A woman's place

It's been 12 years since "Backlash" -- it must be time to scare women into domestic submission again.


Michelle Goldberg
April 23, 2002 11:16PM (UTC)

In the 1980s, books like Srully Blotnick's "Otherwise Engaged: The Private Lives of Successful Career Women" depicted unmarried female professionals as a bruised horde of dowdily besuited neurotics deafened by tolling biological clocks. By the late '90s, though, working girls were back in fashion. A rash of randy female sex columnists sprang up in publications nationwide, from Anka in Details magazine, to Amy Sohn in the New York Press. "Sex and the City" made singledom glamorous, even in its moments of melancholy. Single women were the hottest heroines in fiction, with books like "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing" racing up bestseller lists. (Of course, Bridget Jones craved matrimony, but by the end of the book it was clear that her spirit didn't depend on it.) The first episode of the new TV show "Leap of Faith" had the star throwing over her staid fiancé for a life of amorous adventure and boozy late-night confabs with her posse of loyal friends.

Alas, it is time for another backlash.

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As history shows, childless women in America eventually provoke hysteria. Gail Collins recently pointed out in the New York Times that at the turn of the century, when women's education mushroomed, their professional options expanded and some of them declined to reproduce, the country panicked about "race suicide." In the '80s, there was fear about what one writer called "the Birth Dearth," and single females were either pitied, mocked or demonized. The unencumbered woman quickly wears out her welcome in popular culture.

So it's hardly a surprise to see the great swells of hype accompanying Sylvia Ann Hewlett's "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," a book that, according to its press material, "Exposes a crisis of childlessness among successful women." Warning that professional prestige tends to leave women with empty wombs and lonely hearts, the book has already spurred cover stories in Time and Newsweek, segments on "The Today Show" and "60 Minutes" and numerous mentions in newspapers nationwide. Hewlett's message -- that when it comes to children, successful women's options are "a good deal worse than before" -- is clearly hitting a nerve.

At the same time, the media is full of approving stories about powerful women quitting their jobs and retreating into domestic cocoons. A recent People magazine cover lauded female stars for "Putting Family First"; another one, just a few weeks later, celebrated actresses marrying young.

In the New York Times, an article titled "They Conquered, They Left" lumps together the retirement announcements of Oprah, Rosie O'Donnell and Massachusetts Gov. Jane M. Swift, saying, "[A]s long as women have been trudging into the workplace, they've been trickling out. [Perhaps] women are different; some say they have less of a psychic investment in a career -- both the power and the money -- as a source of their identity than men." Not long before, the paper did a puff piece on Candace Olson, who quit her job as CEO of iVillage to become "a born-again evangelist of power domesticity, seeking out a mate who embraced traditional family roles as fervently as she did, even going to the considerable inconvenience of changing her name after spending a lifetime, as she would say, building its brand."

Meanwhile, those women who aren't interested in holing up at home are getting slammed, '80s style. Witness the growth of widely publicized "Bully Broads" workshops for female executives, in which, according to the BBC, companies including Sun and Intel pay up to $18,000 to have "overly assertive women" workers taught techniques including "speaking more softly and deliberately and relying on self-deprecating humour."

Clearly, now is the perfect time for Hewlett's book, which warns women that success may leave them isolated and regretful. A Harvard-trained economist, Hewlett has made her career by touting her feminist credentials while lambasting feminism for neglecting the home in books like "A Lesser Life" and "The War on Parents," co-written with Cornel West. She gets a lot of attention for reiterating neoconservative social ideas from a liberal-center perspective: The message of "Creating a Life" isn't much different than that of right-winger Danielle Crittenden's "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman," but coming from a Democrat, it's much juicier.

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That said, "Creating a Life" isn't just a right-wing tome about feminism's nefarious effects on romance and families. The book starts out as a reminder that science has yet to triumph over the biological clock, and much of Hewlett's bad news about age-related infertility should be listened to. She offers a persuasive critique of the fertility industry's false promises, which she says whitewash the difficulties faced by older women trying to have babies.

A woman in her early 40s only has a "3-5 percent shot at achieving a live birth through standard [in vitro fertilization] procedures," she reports. It shouldn't be news to anyone that it gets harder to conceive as a woman ages, especially given all the trumpeting about the biological clock in the last decade. Yet according to Hewlett's study, "89 percent of young, high-achieving women believe that they will be able to get pregnant into their forties."

