Out with college friends in New York City this past summer, we were often frustrated by the lack of available men eager to treat us to drinks from the bar of a swanky hotel. Noting this, a friend (of the male persuasion, no less) made a comment we will not soon forget: “How can you Yale girls be such professional and academic feminists and still expect guys to buy you drinks?”
Living in an age influenced equally by the 1970s progressivism of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and the intertwined sex appeal and independence of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character on “Sex and the City,” we are not sure how to answer his question. Having broken into the “old boys’ club” exclusivity of the Ivy League — perhaps not as impressive an accomplishment today as it was in 1969 — what remaining gender barriers are left? Though women are not universally on equal footing with men in the workplace, many improvements have been made since the heyday of the ’50s housewife. Yet the front page of yesterday’s New York Times did not seem to reflect this trend. Louise Story’s feature, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood” implied that a majority of Ivy League women will forgo a professional career in favor of the traditional role of childrearing.
To dismiss motherhood as unimportant is blasphemous. Fostering future generations is both necessary and noble. For women at Yale, however, it sometimes seems that having a successful career and raising a family are mutually exclusive and even diametrically opposed. The pressure to succeed has driven us this far, but we are plagued by feelings of guilt for wanting to selfishly pursue our own ambitions. Having had stay-at-home mothers ourselves adds a more emotional dimension to this choice. Right now we can anticipate eventually marrying and maybe even having children, but we are not prepared to say this with any degree of certainty. We were shocked, then, to read about our fellow students’ nonchalance toward this complex dilemma. Story’s casual tone left the reader with an impression unsubstantiated by our experience at Yale — the impression that among the privileged women of the Ivy League, a certain apathy for the relevance of our expensive education is in fashion.
The only evidence Story referenced to prove this thesis was a subjective and misleading study. Only 138 undergraduate women at Yale responded to an e-mail survey, but The Times presented this self-selected sample as representative of all women at elite colleges. Any student in Statistics 100 would know that conclusions drawn from such a poorly designed survey are wholly unreliable due in large part to response bias. In only one instance are actual numbers provided, and even they did not entirely support her conclusions: “The interviews found that 85 of the students, or roughly 60 percent, said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely. About half … said they planned to work part time, and about half wanted to stop work for at least a few years.” This statement in no way implies that the surveyed women are indeed “setting a career path to motherhood,” but instead suggests that women are considering a wider range of options in order to balance equally important desires.
Story often made her own assumptions without feeling the need to offer numerical data. She claimed many female students do not want to pursue careers with the same tenacity as their male counterparts. Her interpretation of the e-mail survey’s undisclosed results was subjective and frustratingly unscientific: “What seems new is that while many of their mothers expected to have hard-charging careers … the women of this generation expect their careers to take second place to child-rearing.” We are left wondering what the students themselves actually said.
Aside from shoddy research methods, the most disturbing feature of Story’s article was her light treatment of such a controversial social issue. Undeniably, the question of contemporary motherhood is a worthy and interesting subject to investigate. But the majority of the students interviewed only corroborated the feature’s desired aim; no consideration was given to students of opposing or undecided opinions. In reality we know few women who exhibit the attitudes depicted in the article. Story’s assessment was so at odds with our experience that we wondered if we were in fact reading about the Yale we know.
Ironically, the most enlightening commentary included in the expose came from a man, Yale’s own Dean Salovey, who alluded to the difficulty of transcending stereotypical gender roles. But it was disappointing that his perspective was juxtaposed with a Harvard student’s account of how her male peers described stay-at-home motherhood as “sexy.”
We would like Story to know that we are not, as she claims, “unbothered … by the strictures of traditional roles.” In fact, we are bothered. We are also bothered that an evidently career-driven alumna of our university could oversimplify the seriousness of this dilemma.
Naima Farrell and Kari Rittenbach are juniors in Trumbull College. Rittenbach is a production and design staffer for the News.