Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rediscovering second wave feminism

My college friend Jonathan Liu wrote an incredibly inspiring piece about the sacrifices he made by choosing to be a stay-at-home dad that also applies to making any life decisions: once you make a decision, don't keep looking at all the decisions because "the grass is greener where you tend it." (I'm sure he's not the first to say it, but I've never heard it before, and it's a wonderful saying and a vital point for anyone making any decision.)

His piece was in reaction to another piece by a mother who went part-time in her career after becoming a parent, but who divorced and now wishes that she had been more active in her career. The trend of the last decade for highly educated women to become stay at home moms was treated as a third wave feminist phenomenon --- the trope went that second wavers overemphasized career at the expense of family, but third wave feminists can be confident in their position enough to take time out of their careers to raise their children. (Likewise, some third wavers thought that second wavers were too sexually conservative, and thought that the circumstances had changed enough that it was safe to be promiscuous, but even setting aside questions of the sexual double standard, third wave feminism hasn't erased the economic factors at play in the sexual marketplace, which I've discussed in previous posts about hooking up.)

The third wavers certainly have a point --- some latch-key kids of the past wish their parents had been around for them, and the third wave stay at home phenomenon tries to rectify this. But truly this article just points to where the second wavers were right: economic forces can't be ignored. Women who have prestigious and/or well-paid careers outside the home in addition to children have a more secure position if their marriages fail, as many marriages do --- marriages don't have a 50% failure rate as many say, and everyone has to work to make their marriage as good as possible to avoid divorce, but divorce is certainly common enough to be worth thinking about. And it might even be that women who work outside the home in good jobs might even be less likely to get divorced. I'm not aware of the research on that point, but my knowledge of the research says that they are better off on a range of other metrics.

None of this is to say that anyone's choice is right or wrong. That's an individual decision. To the contrary, as Jonathan said, everyone has to be aware of the true costs of their decision, rather than believing that one choice or the other is an optimal choice. There is no optimal choice in general, but each individual has to figure out what is best for them. Second wave feminism is not a religion, and there's no virtue in adhering to its foundational "tenets" out of blind faith. But there are reasons why stay at home moms of previous generations were not content to stay at home and put their careers second. Many circumstances have changed, every family is different, and so on, but these reasons have certainly not expired. The modern world has made so many things possible, but widows and divorcees are still worse off than married women, working women with good careers are still better insulated from hardship, and second wave classics like the Women's Room are still relevant.