Hewlett's reminder that the biological clock is real isn't happy news, but it certainly shouldn't be dismissed just because it's ideologically inconvenient (though having had a fourth child via IVF at 51, she's not the best spokeswoman for the fertility industry's failures). The problem with "Creating a Life" is not its facts, but its faulty analysis and insidious assumptions. Its retrograde message lies in the way Hewlett evaluates the lives of childless women, and in the self-defeating advice she offers the next generation, advice that, given the current climate, is likely to be amplified throughout the media.

Originally, Hewlett writes, the book was conceived as a tribute to "women facing 50 at the millennium." She interviewed hugely successful women in a variety of fields, including opera singer Jessye Norman, TV journalist Diane Sawyer and playwright Wendy Wasserstein. During her research, the awful truth hit her -- none of these women had kids. Worse, she writes, "None of these women had chosen to be childless."

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Hewlett's definition of choice, and her insistence that childless women didn't make one, is at the heart of the book's dishonesty. The bulk of the volume is based on a study she conducted, "High-Achieving Women, 2001," whose numbers are collected in a chapter called "The Sobering Facts." Hewlett's study of high-earning career women found that "33 percent are childless at ages 40-55, a figure that rises to 42 percent in corporate America. By and large, these high-achieving women have not chosen to be childless."

How does Hewlett know? She bases it on a single vague interview question: "Looking back to their early twenties, when they graduated college, only 14 percent said they definitely had not wanted children." From this, she infers that for the other 86 percent childlessness was a hardship that befell them. One woman calls it a "creeping non-choice," a phrase Hewlett likes enough to repeat.

Of course, refusing to make a choice is, in itself, a choice. But Hewlett denies these women's agency, and ignores the way people shape and reshape their priorities. Can everyone whose life didn't unfold the way they imagined it in their early 20s claim they had no say in the matter? When I graduated college, I would have said I had no intention of ever being anyone's wife. I ended up eloping when I was 24. In Hewlett's formulation, this would mean I didn't choose to get married.

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In the same way, if a woman pours all her passion and energy into her career and doesn't start thinking about kids until she's 40, she has made a choice to put her job first. It may not be fair to ask women to give up one for the other -- as Hewlett rightly points out, men don't have to -- but that doesn't mean women who don't have kids are helpless dupes.

Hewlett's interviews make this clear, even if she doesn't see it. One women she offers as an example of unasked-for barrenness says she considered adopting, but then seized upon the idea of opening an art gallery. "[I] got into this debate with myself about which was more important to me -- having a child or having the gallery. And I chose a gallery," she says. Could that be any clearer?

Yet while Hewlett graciously allows that "Childlessness need not shrivel the soul or shrink the spirit," she seems incapable of understanding or respecting choices that don't mirror her own. She quotes Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, who frets that childless women leaders will be less socially conscious than the family men in charge now, saying, "People without children have a much weaker stake in our collective future."

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Worse still, Hewlett is not just concerned with childlessness -- much of "Creating a Life" is a tract in favor of early marriage. She revives the tired idea of "the shortage of men," and tells young women, "Give urgent priority to finding a partner. This project is extremely time-sensitive and deserves special attention in your twenties. Understand that forging a loving, lasting marriage will enhance your life and make it much more likely that you will have children."

But finding the right person is often a matter of luck, and marrying the wrong person a recipe for misery. Telling women to spend their 20s desperately husband hunting sets them up for romantic failure while robbing them of the joys of freedom and experimentation. It's taken a long time to undo the stigma of spinsterhood. Hewlett's program would put it back in place.

Of course, great husbands do make women happy -- I love mine more than anything on earth. Unfortunately, "Creating a Life" doesn't have a thing to say about the kind of husbands women should look for, about the difference between a supportive man and one who expects submission. The book's covert message to young women is find a husband -- any husband -- before time runs out. It repeatedly warns that men are likely to be intimidated by overly successful women, but doesn't stop to ask if such men are worth having.

Hewlett claims that studies show married women are happier than single women, but the studies she quotes lump divorcees in with the latter. That means that even if her numbers are accurate, they don't prove that getting married promotes peace of mind. And while she's right that marriage is often good for women financially, that's true only if it lasts, which it often doesn't. A woman who marries young, has children and then divorces is more likely than a single, childless woman to end up in poverty.

