The perpetually petulant Maureen Dowd is in a funk about the waning influence of the feminist movement. In a recent, lengthy New York Times Magazine article, she imagines a bleak future for young women–in particular those who opt to be wives and mothers: “With no power or money or independence, they’ll be mere domestic robots, lasering their legs and waxing their floors–or vice versa – and desperately seeking a new Betty Friedan.”
Yet Dowd ignores the key difference that separates today’s young women from earlier generations. Choice. It’s distressing to be forced to play a role you don’t want, but freely choosing that same role is not a cause for lamentation.
Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique resonated with many women in 1963 because they felt as though others defined them. There were few socially acceptable options for women other than homemaking or a career in female-friendly fields, such as teaching or nursing. Many women were unhappy with these restrictions and welcomed societal changes that made it easier for them to pursue alternatives.
Today, however, women have nearly limitless options and opportunities. They regularly enter and excel in fields that only a few decades ago were dominated by men. And more changes are coming. Young women outnumber men at colleges and universities, and earn more than half of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as a growing portion of degrees in medicine, business, and law.
With all the choice that education affords, what are women electing to do? While many fan out into all areas of the economy, many still prefer to stay home and raise a family.
This preference periodically is covered as big news. This fall, the New York Times reported a survey of Yale students that found that most women expected to scale back careers, either by working part time or not at all, once children enter the picture. The lives the respondents expected tracked with the choices of their predecessors, now in their 30s and 40s. Surveys of Yale and Harvard Business School alumni reveal that many high-performing women stop or cut back on working during prime child-rearing years.
Surveys can’t tell us if these women were perfectly happy with their choices; undoubtedly, though, some feel regret or curiosity about the path not taken. Probably some of the current Yale coeds will decide that motherhood isn’t as fulfilling as they’d imagined and return to the workforce sooner than planned. And many women who dedicate themselves full-time to career feel loss for missing time with their children.
Such tradeoffs are the essence of choice. It would be nice if time were limitless–if one could pursue an exciting, full-time career yet miss nary a moment with the children and spouse. But that’s fantasy, not freedom. Careers and motherhood can coexist, but since our lives on this earth are finite, priorities must be set and sacrifices must be made.
Old-line feminists pretend tradeoffs wouldn’t exist if only we employed the right policies and fostered the proper liberal culture. They press for greater public provision of childcare, more generous family leave mandates, and ponder how to make men shoulder a greater portion of childcare responsibilities. Yet none of this changes the fundamental calculation that all women must make: You have to choose how you’re going to spend your time.
Many women work out of economic necessity. Surveys overwhelmingly have shown that most working mothers would work fewer hours if they could afford to. There are policies that would help give these women more options–lowering tax rates so that it’s easier to afford a parent at home or eliminating regulations that make it tough to start an at-home business.
But no government program can eradicate the essential human dilemma–which makes me wonder, what does Maureen Dowd think a future Betty Friedan would do?
–Carrie Lukas is the director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum.