By ALEXANDRA HARWIN
The “opt out” idea is as infuriating to feminists everywhere as it is satisfying to pretty much everyone else. For its supporters, the “opt out” concept, with its handy catch phrase, solves so many problems. It vindicates “choice feminism” and makes clear that the cranky liberal feminists back in the 1960s were misguided when the founders of NOW wrote, “We do not accept the traditional assumption that a woman has to choose between marriage and motherhood, on the one hand, and serious participation in industry or the professions on the other.” The phrase reassures us that decades of rising labor force participation among mothers have been no more than a fad, one that sensible women are tossing aside like tamagotchis. (Remember those?) It doesn’t bog us down with concerns about structural inflexibility in the workplace; business is business, and we can’t expect to change that. Best of all, it does away with the idea that gender functions as a system of social constraints, forcing men to stick with their jobs and cheering on the women who abandon theirs. No, gender is what science says it is, and science says moms are happiest when they’re taking care of their kids at home. And baking.
These were some of the claims I was expecting from journalist Leslie Bennetts at the panel on “Workplace Flexibility” that took place at the Yale Law School on March 28. Bennetts had been invited to speak as part of the Yale Law Women’s conference “’Opt Out’ or Pushed Out: Are Women Choosing to Leave the Legal Profession?” Based on the unfortunate title of her book, The Feminine Mistake, I figured Bennetts was another dime-a-dozen critic set on rebutting Betty Friedan’s seminal work half a century too late. So it came as a surprise to me that Bennett wasn’t there as an advocate for the women who “opt out.” Her argument was, in fact, the opposite: that the women “opting out” were the ones making the “feminine mistake,” deciding to leave their jobs without recognizing the financial vulnerability that they’d face as a result.
Bennetts broke away from the familiar dichotomy—“opt out” or “pushed out”?— that the conference was promoting. While panelists like attorney Michael Teter stressed that inflexible workplaces explained why some professional women were leaving their jobs, Bennetts suggested that gender norms were just as much to blame. No, she wasn’t claiming that women opting out just like being moms better than they like being accomplished professionals. Instead, she argued that many men and women end up in high-stress jobs that they don’t like and want to leave, but only women have an excuse to get out. Few people bat an eye when female professionals claim that full-time motherhood beckons, but pretty much everyone seems aghast if a male professional wants to make the same choice. What’s so bad about women who don’t want to work having the option not to work? Lots, Bennetts explains, since women who don’t work end up a lot less happy and much more economically dependent than those who do.
Most of us take advantage of gender norms and expectations from time to time, and for precisely the reason women who “opt out” do: it’s convenient. I’ll take the seat that a man offers me on the subway because I want to sit down, and I’ll accept his help carrying my bag because it’s heavy. A man won’t clean the bathroom because it’s unpleasant and won’t cook dinner because he’d rather do something else. The women who opt out are doing the same, becoming full-time caretakers because being full-time workers is a drag. Bennetts reveals that when opportunistic gender performance comes into—and out of—the workplace, women themselves end up suffering the consequences.
Alexandra Harwin is a 1st year student at the Yale Law School.