One of my female law professors told me that out of her group of female friends from law school (Harvard, Class of 1996), she’s the only one still working. At first I was just depressed. I mean why am I busting my butt when chances are I’ll probably just abandon the law in ten years time? My second reaction was to be pissed—not at social forces or institutions that influence these women’s life choices, but at these women! These women were gobbling up precious spots at Harvard Law School, which could have gone to other women who actually planned to practice law. Opportunities for women’s advancement are still precious commodities; they are not to be wasted, I thought.
I often feel this tension between wanting women to have free choice and not wanting them all to make the same choice. Of course it can be argued that if women are all making the same choice, then maybe it’s not so “free.” Linda Hirshman has proposed forcing women who receive government subsidized education, pay back those funds if they subsequently drop out of the paid labor market. This presumably would balance out the social forces that influence women’s decision to drop out of the work force in favor of child rearing. Hirshman argues, I think, that overwhelming numbers of women are not all making these opt-out choices in a totally free decision-making environment—they are influenced by stereotype, unequal domestic burden sharing, etc. Some of this rings true: I hear a lot about the guilt working-mothers’ feel about not raising their own children. You don’t hear a lot of dads lamenting similarly. Maybe making staying home a more expensive proposition would combat this. But I suspect money isn’t enough.
I also wonder, do the stay-at-home lawyers feel their own guilt. Do they know I’m mad at them? Do they know I think they’re wasting something? Do they think they’re wasting something too? If there is opt-out guilt then educated women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t (guilty at work and guilty at home). The pessimist in me fears this is the case for many women.
And you know what? Maybe that problem is my fault, because my reaction to a story about a woman lawyer leaving practice in favor of child rearing is to judge them. Like most negative judgments about other people, mine can probably be chalked up to insecurity. I’m in law school. I’m working hard. I want to feel that I’m making good choices for myself. And every time another woman chooses a life I’m not building for myself I feel the need to make sure I’m still on the “right” track. I don’t think I’m the only one that does this. As long as women are trying to justify their life choices in relation to others’ we will be divided in the fight to achieve our own goals. What we really need is one another’s support.
I have often heard the feminist credo: the personal is political. Most recently I’ve heard it said of Justice Ginsburg, who maintains her lone perch on the bench, despite personal circumstances that might compel others to retire. But not all women are crusaders, and I have to remember that no matter what my own choices are, I can’t ask them to be.
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