I would like to begin by thanking Ashley Perez & Laura Safstrom and all the members of the SGA for asking me to be here today. I must admit I’m surprised to have been asked—although anyone who has been my student knows that I am a self-described feminist and I care deeply about women’s issues, I don’t see myself as someone who has managed to balance work and family life in a successful way. How can I speak to you on this topic?
At 40, I suppose I now have the experience and credibility to be called a “successful woman.” I have been teaching for two decades, and in my classes I always try to confront women’s issues as much as possible, even if that means creating hostility in a generation that by and large sees itself as having gone beyond the gender struggles that defined the 1970’s and 80’s, when I grew up. I have a long list of publications—some of which could be described as feminist—that make me seem like a successful writer. As many of you know, I have a successful marriage to an equal partner who also would call himself a feminist if he were here, instead at home taking care of our sick dog. Moreover, I have achieved all of these achievements as a first-generation immigrant Latina, a feat in and of itself.
The truth, however, as the great philosopher Obi-Wan Kenobi put it, depends greatly on your point of view. From a less optimistic viewpoint, the successes I have just enumerated are a product of creative presentation, the kind one often does on résumés. If someone had told me, when I was a college student, that at 40 I’d be working part-time and relying on my husband’s salary for survival, I’d have died of mortification. The plan was different. My goal was to marry, yes, but always to be economically independent. That demanded a stable, economically viable career, but I also wanted one that would give me the time to pursue writing, and that is how I came up with teaching. In other words, I wanted it all: a successful career, personal fulfillment, and a rich family life.
That was the ideal, but the reality was that I made a series of choices that prioritized family and emotional life over career development. I use the word choice deliberately, because it is descriptive of the brand of feminism that became the legacy of my generation, women who reached adulthood in the late 80s and early 90s. Though the idea of choice feminism—basically, the notion that women should be free to choose whatever lifestyle they wish, whether that means staying at home and being a mother, pursuing a career, or some combination thereof, without being told which choice is “best” by a prescriptive social agenda—has been in circulation for some time. It is a carryover from the discourse of abortion, which began to use the term “pro-choice” to avoid the use of the more negative “pro-abortion.” Yet, it was not until 2005, in Linda Hirshman’s American Prospect article, “Homeward Bound,” that the term “choice feminism” became a commonplace of feminist lingo. Ironically, in that article, Hirshman bemoans the choices women were making at the time, women who had reached the pinnacles of education and privilege only to quit working as soon as they became mothers. According to Hirshman, women were making terrible mistakes, abandoning the hard-won rights of earlier feminists in their retreat to the home. These were the same women who, two years earlier, had been dubbed the vanguard of the “opt-out revolution,” the term used by Lisa Belkin in her New York Times article of the same name to describe this phenomenon. While Belkin ended her article on a positive note, suggesting that women would transform the workplace with their point of view into a less demanding structure that would eventually allow both men and women to lead more balanced lives between work and family, Hirshman sounded a note of alarm—women were going backwards, abandoning the public sphere and losing the political and economic clout that had enabled choice feminism in the first place.
Hirshman urged women to remember what Betty Friedan called the feminine mystique, the syndrome she explains in the seminal 1963 work that explored the limitations of an exclusively domestic life for women. While crediting the feminist movement for having opened the doors of the workplace to women, Hirshman condemned it for quitting before it successfully redesigned family life. Women weren’t quitting the workplace because they were freely “choosing” the domestic sphere, but rather because they were too exhausted by the now-proverbial second shift. The egalitarian home, where both men and women shared the responsibilities of keeping house and raising children equally, had failed to happen, and in validating the choice to stay at home, the philosophy of choice feminism had preempted the discussion over whether the unequal division of labor was fair or not.
To address this situation, Hirshman offered 3 very concise recommendations: “Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don't put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.”
What this meant was, first of all, that women should stop fooling around with liberal arts curriculums that only led to low-paying, limited opportunities in academic and artistic fields. Instead, women should use their college experience to prepare for work. She wrote, “Feminist organizations should produce each year a survey of the most common job opportunities for people with college degrees, along with the average lifetime earnings from each job category and the characteristics such jobs require. . . . The survey would ask young women to select what they are best suited for and give guidance on the appropriate course of study.”
Second, once ready to pursue work, women should stop prioritizing fulfillment or meaningful social service in favor of jobs that make money. She wrote, “Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family.”
This leads to her third point, family. Here, she was also very specific, recommending that a woman should marry not just someone who has an egalitarian view of gender, but ideally a much younger or older man. Why? A much younger man, or perhaps an artistic type, will not have a competing work agenda. If it comes to choosing one career to put on the chopping block for the sake of home and family, a woman in a superior economic position—that is, married to a younger man who has not yet established himself as much as she has or an artistic type who doesn’t have economic supremacy over her—will get to keep her career while the man gives up his. Conversely, a well-established, older man will have enough money to pay for help, maids and nannies who can free the woman to continue working. The worst bet is an equal partner: “If you both are going through the elite-job hazing rituals simultaneously while having children, someone is going to have to give,” she wrote. Once done finding the ideal partner, she finally recommended having only one child, to ease the burden of child-rearing without missing out entirely.
