Readers are just as skeptical as Joan Walsh about the so-called "Opt-Out Revolution."

Published October 29, 2003 10:36AM (EST)

[Read "Clueless in Manhattan," by Joan Walsh.]

Thank you, thank you, thank you to Joan Walsh for having the time and wherewithal to type up, so eloquently, all the same responses I scribbled in the margins of Lisa Belkin's annoyingly clueless piece. Belkin makes some good points -- points that need to be discussed, and perhaps now will be -- but yes, as Walsh puts it, the sample group she uses to illustrate this "trend" is baffling and, frankly, scary. I kept wondering how "fulfilled" these women really were, with their competitive crepes-with-goat-cheese-and-tomato toddler groups (She's 'hands down' the best cook in the group," they all agree of the host), their designer clothes, hair and jewelry, their necessary "book clubs," and their Ivy League MBAs, channeling all their brains and talent into discussing their toddlers' "music classes and birthday parties." I don't begrudge them their choices, I guess, but let's face it, these are the kinds of mothers who make the rest of us -- the 72 percent of mothers who work part- to full-time out of necessity and/or desire -- feel more guilty and lame than we should have to. Women may have more choices today than any other generation before them, but one choice very few of us have is the choice to stay home and parent full-time. So, notwithstanding the obligatory paragraph of disclaimers within the piece, why present it on the cover of the Times Magazine as if it's some big trend?

-- Cathi Hanauer, editor of "The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood and Marriage"

I want to thank Joan Walsh for her piece debunking the Times Magazine's article about working women "opting out." I practically tore my hair out while reading this piece. Not only do these women represent a tiny fraction of working women, they represent a fraction of white, rich working women, many of whom do pursue career and motherhood simultaneously.

For these few to be held up as the model of womanhood is outrageous to say the least. Unfortunately, the author did not touch upon the fact that so many women "opt out" because they get sick of watching men with less seniority and less work ethic pass them on the ladder. Sexism is alive and well in the working world as most people who bother to listen to the voices of women (all women, not just the white, rich ones) can tell you.

-- Elissa Klein

Interesting response by Ms. Walsh.

I think the most important (and hopefully most enduring) achievement of the women's movement was getting society accustomed to the idea that a woman can really do any job, and should be allowed to. Back in the day, a smart and motivated woman could never become more than a secretary, and if she got married she had to quit, whether or not she wanted to. Thankfully that is no longer so.

That said, most working women are not in fulfilling careers. They are in office jobs that might be interesting, but they're not going to be editors of the Times either, or even of the Salon News department. It's just a way to pay the bills and get the kids through school, maybe have a little extra for a vacation.

You want to know a secret? Most men are in the same boat!

-- I.M. Thejman

I read Lisa Belkin's piece yesterday and became livid. I was not born as fortunate as Ms. Belkin and her cohort. I've had to fight for every opportunity that's come my way. These women sounded like a bunch of self-conscious stay-at-home moms looking to justify their now free calendars.

Who cares that you quit your job? If I had a partner able to bring home a six-figure salary I might do the same thing. But I don't, and neither do millions of other women in America. Is all this navel gazing supposed to elevate the choices of this most fortunate group of women to some sort of moral high ground? Is Ms. Belkin telling us these women are now more evolved, or just better than us regular working folk?

I don't think these well-to-do, latte-drinking, play-group-attending mothers represent anything other than another very attractive target demographic. This is not a revolution.

-- Laura McGrath

Actually I think "opting out" is exactly what most professional women who have children do, and no protestations to the contrary will change the facts.

I have worked in computer software since 1985 and in only one case have I seen women with children who work in management actually work as hard at keeping their career as men do. Inevitably, just when they start moving up the chain they decide to take six months off to have a kid. Hey, as a man I don't get to take six months off and expect to come back to the same career opportunities, why should a woman?

-- Bruce Hammond

I totally agree with Joan Walsh. The New York Times Magazine piece is a dangerous and almost misogynistic type of storytelling.

I am a working, married mother of two, and I can't afford to opt out. I don't even want to entertain the thought of "Would I if I could afford it?" I prefer not to think in those terms, but in terms of being as successful as possible in the role I have carved out for myself at a computer software company.

To present the notion that if you're a successful working woman, you'd stop working is so damaging. I look around my office and there are very few women in management. The men I work with must wonder why I'd bother dragging my breast pump around with me for six months when I should just stay home like their wives.

How can I make them see my worth when articles, books and TV appearances -- Allison Pearson on "Oprah" or Belkin on "The Today Show" -- tell them if I were qualified I'd be at home?

-- Marni Carmichael

Joan Walsh is right on target with her criticisms of Lisa Belkin's piece on how a handful of white, female Princeton graduates are taking time off from work with their kids.

