Post-Feminist Swill Redux

Susan J. Douglas

There it sat on the dining room table exuding kryptonite: the Sunday New York Times Magazine with the cover headline: “Q: Why Don’t More Women Get to the Top? A: They Choose Not To.” The subtitle read, “Abandoning the Climb and Heading Home.” An angelic white Madonna in her Ann Taylor outfit with what appeared to be the Hope diamond on one finger, several selections from Tiffany’s bracelet department on her wrist, and a toddler in her lap represented all these American mothers who are “heading home.” I feared the worst—yet another post-feminist piece of swill about how mothers can’t hack it at work and would much rather play Chutes and Ladders all day. I was not to be disappointed.

Since the late ’80s and the debut of “the mommy track,” we have been subjected to these stories about mothers seeing the light and chucking it all for junior. The format is almost always the same. Five women who went to Yale and, say, the Harvard Business School, married to men whose salaries equal the operating budget of Wal-Mart, decide to have kids and then quit their jobs and—poof—there is a national “movement” of mothers not only rejecting the workplace, but feminism as well. This article, written by Lisa Belkin (a former Times reporter who decided to quit and write freelance because her husband could easily support them), follows the template perfectly. Only here the privileged white women we meet from the “Opt-Out Revolution” are Princeton alums (as is Belkin) or from other elite universities who then went to work in law firms or newsrooms.

This post-feminist drumbeat is a slap at mothers who do work for a living, because they need to, want to, or both. It is also, of course, an assault on feminism as misguided, irrelevant, out-of-date, or all the above. As one of the mothers tells Belkin, “I don’t want to take on the mantle of all womanhood and fight a fight for some sister who isn’t really my sister because I don’t even know her.” Ouch. Well, as a feminist throwback to the days of “sisterhood is powerful,” I do think that all mothers must debunk these stories each and every time they appear, for ourselves and for each other. We mothers, whether we work outside the home or not, must say “Excuuuse me” to such alleged “trend reports” that pit working mothers against stay-at-home mothers and undermine mothers who work. So let’s begin.

Excuse me #1: Class bias, race bias, need we say more? In fact, at one point Belkin notes that 95 percent of white men with MBAs are working but only 67 percent of white women with MBAs are. But she adds (parenthetically, no less) that the numbers for African-American women are closer to those of white men. Doesn’t this make you a tad suspicious about the whole notion of “choice?”

Excuse me #2: The discourse of “choice.” Despite the headlines, what we learn inside the article is that the first two women we meet, one an attorney, the other a television reporter, were confronted with speed-up at work—55- to 75-hour weeks—at the same time they were having children. Both asked for shorter and more flexible hours and were turned down. Their “choice” was to maintain their punishing schedules or to quit. I am sorry, but this is not a choice. As one of these women admits, “I wish it had been possible to be the kind of parent I want to be and continue with my legal career.” The cover headline totally misrepresents this woman’s dilemma.

Excuse me #3: Selective use of statistics. The article emphasizes findings from a recent survey in which 26 percent of women in senior management said they did not want a promotion. So that means nearly three-quarters did. And how does that compare to men, many of whom don’t want high-stress jobs either? We then learn that Fortune reported that out of 108 women in high-powered jobs, “at least 20” have chosen to leave. Maybe I’m dumb at math, but doesn’t that mean that four-fifths have not made this “choice”?

Excuse me #4: Biology is destiny. Whenever you need to keep women in their place, it’s always good to cite examples from the animal kingdom. Belkin uses baboon analogies. She makes the usual disclaimer about the misuse of biology, and then goes on to tell us that we mothers (but not dads?) are genetically driven to protect our kids and “seeking clout in a male world does not correlate with child well-being.” You mean earning a decent salary does not correlate with being able to take care of your kids?

Excuse me #5: Buried lead. The real story here is not about mothers “choosing” not to work. It’s about the ongoing inhumanity of many workplaces whose workaholic cultures are hostile to men and women. Americans work anywhere from six to nine weeks a year longer than most Europeans. And many “high powered” jobs like corporate attorney are lethally boring and stressful to both genders.

But, you know, when the real story is about capitalism run amok, it’s commonplace to turn it into a story about a human failing, in this case the failure of feminists. So let’s be clear about who has really failed mothers, including the privileged ones in this article. First, Congress and successive presidential administrations. For decades, the federal government has refused to provide a quality national daycare system, decent maternity and paternity leaves, or after-school programs. Second, much, though not all, of corporate America and the preposterous workaholic culture it fosters.

Mothers of America, it’s time to talk back and refute insulting post-feminist propaganda.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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