On October 26, 2003, The New York Times Magazine jump-started a century-long debate about women who work. On the cover it featured “The Opt Out Revolution,” Lisa Belkin’s semipersonal essay, with this banner: "Why don’t more women get to the top? They choose not to." Inside, by telling stories about herself and eight other Princeton grads who no longer work full-time, Belkin concluded that women were just too smart to believe that ladder-climbing counted as real success.
But Belkin’s “revolution”—the idea that well-educated women are fleeing their careers and choosing instead to stay home with their babies—has been touted many times before. As Joan C. Williams notes in her meticulously researched report, “ ‘Opt Out’ or Pushed Out? How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict,” released in October 2006 by the University of California Hastings Center for WorkLife Law, where she is the director, The New York Times alone has highlighted this “trend” repeatedly over the last fifty years: in 1953 (“Case History of an Ex-Working Mother”), 1961 (“Career Women Discover Satisfactions in the Home&rdquo), 1980 (“Many Young Women Now Say They’d Pick Family Over Career”), 1998 (“The Stay-At-Home Mother”), and 2005 (“Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood”).
And yet during the same years, the U.S. has seen steady upticks in the numbers and percentages of women, including mothers, who work for wages. Economists agree that the increase in what they dryly call “women’s participation in the waged workforce” has been critical to American prosperity, demonstrably pushing up our gdp. The vast majority of contemporary families cannot get by without women’s income—especially now, when upwards of 70 percent of American families with children have all adults in the work force, when *51 percent of American women live without a husband, and when many women can expect to live into their eighties and beyond.
The moms-go-home story keeps coming back, in part, because it’s based on some kernels of truth. Women do feel forced to choose between work and family. Women do face a sharp conflict between cultural expectations and economic realities. The workplace is still demonstrably more hostile to mothers than to fathers. Faced with the “choice” of feeling that they’ve failed to be either good mothers or good workers, many women wish they could—or worry that they should—abandon the struggle and stay home with the kids.
The problem is that the moms-go-home storyline presents all those issues as personal rather than public—and does so in misleading ways. The stories’ statistics are selective, their anecdotes about upper-echelon white women are misleading, and their “counterintuitive” narrative line parrots conventional ideas about gender roles. Thus they erase most American families’ real experiences and the resulting social policy needs from view.
Here’s why that matters: if journalism repeatedly frames the wrong problem, then the folks who make public policy may very well deliver the wrong solution. If women are happily choosing to stay home with their babies, that’s a private decision. But it’s a public policy issue if most women (and men) need to work to support their families, and if the economy needs women’s skills to remain competitive. It’s a public policy issue if schools, jobs, and other American institutions are structured in ways that make it frustratingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, for parents to manage both their jobs and family responsibilities.
So how can this story be killed off, once and for all? Joan Williams attempts to chloroform the moms-go-home storyline with facts. “Opt Out or Pushed Out?” should be on every news, business, and feature editor’s desk. It analyzes 119 representative newspaper articles, published between 1980 and 2006, that use the opt-out storyline to discuss women leaving the workplace. While business sections regularly offer more informed coverage of workplace issues, the “opt out” trend stories get more prominent placement, becoming “the chain reaction story that flashes from the Times to the columnists to the evening news to the cable shows,” says Caryl Rivers, a Boston University journalism professor and the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (April 2007).