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Doing Difference

Motherhood, gender and the stories we live by

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At a conference on social science and work-life journalism I attended in May 2004, writers and researchers alike were bemoaning the new trend in national press coverage of work-life issues— which, everyone agreed, hit a low point in October 2003, when Lisa Belkin’s “Opt Out Revolution” story made the cover of the New York Times magazine. (“Why don’t women run the world?,” Belkin pondered. “Perhaps it’s because they don’t want to.”) Why, we grumbled, were reputedly liberal media outlets wasting ink on news and commentary about the modest number of affluent professional women who swap their careers for stay-at-home motherhood, when more in-depth analysis of the myriad social and economic factors that disadvantage average working families is desperately needed?

The problem, several well-respected journalists suggested, has to do with what’s considered newsworthy. Old news doesn't sell, and -- thanks to a powerful resurgence of hide-bound attitudes about appropriate social roles for men and women -- the real news about work and family in the U.S. (which, just for the record, includes a profusion of cultural and structural barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace, the continuing economic inequality of men and women, the intersection of race, class and gender discrimination in just about any social problem you can name, and ongoing resistance to enacting adequate family policy in the U.S.) looks a lot like old news.

The deepest disenchantment with the stagnation of women’s progress wells up from the hearts of those of us who expected to be much farther along by now. Between 1960 and 1980, women made unprecedented gains in equality of rights and liberties as part of the larger human rights movement that flourished in that era. Supporters of the women’s movement believed that when enough feminist parents raised their sons and daughters to move fearlessly into the egalitarian future, our progress would simply roll over from generation to generation until all that irksome ideology about men’s and women’s relative capacities for love and work was ground to dust. In this new, improved, woman-friendly world, families would thrive because both mothers and fathers would devote equal time and effort to paid work and caregiving, and everyone would be happier, healthier and more financially secure. The patriarchy might not be ripped out by its roots, but at least men would be doing their full share of child care and housework, and women could enjoy the independence and self-respect that come from having a paycheck of one’s own.

Needless to say, things didn’t exactly work out that way. Today, educated, middle-class couples— who, by some popular accounts, are reduced to constant squabbling over who works harder and how often they have sex— are as likely to feel weighed down by the legacy of feminism as they are to feel emancipated by it. Even when they have supportive partners, many mothers still struggle with combining work and family— on both an emotional and practical level— and wonder if maybe the good old-fashioned arrangement of breadwinner dad/homemaker mom might not have certain advantages for all concerned. Far too often, the conviction that “women can do anything” works against the interests of low-income women who lack access to the education, resources and employment opportunities that lifted the oppression of their well-to-do sisters. Little wonder the mainstream media is having a love affair with the latest crop of smart, politically-savvy women who proclaim that feminism is no longer necessary, inexcusably elitist, hopelessly arcane, dangerously misguided, or just plain dead.

Over the last decade or so, a different group of writers and researchers— from both pro- and anti-feminist camps— have attempted to tease out why, as we settle into the twenty-first century, the high-speed train to liberty, equality and justice for women is stalled on the tracks at the half-way point. Conflicting theories abound, but most can be distilled down to a fairly simple formula: Is it nature or culture that continues to divide the fortunes of men and women— or some of each, and if so, how much and what should we do about it?

ozzie and harriet are dead?

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