When I read Virginia Woolf, I assume she is a feminist but listen to the ways in which she allows other aspects of her character to enter into her judgments of things. I trust that her feminism runs deep enough that it's compatible with her other opinions, that it's strong enough to withstand surprising—even antithetical—predilections. Making that decision freed me to do the same for myself. I am a feminist. I know that that is true. So I assume that anyone who sees or knows or reads me will recognize, at some point, the feminism in something I write. I also trust that those I come into contact with will not balk if I admit that I’ve been following some bit of trivia that isn’t feminist.
So, what would I want a feminist to say about the three sex-role stories of the month—Judith Warner’s book, ''Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” Michael Kinsley’s alleged sexual discrimination (via Gawker), and Lawrence Summers’ remarks at Harvard?
I can see why the Harvard remarks got peoples' knickers in a twist, I guess. I think it’s smart and right of Summers to make them available on the web. It also seems to me perfectly reasonable and appropriate to ask why it is that fewer women have tenured positions in the sciences. He offers three hypotheses:
One is what I would call the… high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.It’s the second that got him into trouble, of course. But what’s wrong with asking the question? And should we be surprised to have Harvard asking serious questions with potentially conservative social assumptions behind them? For all its liberal reputation, it’s also the home of The Bell Curve and the Thernstroms. Questions do contain assumptions in them, of course, but Summers’ question, delivered at a conference, introduced with many caveats, and qualified throughout with the expectation and hope of being proved wrong strikes me as the sincere question of a man who genuinely would like to have more tenured women faculty in the hard sciences without having to do anything very drastic to change the world he lives in. From my perspective, that’s not a bad starting place. He even goes so far as to suggest that Harvard might consider offering childcare for its faculty.
What interested me most, skimming through his remarks, were the anecdotes that came so close to home:
That is, in fields where the average papers cited had been written nine months ago, women had a much harder time than in fields where the average thing cited had been written ten years ago. And that is suggestive in this regard.
This makes complete sense to me: one maternity leave, one pregnancy, one academic year (where juggling teaching with the work at home make scholarship slow to a glacial pace) and you’re out. The Second Shift describes the life many of us live: however great and helpful our partners, the husbands are often helping in the home, not managing it. I think those things (too-speedy academia and husbands doing more chores) are worth working to change but they're a work in progress. Elsewhere, Summers says:
So, I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something.
This seems a funny thing for a Harvard President to have noticed. I would bet that this is the first time in the history of Harvard that a sitting president has a) been actively trying to raise feminist daughters and b) has spent enough time with them (or their caregivers) to notice something. It’s warm and personal—maybe inappropriate for a conference, maybe a nicely calculated moment—but it’s also very familiar to me from conversations with other parents.
It also brings me back round to Judith Warner. I spend time every day trying not to get hooked by the kind of mommy anxiety she’s tracking, so I read Judith Shulevitz’s review on Sunday in the Times with a squint. Sadly, my main reaction was delight to learn that I’m giving my daughter just about the average amount of attention that working mothers give. Hooray for me! Totally average. I hooted at Chez Miscarriage’s parody of celebrity instant-message conversations about Warner and at her collection of “mommy drive-bys”—those horrible judgmental comments from strangers about your parenting.
How do I want feminism to help me think this through? I’m not sure. I don’t think motherhood is a very promising political action group: we’re too tired to do much more than finish loading the dishwasher. I do think, Chez Miscarriage aside, that Lisa Belkin and others are right to wonder if these “opt out” moms with high-end degrees and ramped-down careers don’t stand a chance to force some changes, but it’s hard. When I became chair of a major committee, I made a commitment to everyone that we would always adjourn promptly at 5:59 and I made a point to tell everyone that this was for our families, that I had an infant, that I respected family time, that I was inspired by the President of Princeton who had done something similar as a new administrator. I felt very brave and proud doing that. My successor, the father of an infant, regularly kept us until 6:15, 6:30 the very next semester. What can you do?
I almost called this blog ODTAA, or One Damn Thing After Another for the literary society (at Newnham? Girton?) in Cambridge, England that invited Woolf to give part of the talks that became A Room of One’s Own. I love the idea of a club of college women in the 1920’s giving themselves that name (probably after John Masefield’s 1926 bestseller?). I decided against it because it was a bit unwieldy and because I thought my mom might chastise me for swearing. I told her so today. To my amazement, she loved the name and wants me to incorporate it into the title somehow. We’ll see.