October 31, 2003


The Opt-Out Revolution (LISA BELKIN, 10/26/03, NY Times Magazine)

Wander into any Starbucks in any Starbucks kind of neighborhood in the hours after the commuters are gone. See all those mothers drinking coffee and watching over toddlers at play? If you look past the Lycra gym clothes and the Internet-access cellphones, the scene could be the 50's, but for the fact that the coffee is more expensive and the mothers have M.B.A.'s.

We've gotten so used to the sight that we've lost track of the fact that this was not the way it was supposed to be. Women -- specifically, educated professional women -- were supposed to achieve like men. Once the barriers came down, once the playing field was leveled, they were supposed to march toward the future and take rightful ownership of the universe, or at the very least, ownership of their half. The women's movement was largely about grabbing a fair share of power -- making equal money, standing at the helm in the macho realms of business and government and law. It was about running the world. [...]

"I am so conflicted on this,'' says Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist and author of ''Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection.'' Female primates, she says, are ''competitive'' in that they seek status within their social order. So it would follow that women strive for status too.

But there is an important qualifier. When primates compete, they do so in ways that increase the survival chances of their offspring. In other words, they do it for their children. ''At this moment in Western civilization,'' Hrdy says, ''seeking clout in a male world does not correlate with child well-being. Today, striving for status usually means leaving your children with an au pair who's just there for a year, or in inadequate day care. So it's not that women aren't competitive; it's just that they don't want to compete along the lines that are not compatible with their other goals. [...]

This, I would argue, is why the workplace needs women. Not just because they are 50 percent of the talent pool, but for the very fact that they are more willing to leave than men. That, in turn, makes employers work harder to keep them. It is why the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche has more than doubled the number of employees on flexible work schedules over the past decade and more than quintupled the number of female partners and directors (to 567, from 97) in the same period. It is why I.B.M. employees can request up to 156 weeks of job-protected family time off. It is why Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pa., hired a husband and wife to fill one neonatology job, with a shared salary and shared health insurance, then let them decide who stays home and who comes to the hospital on any given day. It is why, everywhere you look, workers are doing their work in untraditional ways.

Women started this conversation about life and work -- a conversation that is slowly coming to include men. Sanity, balance and a new definition of success, it seems, just might be contagious. And instead of women being forced to act like men, men are being freed to act like women. Because women are willing to leave, men are more willing to leave, too -- the number of married men who are full-time caregivers to their children has increased 18 percent. Because women are willing to leave, 46 percent of the employees taking parental leave at Ernst & Young last year were men.

Such a target rich environment, one barely knows where to start. Human behavior so obviously departing from both evolutionary and Left/feminist theory seems inviting enough, but who could pass up the delightful irony that women's "liberation" has ended up letting men quit the rat race while their wives go to work?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 31, 2003 4:14 PM

1. Well, duh.

2. Really looks stupid that Congress didn't allow flextime over OT.

3. One wonders how many SAHMs had working mothers. I did because she had to. I don't because my husband is a good provider.

4. Boomers are too slowly toddling off the stage.

Posted by: Sandy P. at October 31, 2003 8:06 PM

The collision with left/feminist theology, uh, sorry, theory is obvious enough.

But evolutionary theory?

I looked long and hard for any hint of evolutionary implication, and concluded the only reason you threw the word in is to get a 40+ post count on this article.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 1, 2003 4:06 AM


Your hero Ms Hrdy acknowledges that the choice of homemaking over a dominance hierarchy violates animal behavior patterns and the opposing choice, not to have children, obviously violates Darwinian theory completely.

Posted by: oj at November 1, 2003 6:21 AM


I don't think it is evolution that leads to a 40+ post count. I think it is you.

Hint: She is looking to the behaviour of primates for help in resting her troubled soul and deciding how humans should act. Do you think that comes from Genecis?

Posted by: Peter B at November 1, 2003 6:50 AM


Are you seriously suggesting that stay at home moms don't compete for status?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at November 1, 2003 9:12 AM

They're reviled by elite society and mistreated by the law.

Posted by: oj at November 1, 2003 9:22 AM

There is an article over at Arts & Letters showing how women are increasingly deserting the workplace in favor of raising their children. An article that, by the way, noted what is happening, rather than proclaim what should be happening.


Because the latter made them happier than the former.


The last 40+ post count had at least 36 that weren't mine.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 1, 2003 4:44 PM


True, but 34 of them were enlightened types rushing in to help clear up your confusion and put you on the right track.

Posted by: Peter B at November 1, 2003 6:10 PM

"the delightful irony that women's "liberation" has ended up letting men quit the rat race while their wives go to work?"


Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 1, 2003 9:54 PM

The point of the women's lib movement was not that women MUST achieve, but that they be ALLOWED to achieve, should they wish.
Which is exactly what happened.
It was a win for women, a win for society, and a win for some men.


"Elite" in whose eyes ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 2, 2003 6:08 AM


It was a win for some women, particularly upwardly mobile middle-class women. It was a loss for many women, particularly those who think in terms of family and jobs, not careers. It was a win for men generally and a big loss for children.

Posted by: Peter B at November 2, 2003 6:23 AM


I think you are shooting the wrong target. The families I know with moms working outside the house are doing it to get more goodies (and also better schools).

For the less economically fortunate, there may be no option.

Other than forcing some doors open, Feminism seems to have darn little to do with it.

Heck, I'll bet very few women today are capital-F feminists.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 2, 2003 8:10 AM


I wasn't targeting anyone. But I would agree with you that conservative opposition to moms working is overdone. From my limited observation, many working moms are great moms and even possibly less depressed on average (although with pre-schoolders, there is definitely a worrisome sacrifice ). The distinction is more between those moms that work for the family and around their childrens'needs versus those that identify their purpose and self-worth through upward career successes and therefore see their family demands as burdens to strategize around and limit.

Not that much different from dads, come to think of it.

Posted by: Peter B at November 2, 2003 8:25 AM

Peter B:

How is it a loss for anyone, to have an additional option, that one is not forced to exercise ?
Women who want families are forced to have careers ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 3, 2003 7:55 AM


We don't live in a social vacuum where everyone makes decisions about their lives based upon perfect self-knowledge and oblivious to the prevailing zeitgeist. We stumble through life full of doubts and are all influenced greatly by the values of the dominant culture, especially the young. Surely you won't deny that feminism downgraded motherhood and family and exhalted career.

The other dimension is that progressive women didn't think through the implications of "choice" in a family context. Yes, they are freer in many ways, but so are men. So, modern mothers are never sure their spouse will be faithful or won't leave, come under pressure to work or have an abortion and have lost the right to demand and expect traditional protection and provision from men. That must add to the stress of raising young ones.

Posted by: Peter B at November 3, 2003 8:30 AM

Peter B:

I agree.
I just don't think that those very real negatives make the whole movement a net negative.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 4, 2003 7:59 AM


Thus is sociobiology/psychological evolution denied.

Posted by: oj at November 4, 2003 8:09 AM