Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Choice?

A front-page article in The New York Times caught my eye this morning. Apparently, many college-age women receiving great educations, even planning to go on to professional & graduate programs, are saying that they have no plans to work past the age of thirty--they're just going to be stay at home moms. They offer various rationales: you can't work and have children at the same time, it's what they've always wanted, etc.

The zeitgeist at the moment I exited college in the mid-80s was that women could, and should, have both a career and a family--simultaneously. Then, for me, seven long years of graduate school intervened, stirring around time making the decision to marry, finding a job. Then I had my first child. And I began to wake up and realize that the reigning conventional wisdom in the late 90s was that women really had to choose one or the other, work or family. This attitude kind of took me by surprise.

Of course, my relationship to work and career was further complicated by the sudden onset of my son's disabilities. I mean, I chose to have a child, but no one chooses to have a disabled child. So my forced stint as a stay at home mom was not much to my liking. Where was the choice in all this? What were my responsibilities? Did I have to give up my life for my child because of some accident of fate?

So I began to think very deeply about this issue of choice in relationship to women's lives. My first thought was that men don't face any social pressure to choose between work and family. In fact, some studies in the last few years, noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, show that having children actually helps male academics in their careers, while the same little ones are a hindrance to the careers of female academics. That is, men who take off time to go to a school play are actually getting pats on the backs and bonus points from their employers, while women who do the same are regarded as 'unreliable.'

I wonder if the feeling that women 'choose' children, or 'choose' work is related to the abortion debate and one of its key terms, "Choice." If that is the way that word and concept have developed relative to women & work, then I have to question what is at stake for women in the politics of abortion.

In 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, the ability to choose when to procreate was essential to women's economic success. Women earned far less than men, there was little available daycare, and an unmarried woman raising a child was a pariah.

Thirty years later, women are closing the wage gap, childcare is readily available, women have jobs that run the spectrum of career choices, and single women raising children don't cause anyone to bat an eye. This is due to a variety of factors: the Roe v. Wade decision, the legalization of birth control, the rise in college entrance and completion among women (who now outnumber men on college campuses), and shifting societal attitudes toward women.

Abortion itself has become a political line in the sand, and the debate has been sharply and bitterly divided: pro-choice or pro-life. No middle ground. The lobbying on the issue has become big business, with both sides spending millions of dollars a year mobilizing supporters, collecting donations, lobbying Congress, creating TV, radio, Internet, and email campaigns. If you're not with us, you're against us. I've been in WDC a long time now, and I know that the number one priority of the pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL is abortion, as opposed to other aspects of women's rights. That is to say, politics is really a matter of giving and receiving favor chits. I don't think that the leadership of Planned Parenthood or NARAL would be willing to give up any of their chits on abortion, even if it meant free daycare for any women who wants it. Or if it meant equal pay between men and women as a mandate. There's just too much money at stake. Like Greenpeace with the baby seals, abortion is the key to successful fundraising for these groups.


Granted, I've had my children, and run the choice gauntlet. But at what cost are we fighting the abortion battle? Clearly, abotions should be available for women with medical problems (you should be able to put your own health and well-being, and that of your dependents, ahead of that of a fetus), and for women who have conceived as the result of a rape. And, at least from my perspective, an abortion is relative to the personal circumstances of the woman affected--I do believe people should be allowed to make their own decisions.

On the other hand, when society at large has shifted its plain vanilla misogyny from all women to just those who 'chose' to have children--then I have to wonder what the hell is going on. It strikes me that we may be creating two classes of women: those who choose to have children (and either happily give up their career, or struggle with the demands of both) and those who choose not to have children. My suspicion, based on scanning articles about such issues for a while, is that women who never have children have career and salary parity with men. For them, the playing field is leveled. Look at Condoleeza Rice, for example.

Do men who never have children do worse, better, or the same as men who have children? I don't have an answer to that question. I suspect that it is not as clear cut as it is for women.

I don't think the abortion debate will ever be resolved--at least not in my lifetime. And I wonder if the ability to have an abortion is really, at this point in time, the make or break factor in a woman's career? I'm not convinced that it is--I think that subtle workplace discrimination (including discrmination against working mothers), pay inequity, and the availability of affordable, quality childcare are the primary factors in career advancement for women.

But if people want to tell women that their inability to have a satisfying career (including a challenging and satisfying part-time career--I was bemoaning the scarcity of challenging part-time jobs with a friend the other day--apparently, challenging only equals full-time), that is, if people want to tell women that their inability to have a satisfying career is their own damn fault because they 'chose' to have children, then what good is it for working mothers to support the monied interests of the pro-choice political machine? That the full fruits of women's rights should go only to the childless strikes me as discriminatory and distasteful.

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