Liberally Eroding Women's Choice

Isuspect that I may have been a child at some point in my life. The evidence, however, is sparse. In trying to reconstruct a chronology, I've determined that my childhood did not occur during a time, like now, when children's issues had captured public attention and child care was an increasingly salient issue on the political agenda.

The administration's emphasis on goals like the financing of the Women, Infant and Children feeding program and Head Start reflect the increased attention being paid to women and children. The growing effectiveness and visibility of organizations such as the Children's Defense Fund as well as the heightened attention to working women's childcare arrangements also highlight the new focus.

This intense scrutiny of childcare issues obscures the real debate and constricts the universe of real issues. The debate, though, has been crudely framed--its subtext is really about working women and the reproductive and career choices that they make. The automatic assumption that all women are prospective mothers forces us to focus on their reproductive capacities. We need to establish that not all women's motivations, expectations and capabilities are the same--especially where reproductive issues are concerned.

While women are the agents of society's reproduction, we often assume that all women will be mothers. Motherhood, impending or otherwise, can reduce women to mere contingent value. The growing juridical expansion of fetal rights has started to erode women's personal autonomy. The focus on the biological differences between the sexes also perpetuates a system of sex-discrimination, with biological separation being translated into legal distinctions.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's now immortal derogation of domesticity resurrected the "mommy track" debate. Could working women be adequate mothers? Was motherhood incompatible with corporate success? Increased attention was paid to the economic, social and intellectual costs of child rearing versus those of working full-time.

Zoe Baird's futile invocation of motherhood as her defense for hiring undocumented workers underscores that motherhood cannot excuse transgressions. We must be careful about the pitfalls involved in idealizing motherhood and elevating it to any kind of special status.

Middle-class, full-time motherhood is too often imbued with martyrdom and angst-ridden soul searching, usually a feverish attempt to justify the retreat to domesticity. This retreat may be facilitated by the fact that women do face particular problems in the corporate world.

The rate of turnover in management positions is 2.5 times higher among top performing women than it is for men. An amazing 50 percent of women in management who take maternity leave return to their jobs late or not at all. The decision to return to work is often determined by the availability of childcare.

One of the more distressing aspects of the recent Baird/Wood imbroglio involved listening to paleo-liberals like Anna Quindlen, Ellen Goodman and Patricia Ireland spout pieties about the availability of childcare.

Quindlen, writing in The New York Times, opined that "one reason the childcare employment pool may include so many foreign workers is that in many other countries the care of children is an honorable profession. In America, it is scut work." A reader might be inclined to believe that there are hordes of immigrants whose sole function is to provide affordable childcare for middle-class American women.

We also need to question how women's organizations contribute to the perception of these issues. Much of the specific agenda of the movement thus far has been reactive. Main-stream feminist organizations have preferred to focus on abortion and sexual harassment. This misguided focus attempts to gain access to previously male systems and privileges, as if that is the exclusive measurement of progress. These organizations often ignore the lack of institutionalization of job benefits and collective strategies for expanding gams. Too many changes are merely cosmetic.

Feminists too often take it as an article of faith that having women in positions of power will result in more conciliatory approaches, nurturing public policies and affiliative ways of living. Empirical evidence clearly refutes this. Arguments which stress the importance of contextual relationships--the idea, for instance, that women favor a "web-like" relationship structure too often describe a dichotomized view of gender one which presents an overly altruistic idea of womanhood.

The Darwinian aspects of corporate culture are not necessarily incompatible with women's ways of thinking. Women are not a monolithic group. It is too easy to recite litanies of the systematic denial of opportunities and power and the importance of belonging to a sub-dominant group. This disguises the fact that some women are just not willing to make the necessary tradeoffs which are often required for a successful career.

We must also be cautious about seeking gender-specific legislation as a means of leveling the playing field Requests for special working conditions for women, such as flex time and job sharing, fail to realize that these prescriptions reinforce invidious distinctions. The ultimate objective should be to provide equal application and equal protections, regardless of gender.

Attempting to extend the rhetoric of the household to the polity as a whole often proves counterproductive. We need to avoid feudalistic cosseting and to start examining different reproductive choices and strategies. We must be more supportive of the choices that career-primary individuals make, even if decisions do not factor children into the equation.

Clearly, this decision is not for everyone--there is that little matter of propagating the species--but it certainly is a credible alternative.

While parenthood may seem distant to many Harvard undergraduates, it is never too soon to start thinking about the timing and management of having babies. We need to explode the myth that biology is destiny and to stop the demonization of career primary people. To those individuals who can successfully balance the competing demands of career and family, my sincere admiration. But those of us who have made, or intend to make, alternative choices should not be forced to assume a defensive posture.

Corporate culture isn't incompatible with women's ways of thinking.