Surprise! The "opt-out revolution" was a myth

New census data shows that women aren't abandoning high-powered careers to become stay-at-home moms

By Judy Berman
October 1, 2009 6:02PM (UTC)
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Can I have a show of hands from all the readers out there who have always known that Lisa Belkin's "opt-out revolution" was pure fiction? Of course, this isn't exactly news in the Broadsheet universe: Salon's own Joan Walsh -- a lady who can certainly speak to the experience of moms with high-powered careers -- jumped on the story when it first surfaced, nearly six years ago. Since then, we've been reporting on scholars, from family-studies professors to economists, who take issue with Belkin's claims. But guess what? Now we've got definitive proof that the "opt-out revolution" never happened: census data.

According to Donna St. George at the Washington Post, stay-at-home moms are still a "widespread phenomenon," with 5.6 million women -- that is, almost a quarter of all married mothers with kids under 15 -- forgoing employment. But it turns out that the vast majority of these full-time moms don't fit Belkin's profile. Rather, writes St. George, "stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. They are more likely than other mothers to be Hispanic or foreign-born." While 38 percent of all mothers surveyed had a bachelor's degree, only 32 percent of stay-at-home moms were college graduates. Perhaps most strikingly, full-time mothers were almost two and a half times more likely to be living below the poverty line than the average mom. Oh, and by the way -- this data was collected in 2007, before the economic crisis forced countless formerly well-off families to find ways to replace lost income.


As Pamela Stone told St. George, stay-at-home moms are, in general, "the more vulnerable women, for whom I would argue the issue is lack of opportunity. They have a hard time finding a job and finding a job that makes work worth it." That is to say, between the exorbitant cost of childcare and the thankless, insultingly low-paying jobs available, it just doesn't make sense for many mothers with little education to work outside the home. If we really look at the census data, stay-at-home mothering begins to seem less like a post-feminist choice than a decision often made out of pure necessity. Not to say it's a universally undesirable one. (The census found that 165,000 dads are doing it, too.) But the most statistically significant group of full-time moms turn out to be the women who have never reaped the benefits of white, middle-class feminism. Perhaps this is the phenomenon that actually deserves a Times Magazine cover story ... but I won't hold my breath.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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