There's more to criticize, though. What Belkin and the women she interviewed all seem extraordinarily blind to is the intra-household power dynamics that have led these women to "choose" to leave work to be with their children. In fact, she hardly acknowledged that these women were married to real, live, breathing men, let alone that those men also had a choice (especially given that they were married to such high-earning women), or that these decisions are made in the context of a couple in which power may be unequal.

In a couple with two MBAs, or two JDs, how does it happen that it is always (at least in these examples) the woman who decides to cut back, who decides she's not so ambitious after all? Did her husband ever consider doing so? If not, why not? Did she ever consider suggesting that he do so? If not, why not?

Belkin makes a nod to some statistics on stay-at-home dads at the end of her story, but she doesn't bother to find out the demographics on those men. How many of them are the educational and occupational equivalents of the husbands of the women in her story?

-- Catherine Kenney

There's a saying in the black community that nothing really happens in the world until it happens to someone who's white, because that's when the media will finally take notice. Back in the 1970s when the feminist revolution was supposedly reaching full throttle, my mother and her friends, who were a group of well-educated black career women, used to wonder what all the fuss was about. They were pediatricians, veterinarians, or they owned their own businesses, and they were the wives of doctors, dentists and executives. They worked before marriage, after marriage, after giving birth, through graduate school until their careers were firmly established, and they didn't do it because of some newfangled feminist consciousness. As my mother put it, "I don't see what all the fuss is about! We've been working for years."

After wading through the surprisingly tired clichés about marriage and the workplace spouted by Belkin's not-so-representative sample (women who are "not yet engaged" and turn down "fabulous offers from law firms back home" after finishing law school but relocate with their men anyway!) I'm sure I was as angry as my mother was almost 30 years ago. There's nothing "revolutionary" about quitting your job to stay at home with the kids while your husband is the sole earner. My mother did it in the 1960s while transitioning from pursuing a career as a classical musician to a master's degree in social work and a career in nonprofits.

Privileged women will always have options. (Isn't that the whole point of being privileged?) It's nice for them but it's nothing new, and it does not mean much outside of the tight little world in which they live.

-- Kathie Foley

The hidden premise behind those women who opted to "opt out" of careers is never mentioned, and that is that they are all married to hardworking, highly paid husbands. In other words, work for them is merely for fun and self-fulfillment. This is not the case of most women today, not in most classes. Most of them work because if they did not, the standard of living of the family would be substantially lower. They have no "opt out" option because there just wouldn't be enough money in the family without their wage or salaried labor.

Many of the women in that article seemed horrified at the brutality of the work world. Not one questioned if any man should be subjected to it either. Perhaps reform is needed on all levels, and not only for one of the two sexes. The "opt outers" seemed quite content to have their husbands slog it out each day while they take care of their children in pristine luxury. Did they have anything to say about their husbands' contribution to their serenity? I think not.

In spite of all the discussion and rhetoric of the past three decades, the United States has never in reality embraced the notion of egalitarian relations between the sexes. It is precisely the upper- and upper-middle-class feminists who, at the end of the day, want their men to treat and support them in the style of life for which they are accustomed -- like princesses.

-- Arthur C. Hurwitz

I think there is less disagreement between Joan Walsh and Lisa Belkin than Walsh's piece suggests. Part of that is due to the general incoherence of Belkin's thesis. But as I see it, both articles are saying that many women's life goals differ from the traditional male role. That is, some women find that they don't want to climb the corporate ladder and strive in the manner necessary to reach the heights in that arena during their childbearing years.

Both articles also hint at a solution: change the work environment so that it is more receptive to those women's goals. Walsh has found such a workplace, as has Belkin. More attention should be paid to this. Employers should be encouraged (financially and otherwise) to provide flexible times and places for jobs (and not just to women). The rewards for the women and men who have these jobs is obvious, and employers gain too, because they can utilize the talents of women like Belkin's subjects, while they would not be able to in a more traditional environment. To the extent that both Belkin's and Walsh's pieces promote discussion and consideration of such changes, they complement each other and are both worthy.

-- Lisa Rosenthal

I read Joan Walsh's article with a great sense of relief. As a well-educated white woman in her 30s, married but with no kids yet, I thought that the Times piece was horrifyingly retro and very limited in scope.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with staying home to raise your children, but Belkin implied that her subjects' (and perhaps her own) choices were both the new trend and the best options. Yeah, no one can have it all, but that doesn't mean that mothers shouldn't aim high, too. I'd like to vote for a female candidate for high office someday. And I wouldn't be surprised if she was someone's mom.

-- Katie Winograd

By Salon Staff

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