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Nevertheless, Hewlett has little time for matrimony's skeptics. A young MBA working at a high-tech company tells Hewlett she's leery of marriage because of her parents' wrenching divorce, and Hewlett brands her views "hostile" and "knee-jerk." Meanwhile, she applauds the "obvious logic" of a young surgical resident who "leaned over backwards to be supportive and nonthreatening" to her boyfriend, which meant helping him to co-host business dinners four nights a week after she had finished 36-hour shifts.

Yet is a man who expects his wife to entertain after a grueling day and a half of doctoring really such a catch? How about the guy at Goldman Sachs who Hewlett quotes denigrating his female colleagues and longing for a stay-at-home wife? Who's missing out, his "real aggressive" co-workers or the meek creature who finally lands him? Hewlett, who calls him "empathetic," seems to believe it's the former.

Such thinking makes the book weirdly bifurcated between serious, feminist-minded policy recommendations and reactionary personal advice. Among the government changes she argues for are increased parenting leave and the expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act to include professional and managerial workers, which would stop companies from squeezing 60-hour weeks out of employees. Cutting back on America's workaholism would do more than just help parents and children -- it would improve the whole country's quality of life.

Also trenchant is Hewlett's suggestion that women need more than just equality if they hope to be both effective workers and mothers. After all, in America the workplace vs. family debate always runs smack up against women's immutable biological differences. Women are far less likely than men to have partners devoted to homemaking or to be happy seeing their children for a mere hour or two a day. Hewlett points out that European social policy takes this into account with programs like public preschools and six-hour workdays until a child's 8th birthday.

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"Equal rights and family supports are needed if women are to improve their earning power -- and their life choices," she writes. Few feminists would disagree -- though Hewlett does herself no favors by dismissing those who do as simply resentful over their own childlessness.

Unfortunately, a splashy new book isn't about to convert a government hostile to workers rights to a Scandinavian-style welfare state. What the book will influence is the public conversation about women, about what constitutes their success and accounts for their alleged dissatisfaction. As Hewlett says, "The most important insights and strategies in these chapters focus on the individual." Thus as the buzz around the book snowballs, we're likely to hear less about paid family leave and more about women's failure to mate and procreate properly.

Yet just as Hewlett fails to prove her thesis that most childless women had no choice in the matter, she also doesn't show that women are bereft by a paucity of husbands. The evidence she does marshal is extremely anecdotal -- there's a description of a woman in her 30s covertly skimming relationship guidebooks in a Harvard bookstore and five pages devoted to a Manhattan marriage seminar.

Indeed, the women in their 20s she talked to about marriage reveal "very little sense of urgency." Of course, to Hewlett that's precisely the problem, because she claims that by the time they hit their mid-30s, they "may well have missed the boat."

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To back this up, she resurrects the famously discredited study by Neil Bennett and David Bloom that claimed 40-year-old women were more likely to be shot by terrorists than tie the knot. Hewlett writes, "The Bennett and Bloom data stirred up a furious debate -- and inspired a slew of new studies. When the dust settled, it turned out that although the odds were not nearly as dismal as first advertised, Bennett and Bloom were quite correct in their conclusion: The older she gets, the harder it is for a college-educated woman to find a husband."

Quite correct? Bennett and Bloom initially said that at 30, a woman had a 20 percent chance of marrying, which dropped to a minuscule 1.3 percent chance a decade later. Yet as Susan Faludi reported in "Backlash," when a demographer in the U.S. Census Bureau's Marriage and Family Statistics branch did her own study drawing on 13.4 million households, she found that, as Faludi says, "At thirty, never-married college-educated women have a 58 to 66 percent chance at marriage. At forty, the odds were from 17 to 23 percent." In other words, Bennett and Bloom said women over 40 had a one in a hundred chance of finding a mate. The more accurate number -- which Hewlett doesn't bother citing -- is one in five.

The above isn't the only instance in which Hewlett echoes the backlash rhetoric Faludi exposed. In fact, reading the two books together is astonishing, so consistently does Hewlett spew '80s platitudes. As Faludi described the messages of that decade, "Professional women are suffering 'burnout' and succumbing to an 'infertility epidemic.' Single women are grieving from a 'man shortage.' The backlash remarkets old myths about women as new facts and ignores all appeals to reason."

Once all this retrograde rhetoric had done its work, it was years before the culture acknowledged that single women weren't just sterile failures. That's why "Sex and the City" was such a big deal in the first place. It's utterly depressing that we're entering this cycle again. Despite her book's strong points, in the end all Hewlett is really creating is déjà vu.

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Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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