Practical advice, to be sure, but no way to live, if you ask me. Except for the single-child policy, I broke all her rules, relentlessly pursuing a career in the dire liberal arts, despite at one point having been a well-rounded student who I’m sure could have succeeded in a more lucrative field. The scant four years that separate my husband and I meant, nevertheless, that when I met him he was at the end of his studies while I was only at the beginning of mine, and so he got his degree and his job before I did, making the development of my own career at first economically secondary and then eventually simply economically irrelevant. Though we never got around to having that first child, much less a second, we did have one, then two, then three, and eventually four elderly parents whose care demands that we stay in Miami, where my choices, so to speak, have been limited to either part-time work or switching careers altogether.
What was I to have done instead? Joined the ranks of the millions, both men and women, who make good money but hate their jobs? Passed on the rare opportunity of sharing my life with someone who loves me, understands me, and shares my interests and values because he posed too much of a threat in the competitive job market?
Perhaps I didn’t have the necessary mettle to martyr myself to the feminist cause, to make inroads or at least toe the line for the women who followed. I prefer to think, however, that among the limited field of choices at my disposal, I made those choices that would make me happy not as a woman, but as a human being. I believe that if I had been faced with a wider field of choices, I would have chosen differently. Both Hirshman and Belkin were right on one note: the working world is not only at odds with family life, it is hostile to it. Where both of these writers were shortsighted is in assuming that only one of these spheres is in need of revision, when in reality it’s both.
Today I hear my women students say things like “I really want to be a doctor, but nursing is a better career for women,” or “I really wanted to be a plastic surgeon like my father, but he says nursing is a better career for a woman,” or “a woman should have the right to pursue her career in her twenties, but give it up in her thirties, because children need their mother.” They are already compromising, and who can blame them? The way we have come to think of work is exclusive of any other aspect of life. No sacrifice seems too great to offer at the altar of The Career. Relocate to Uzbekistan today and back to Wyoming tomorrow? Sure, no problem. Put in a 60-hour work week to impress your boss and get a promotion so you can work an extra 5 or 10 hours more? Sure, no problem. Drive for two hours every day or maybe even spend the work-week in a hotel in a different city and then drive home on the weekends? Sure, no problem.
This concept of success and dedication demands the turning over of your entire life, a proposition that should be unacceptable to both men and women. We bemoan the loss of community and family life, of spirituality, and even of our health in this society, and all these losses are directly attributable to a concept of work that demands a slavish dedication to ever-diminishing wages. It’s a trap. For every stay-at-home mom baking cupcakes and going mad trying to unleash her creativity by decoupaging the diaper pail, there is a leave-the-home dad putting in 60+ hours a week at work who barely knows his children and is beginning to wonder why he ever got married in the first place.
Conversely, we need to stop pretending that home and family are a separate planet where only women belong. The 2011 film Life Happens is a wonderful example of what we are doing to young women. The film opens on one fateful night where two women in their early twenties have a fight over the last condom in their apartment. Sure enough, in the next scene, one of them—the loser—has a baby. The rest of the film is about how the new mother, Kim, adjusts to life with a baby. Her relationship to her friend, the winner of the fateful condom who continues to live the life of a twentysomething party girl, is compromised, because no one wants to date a girl with a baby and so she can’t participate in the party scene anymore. She nearly gets fired one day when she can’t find anyone to take care of her son and takes him with her to work. Her boss, a middle-aged woman intent on appearing younger, hates children and threatens to fire her if she ever does it again. The father of the baby leaves her because, as a surfer, a baby doesn’t fit his lifestyle.
The film ends with the typical happy Hollywood resolutions, but in between it shows what happens to young women who dare to have children: they must give up their lives in exchange. No one wants to deal with babies, and so they become the sole responsibility of the mother. We don’t want babies in restaurants, even though between the big-screens and the drunken screaming, no one has been able to have a conversation in a restaurant since TGI Friday’s first opened in 1965. We don’t want babies at church or at the movies, because if they cry they might interrupt the ringing cell phones. And we certainly don’t want babies at work or in classrooms, because they might distract us from Facebook and Twitter. We just don’t seem to want babies anywhere, and no wonder: to have a baby is to exit the world, to become an outcast. You can hang out only with other mothers, and in designated spaces. This isn’t choice; it’s segregation.
The aphorism holds that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. One way to address this issue is with education. We need to reinvigorate women’s studies programs, to study women’s history, women’s literature, and even women’s biology. We need to teach a new generation of women why Woolf wanted a room of her own, why Nora leaves Torvald, and how it is that Minnie Wright wound up strangling her husband.
Had I not studied these women’s lives myself, I might not be able to understand what my parents are going through right now. My mother was a pioneer of the so-called mommy-track. She received an Ed. D. from the University of Havana and worked as an educator in Cuba until she left in 1969, at the age of 40. She had me late, at 43, and since my birth coincided with the move to the US, she gave up working to raise me. Try as I could to keep her employed, however, I was fully grown by the time she was just 63. She’s 83 now, and it’s been 20 years and counting since her most intellectually challenging task has been what to make my father for dinner. She still tears up when she talks about her work in Cuba. Meanwhile, my father has just retired, finally, at 80. He spends his days in bed. Just last week he cried in front of me for the first time. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said. He had been working since he was 14.
These are not women’s issues; these are human issues. What we need as women is no different from what we all need as human beings: balanced, integrated lives, where we have the opportunity to develop every aspect of ourselves and live complete lives. It is only then that we will feel truly empowered.