave. Traditionalists continue to question whether you can really be a “good mother” if you can’t drive your children to soccer practice because you’re at work. The New York Times runs an article practically every other day pointing out the correlation between the rise of Downe Syndrome and women putting off childbearing until their thirties or forties to pursue careers.

Clearly, the conflict between careers and children has not gone away; in fact, it is more of a stressor for young women than ever before. This is largely because the majority of the responsibility involved in maintaining a household and caring for children still falls squarely on women regardless of their career aspirations. This assumption that family life is fundamentally the woman’s responsibility is striking in Friedan’s writing, and, frighteningly, I don’t think very much has changed.

How many male Princeton students worry about having to make a choice between having a career and being a father? The idea was so foreign to the men in my seminar that they seemed stunned that anyone was worrying about it at all. And yet the outpouring of anxiety from my female classmates was overwhelming.

Something is wrong with that picture. It is time for us to challenge the notion that onus falls on women to worry about this. Given that reproduction is a collaborative venture, it’s high time we started expecting that the balancing act of children and career be collaborative as well.