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Making the Personal Political

02/19/2013 10:29 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2013
  • Barbara & Shannon Kelley Speakers; Coauthors, "Undecided: How To Ditch The Endless Quest For Perfect and Find The Career--and Life--That's Right For You"

The Feminine Mystique is 50 years old; do you know where your equality is?

Here's a hint: If you're a woman living in America, it's still pretty far out of reach. Because for as far as women have come in the ol' US of A, the fact is that the state of affairs here -- compared to most of the rest of the world, is pretty freaking abysmal. As Stephanie Coontz wrote in an op-ed entitled "Why Gender Equality Stalled" in Sunday's New York Times,

Astonishingly, despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child's work or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total workforce was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers should be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the FMLA turned out to be the inadequate end.

Meanwhile, since 1990, other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of "work-family reconciliation" acts. As a result, when the United States' work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.

As I likely do not need to tell you, the number of hours worked expected from the average worker during the average workweek has ticked steadily up in recent years, making the idea of two full-time employees trying to raise a child while maintaining each of their careers near impossible. So, someone steps down. Men are generally paid more than women -- so guess which one tends to do the stepping down? And in fact, the more hours a man works, the more likely it is his female partner will quit her job. (And interestingly, married dads whose wives don't work full-time get paid more. Grrr.)

I have an extremely talented, very driven friend who works in New York, in a highly competitive, fast-evolving field. She is passionate about her work, and fiercely devoted to keeping her skills current. Her husband makes more money than her, and his job offers benefits. They're thinking of having a baby. Her current boss won't pay for leave -- and, she's been feeling pretty stagnant in her position. Up until recently, she'd been looking for a new job. But now, she's thinking, Well, maybe I'll just take some time off when we have the baby. Child care is so expensive anyway. It'll put her at a disadvantage later, but she doesn't see much of a choice. She's stopped looking for something new -- despite the fact that she has not, as of yet, stopped taking the pill.

Sheryl Sandberg would call this a classic case of "leaning out" -- taking oneself out of the game before it's necessary in anticipation of work-life issues -- and suggest that this friend of mine rethink her strategy and "lean in" instead. Even this friend of mine looks at is as a personal choice. But the thing is, in cases like this, the personal is, in fact, political.

Going back to Coontz's piece:

The sociologist Pamela Stone studied a group of mothers who had made these decisions. Typically, she found, they phrased their decision in terms of a preference. But when they explained their 'decision-making process,' it became clear that most had made the 'choice' to quit work only as a last resort -- when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns. Under those conditions, Professor Stone notes, what was really a workplace problem for families became a private problem for women.

Every time we buy into that idea -- that what's going on with us has only to do with us -- the movement stalls just a little bit more. It's been fifty years since The Feminine Mystique... and twenty since the Family and Medical Leave Act. In order for things to change, we have to realize that what we are up against is bigger than the particular circumstances of our own lives.

Just as the miserable, Valium-popping suburban wives of Friedan's day might have looked around at their gleaming linoleum and state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners and said, but I chose this, we too can look at everything as a personal choice. Or we can step back, take a broader look, and realize that while, yes, perhaps we did "lean out" -- taking a lesser job in a lesser place because our husband made the big bucks, or taking some time off work with the baby because it "made more sense" even though, in an ideal world, we'd like to work, too -- a huge, invisible (and not so invisible) part of why we "decided" to lean out is systemic. It's cultural and it's structural and it's policy-determined and it is, in fact, political.

The graphic that ran with Coontz's story is a color-coded world map that shows which countries have paid maternity leave, by weeks provided. Those in the "none" category included Palau, Papau New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, Tonga, Suriname and the United States. Aren't we better than this?

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