It’s a rare moment when I defend the journalistic integrity of The New York Times. It seems impossible to escape the front page doomsday stories about suicide bombings and deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush’s plummeting public approval rating and the carnage wrought by some of the nastiest hurricanes in years. Flip to the back few pages of the “newspaper of record,” you’ll read articles about how moderate Palestinian parties decisively won over Hamas in West Bank elections and how the media’s hysterical coverage of Katrina has proven to be wildly inaccurate. Turns out the world isn’t descending into chaos as fast as the Times would like us to think.
But on Sept. 20, something odd happened. On its front page, The New York Times published the article “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path towards Motherhood.” The paper of choice for most self-described Northeastern liberals had challenged one of modern liberalism’s most fundamental tenets: feminism.
The article, written by Yale’s own Louise Story, was an affront to the deeply held notion that feminism had freed women from the shackles of maternity and wifehood — those socially constructed “gender roles.” For feminists, women should be increasingly desirous of independent lives and high-power working careers. Story’s story provided empirical evidence that exactly the opposite is occurring: over 60 percent of her survey’s respondents intend to “cut back on work or stop working entirely” after childbirth.
The response was stunning. The piece was nytimes.com’s most-read article for days. Because Harvard President Larry Summers has recanted and, well, Bush’s Supreme Court picks aren’t quite the evil misogynists that organizations like NARAL, NOW and their ilk have portrayed them to be, feminists are spoiling for a fight. And they found it — surprisingly enough — in The New York Times.
Slate.com’s editor at large attacked the reporter’s constant use of the word “many” as an underhanded way of drawing unsubstantiated generalizations. Opinion pieces in the LA Times, Boston Globe and The Nation similarly criticized Story’s surprising revelation as an example of poor reporting and manipulation of statistics.
But leave it to our fellow Yalies to respond with the most vitriol. One letter to the editor of the YDN (“More analysis required in career debate,” 9/29) from a Yale alumna dismissed the thoughts of the young women who might choose motherhood over work as the delusional musings of “youth and inexperience.” (Apparently the author’s immeasurable wisdom gleaned from a whole five years of living in the real world has placed her in a position to berate those pathetic and naive girls who, as she put it, are revealing their true “feelings of powerlessness.”)
The Yale Women’s Center has vowed to undertake its own study to “seriously and honestly discover what Yale women are thinking about this,” i.e., to discover something different. It seems the Women’s Center has learned an important lesson from GESO: when at first you don’t get the desired polling results, try, try, try again. Their study will likely find that the Yale woman wants to work; if she gets married at all, it will be late in her life; if she has kids, she’ll return back to work soon thereafter.
Louise Story is no pollster or statistician, but her questionnaire and interview methods were sufficient to draw basic conclusions on trends pertaining to motherhood. To be sure, her article was not conducted with the rigor of a scientific study (hence her use of the imprecise qualifiers “many” and “some”) but newspapers aren’t academic journals. As far as journalistic integrity, her efforts were “a gold standard” according to Yale SOM professor Barry Nalebuff. Bizarrely, Story’s critics charge that she overly qualified her statements with “weasel-words,” while simultaneously maintaining that she made too many sweeping statements. Well, which is it?
The truth is it’s neither. What irks most people about Story’s article is that it revealed an uncomfortable truth for feminists: that a staggering number of educated women, like those at Yale, no longer want to become presidents and CEOs. They’re perfectly content being mothers.
According to feminism’s dialectical view of history, modern women in the United States shouldn’t be having such backwards thoughts — certainly not at socially conscious universities like Yale and Harvard. Louise Story’s article was an indicator — for some, a rude wake-up call — that history just might not be progressing towards a utopian society in which men are just as likely to be stay-at-home fathers as women are to be stay-at-home mothers.
As quoted in the Times article, Dean Salovey is concerned about the lack of thinking “outside the box” of “traditional gender roles,” and Harvard undergraduate admissions director Marlyn McGrath Lewis is looking for a “return” on her investment in female students. If both are so concerned about the trend towards motherhood, perhaps Yale and Harvard should send a disclaimer to all prospective applicants: “Aspiring stay-at-home moms need not apply.”
That message is disturbing. Is the well-educated woman who influences her children through time at home less valuable to society than the well-educated doctor or university professor? I’m certainly not prepared to say so. To be sure, there are many women among us who aspire to become leaders in business and politics — and many among them who will have children too — but there are surprising numbers of women who don’t want the glitz of a career as a partner in a Manhattan law firm or a senator on Capitol Hill.
It’s not that these women are duped by gender stereotypes perpetuated by a patriarchal society; it’s that they genuinely feel that motherhood and family life are satisfying life goals in and of themselves.
The self-righteous outrage of feminists at Story’s New York Times article is a betrayal of what feminism once stood for: choice. Apparently a woman’s choice to have a family and raise one’s children without working after an Ivy League education is an unacceptable one — a stay-at-home mother with a Yale diploma is a waste of an education.
Keith Urbahn is a senior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.