Friday, November 25, 2005

New York Times Lessons For Uppity Women

It is funny. The New York Times seems to have a new series, perhaps secretly entitled "Lessons For Uppity Women", and slated to run an article once a month. The September one was "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," by Louise Story, the October one was "What's a Modern Girl to Do?" by Maureen Dowd, and the November one (on Thanksgiving day!) is "Forget the Career. My Parents Need Me at Home." by Jane Gross. Hmmm.

These all share certain odd things: they are all about women with careers, not jobs; they are all about how careers are not really what these women want unless they wish to be unhappy, they all use crummy or nonexistent data and they all look at the women in almost total isolation from men and the society in general. They also all regard everything these women do as "choices", meaning something very similar to picking chocolate ice-cream over vanilla, not choosing to be hanged rather than beheaded when found guilty for some crime that requires the death punishment. In other words, "choice" is viewed in isolation of all the factors that limit it. And this feminine choice is carried out as if women didn't have husbands or brothers. In the last article, the one about quitting careers (not jobs, mind you, but careers) to take care of ailing parents, the author notes the need for not only Mummy Tracks (for women who have children to mind) but Daughter Tracks (for women who have parents to mind). There seem to be no Daddy Tracks or Son Tracks in this world of voluntary choice, and nothing much is said about the way the labor markets are structured or about the societal assumption that it is the daughters who should take care of their parents.

I'm thinking how this all would look to a young teenaged girl who is smart and ambitious and wants to find the cure for cancer or something similar. What would she learn from reading the New York Times? First she would find out that she would probably be regarded as a bad mother if she didn't quit working while her children are young (September). This might make her decide to stay childless. Then she would find out that being successful would make her frightening to men and that she might never marry (October). If she was really ambitious she might then decide to stay single to be able to carry on with her professional plans. But this month, November, she is told that as a potential childless spinster she will probably be expected to take care of her parents one day. There is really no escape from the female gender roles, is there?

I actually believe that everybody should be allowed and expected to spend time with their children and their parents, and that the labor markets shouldn't punish those who do so as harshly as happens today. But the reality is that while the public sector roles of women and men have changed a lot in the last thirty years the private sector roles have not changed very much at all. It is still very much women who are held responsible for all the informal (and unpaid) caring that is needed.

But why does the New York Times only address this in the context of women with careers, of women who are highly educated, of women who are very close to positions of power in the society? What is the hidden message here? I think that it is one against us uppity women, and I am not alone in suspecting this.