Deja Vu: The “retro wife,” 10 years later

New York Magazine’s recent cover story “The Retro Wife” has raised hackles here, there, and everywhere. At Feministing, we shared the smart thoughts of Shannon Drury of The Radical Housewife yesterday.

But this is hardly the first time a prominent woman writer has tackled the “opt out” subject. A decade ago, Lisa Belkin, now of the Huffington Post, wrote a feature story for the New York Times Magazine called “The Opt-Out Revolution.” She reported essentially the same thing as Lisa Miller did for New York. With time, though, Belkin has found some additional wisdom. And she wrote about it in a thoughtful reflection on the idea of “the retro wife” this week.

Looking back over 10 years and a lot of reporting, I have come to see my mistake when writing “The Opt-Out Revolution.” I confused being pulled toward home with being pushed away from work. True, I spent a lot of time describing the way that Sally Sears, a local Atlanta TV anchor, was refused flexibility when she asked for it, and how Katherine Brokaw, a young lawyer, left her partner-track job at a law firm after working 15-hour-days, seven days a week, while still nursing her 4-month-old. I did not fully understand, though, that what looked like a choice was not really what these women wanted most. Had their workplaces been ones that adapted to a world in which workers no longer have other halves (read: wives) focusing on home so that they can focus on the job, and where technology could be used to free employees from their desks physically rather than tethering them metaphorically, and where the “ideal worker” was understood to have priorities outside of the office — in other words, if they’d had a third path — they might well have taken it.

Sears is back in TV work — part-time — now that her son is older. Brokaw is the Dean of Students at Emory Law School. But while they both successfully re-entered the workforce (not all women in the piece did; they asked not to be named in this article) the past 10 years have hardly erased the work/life conflict for most women. I would argue that most of this new flexibility and vowing of equality are mere window-dressing when what’s required is a complete overhaul of the workplace. [Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law and a professor at the Hastings College of Law and author of a paper called "Opt-Out or Pushed Out?] would too. She told me that while corporate lip-service to workers’ needs may have changed, society’s definitions have not. The “perfect mother,” she says, is still “someone who is always available to her children,” and the “perfect worker” is “someone who is always available to work. They are both flawed ideals, but anyone who doesn’t live up to it is going to be stigmatized.”

Every generation of women, she points out, faces similarly difficult choices, and must navigate their paths appropriately. What she and other women hope, she says, is that the choices on offer become better ones. I hope so too.

Read the full essay here.

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