Monday, April 26, 2010

Daily Beast's Peter Beinart suggests uterus check for female SCOTUS nominees

In an article in today's Daily Beast, writer Peter Beinart suggests:

And that's why it's important not just to have lots of women in positions of political power, but to have lots of women with kids. It's important because otherwise, the message you're sending young women is that they can achieve professionally, or they can have a family, but they can't do both. And without quite realizing it, that is the message our government has been sending. According to the Census Bureau, 80 percent of American women over the age of 40 have children. But look at the women who have held Cabinet posts in the last three presidential administrations. Only two of the Clinton administration's five female Cabinet secretaries had kids. (Attorney General Janet Reno got her job only after two women with children, Zoƫ Baird and Kimba Wood, were dinged for hiring illegal immigrants as nannies). In the Bush administration, the figure was two of seven. In the Obama administration, so far, it is two of four. And if Obama chooses Elena Kagan for the High Court, the figure there will be one of three.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with appointing childless women (or men, for that matter) to high office. But our government is actually doing a pretty good job of providing role models for the 20 percent of American women who don't want kids. Where it's failing is in providing role models for the 80 percent that do. Read more...

Uh...hold on there, Sparky. Society does a good job of providing role models for the 20 percent of American women who don't want kids? Really? A lot of child-free women beg to differ. Whatever else women choose to do with their lives, that they will become mothers is more than expected, it is demanded. Motherhood remains the litmus test by which society judges a woman's...womanhood. No matter how professionally successful a woman may be...no matter how vibrant her social life...no matter how engaged she is with friends and family, if she is not a mother, society is suspicious of her happiness, well-adjustedness, and her ability to love and nurture.

Don't believe me? One need only take a quick look at the celebrity stage, for an example of how women and motherhood are viewed differently than men and fatherhood. Tabloids would have you believe that George Clooney is a rakish, dashing, bachelor; Jennifer Anniston is barren, sad sack.

A woman who is not a mother must be deficient or surely some man would have deigned to impregnate her; she would have been chosen to carry some man's seed. Perhaps she is not nurturing. Perhaps she is cold. Perhaps she is neurotic. Perhaps she is selfish. Perhaps she is too preoccupied with her career and has made some Faustian bargain to forgo being a mother if only God will grant her a starring role in a 90s sitcom and a haircut that enters the pop culture lexicon. A woman could never be child free by choice. There must be something wrong. Society is certain that some deficiency leads a woman to be without children, and similarly, that a woman's life can have no substance without children in it. Beinart offers an example when he shares Ed Rendell's assessment of Janet Napolitano:

Compare that to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell's comment after Barack Obama nominated Janet Napolitano to head the Homeland Security Department. "Janet's perfect for that job," Rendell quipped. "Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19 to 20 hours a day to it."

See...no kids equals no life for women. We alone are judged by whether or not we procreate. And though Beinart claims to want to show young women that it is possible to have both professional success and children--a worthy goal--he aims to do it by subjecting female candidates for SCOTUS to the same, tired evaluation of their reproductive choices.

It is indeed strange that a society that genuflects to mommyhood doesn't make it easier for mommies (and I say "mommies" not "parents," because working mothers still carry most of the burden for child and home care). You know what might convince women who make the choice to be mothers than they can juggle both family and career?

- If today's mothers and fathers began raising their sons with the expectation of assuming equal responsibility for childcare
- If a year's paid parental leave was mandatory in the United States
- If society deemed it acceptable for a man to be a stay-at-home husband
- If childcare workers and teachers received pay equal to the importance of their jobs
- If women of childbearing age were not seen as a liability by potential employers
- If working fathers like Beinart took equal responsibility for the care of their children (and Beinart might well do this)

That there are slightly more non-moms in positions of power does not mean that society accepts or supports these women's right not to reproduce. Indeed, childless women continue to be marginalized in a patriarchal society. A young woman will receive far more societal support for choosing to have a career and family than for choosing not to have a family at all. The problem is not that women without children are getting too many extra goodies, too many shots at the brass ring. The problem isn't that working mothers don't have enough role models to demonstrate that they can have it all. The problem is that for all our superficial obsession with "baby bumps" and our pledges that "the children are the future," we aren't willing to walk the walk. We don't support women in having it all. We fail to back up our supposed belief in families with legislation and societal values that truly establish successful nurturing of the next generation as a priority. (I can pretty much guarantee that our "family values" friends on the right would be the first to rail against any sort of strengthened parental leave or socialized childcare.)

Beinart says:

Obviously, the problems that women face balancing work and family won't disappear just because Obama picks someone like Diane Wood (three children and three stepchildren) for the High Court. But choosing Wood would send the message that women can have kids and still reach the apex of their profession. That's a message that I'd like my working wife—and our 2-year-old daughter—to hear.

Working mothers don't need a hollow symbol on the Supreme Court. They sure as hell don't need more sacrifice for their childless sisters or for women's reproductive choices to be further scrutinized. The very idea seems facile and presumptuous. (In Beinart's argument, there is an assumption that women choose not to have children solely to better their careers. There is also an assumption that fathers should not be expected to advocate for better support for working families.)

What working families need is ACTION--in the Court and Congress and the White House and the board room and our homes--and not at the expense of childless women.


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