As I transition from “young woman” to simply “woman,” I spend more and more time contemplating just exactly how the rest of my life is going to look. Deciding what I want in my life has been easy. Exciting and fulfilling career? Yes. Loving and supportive husband? Yes. 2.5 kids with a dog and a house in the suburbs? Yes. What is proving to be more difficult is figuring out exactly how I’m going to be able to realistically meld all of these aspects together.
While family and friends tell me I’m too young to be worrying about such things, it seems I am not the only young woman who is creating a life plan. Three years ago, an article appeared in the New York Times that catalogued interviews with hundreds of young women undergrads attending an ivy-league university questioning them about their future plans. The women surveyed were all highly educated, accomplished and appeared to be quite ambitious, several even expressing plans to pursue advanced or professional degrees. These were women with unlimited potential, who, according to the article, were:
“being groomed to take their place in an ever more diverse professional elite. It is almost taken for granted that, just as they make up half the students at these [top] institutions, they will move into leadership roles on an equal basis with their male classmates.”
The world was their oyster, their opportunities endless. So what did 60% of these women want to do with their futures?
Become stay-at-home moms—at least for a few years anyway.
This has stirred up considerable controversy and dismay from academic leaders:
“It really does raise this question for all of us and for the country: when we work so hard to open academics and other opportunities for women, what kind of return do we expect to get for that?” said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, who served as dean for coeducation in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.”
I find it interesting that the very academics who instill education are now questioning its value. Does education lose its value based on the actions of its recipient? Is the value of an education directly correlated to how it’s applied? And how exactly do universities measure the “return on their investments?” By the ratio of tuition dollars to an alumni’s charitable donations? Stay-at-home mothers would be less likely to donate as much as their working counterparts, so does that make them less valuable, less of a productive force in society?
I always thought learning was important for learning’s sake. Few academics seem to agree:
University officials said that success meant different things to different people and that universities were trying to broaden students’ minds, not simply prepare them for jobs.
“What does concern me,” said Peter Salovey, the dean of Yale College, “is that so few students seem to be able to think outside the box; so few students seem to be able to imagine a life for themselves that isn’t constructed along traditional gender roles.”
Think outside of the box? I thought that’s what most of us went to college to learn? If these universities aren’t teaching their students that, then perhaps their education is not as valuable as the university thinks it is. But what if these universities are succeeding? What if they are opening women’s minds to all of the possibilities that exist for them, but young women are looking at everything and still deciding that motherhood is important to them? What implications does that have on feminism and current gender roles?
Traditional feminists were not entirely surprised by these findings, criticizing society for forcing women to choose between motherhood and a career:
“They are still thinking of this as a private issue; they’re accepting it,” said Laura Wexler, a professor of American studies and women’s and gender studies at Yale. “Women have been given full-time working career opportunities and encouragement with no social changes to support it.
“I really believed 25 years ago,” Dr. Wexler added, “that this would be solved by now.”
I tend to agree with Dr. Wexler. I would love to work full time in a high powered career and be good wife and mother. But the current state of corporate America makes this very challenging for most women. I think that many young women witnessed how difficult it was for their working mothers and are deliberately choosing to take the opposite path. Does this make these women anti-feminist? Not exactly.
My interpretation of feminism is that women should have options, the same options and opportunities as men. Fifty years ago, women were not able to have their own credit cards, rent an apartment without a male co-signer or control her own reproductive system. Now, women are able to buy their own property, occupy the C-suite and even walk on the moon.
Becoming a parent is also a choice, one that both women and men can select. Why do we automatically de-value the choice to be a parent because fewer men than women opt to be an active one? Isn’t this a form of discrimination, the type that feminists have been fighting against since the beginning of the 20th century?
We have given women choices, it’s time to stop condemning them for making them.