The Times and the Times

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The personal is still political.

By Julia Yue Zhou

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my future. I’m a senior, and that’s what we do. Four a.m. sometimes finds me pitting graduate school against gainful employment, with a year off to travel in the corner warming up for its round. One could be philosophical and say what I’m really thinking about are choices—identifying the ones I have, sniffing out the ones I don’t yet have, winnowing them all down to the ones I want. Fortunately, I’ve had the benefit of older and wiser opinions: from my parents, Career Services, The New York Times. Especially the Times, which has lately been particularly vocal on the subject of my choices.

“Ambitious women seem to be attracted to ambitious men. Then when they have children together, ‘someone has to become less ambitious.’” —Lisa Belkin, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” October 26, 2003

“The women of this generation expect their careers to take second place to child rearing.” —Louise Story, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” September 20, 2005

“Maybe we should have known that the story of women’s progress would be more of a zigzag than a superhighway, that the triumph of feminism would last a nanosecond while the backlash lasted 40 years.” —Maureen Dowd, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?” October 30, 2005

So: being ambitious is incompatible with being a parent, the women of my generation have already committed to the latter, and 40 years ago, there was this blip of a thing called feminism. Funny, as an aspiring journalist, I’d always thought I could count on the reporters of theTimes to tell me about successful careers.

But worse than hearing the news from my favorite rag was the fact that I already suspected it. In May, I split up with a boyfriend of three years only because I feared the eventualities of being in the same city post-graduation: cohabitation, marriage, kids. Before I knew it, I’d be behind a picket fence with rolling pin in hand and no career in sight, wondering how I had chosen this. It didn’t matter that he was a feminist; I looked at the most “successful” women I knew (Dowd, you were one) and they were all single. Personally, I don’t have any friends, male or female, who “expect their careers to take second place to child rearing.” But I do have an awful lot of friends, male and female, who are seriously worried about how they’re going to balance it all. Michelle, who was raised by a single working mother, plans to do it by sheer determination. Kathy, who is going to be a surgeon, hopes for a life partner who yearns to stay home. Ryan, who is actually serious, suggests commune-like group marriages.

So is my generation really rebelling en masse against our careerist mothers, pursuing instead M.r.s. degrees, Le Creuset crockery, and Peg Perego strollers? Is it impossible to have both a family and a high-powered job?

No and no, the experts tell me. “That’s just made up,” says Dr. Jerry Jacobs, the Merriam Term Professor of Sociology, of the idea that young women are turning from the paths blazed by their power-couple parents, specifically snubbing their suit-wearing mothers. While popular belief has it that women of the 1970s were radical careerists, he says, the truth is that very few worked full-time their entire lives.

“Their mothers mostly didn’t work when they were five,” says Jacobs of my peers. “On a statistical basis, they can’t be reacting against the experience they grew up with. The fact is that there is more choice for women than there used to be. There is a greater variety of life trajectories.”

Dr. Janice Madden, the Robert C. Daniels Foundation Term Professor of Urban Studies, Regional Science, Sociology, and Real Estate, says women who grew up in two-parent working households are in fact more likely to have careers. According to Dr. John Knowles, assistant professor of economics, rising wages for women have led to more work outside the home for them, and more work inside the home for their male partners.

And though career ladders still anachronistically reflect an era in which nearly every working man—and mostly, workers were men—had a full-time homemaking wife, there is also evidence of increasing flexibility. Penn grants assistant professors an additional year to make tenure for each child, says Madden, giving an example of how employers are starting to respond to a labor force also responsible for the domestic sphere. Whereas previous generations hesitated to take time off for family for fear of seeming less dedicated—the “we’ll have our babies and do everything men do, too” attitude—“now, people are more comfortable talking about it, and expect the workforce to accommodate them.”

They have Ph.Ds and colorful charts, even a whole book (Mommies and Daddies on the Fast Track is Jacobs and Madden’s latest) to back up their analyses, so I believe their mostly rosy pronouncements. But if women are not fleeing the workplace and it’s becoming more possible to have it all, then why are the false perceptions making front-page news? Why the response, urgent and impassioned: letters to the editor, blog entries, and opinion columns in Slate and The Nation? Why did these articles hit me—and so many others—right in the heart?

The answer is that we were exposed there. Thirty years after The Feminine Mystique, our life choices are still caught somewhere between the personal and the political, and it’s easy to be hurt when your intimate decisions are publicly dissected.

I—hell, I’m going to be rash and speak for my peers—wewould like to believe the feminist fight has been won. We, the privileged who have this choice, would like to think we can choose our own balance of work and family without making any sort of political statement. It’s great faith—or great naiveté, if there’s a risk of sliding backwards.

I want very much to take gender equality for granted, but I can’t. While it is still necessary to work 50, 60, even 70 hours a week to make partner or gain tenure—or, a few income brackets down, just to get by—parents can’t both pursue fast-track careers. And stay-at-home fathers are still outnumbered by their female counterparts, six-to-one. But if women do opt out in significant numbers, it might result in fewer educational and career opportunities for us. As Jacobs puts it, “How can you justify investing hundreds of thousands of dollars [in education] on women if they’re not going to work?”

Like it or not, we still vote with our individual life choices, and while I am free to choose between one career or the other, I cannot choose to opt out.

Julia Yue Zhou C’06 is an economics and political science major from Shanghai by way of New York. She enjoys paying half the check, and still aspires to write for The New York Times.

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