Sunday, April 27, 2008

Reactions to The Legacy of Feminism Conference

I've been meaning to write about the Legacy and Future of Feminism conference held at Harvard on April 11, but life intervened. (See previous post.) I want to tell my readers what I saw and heard. In this post, I will report on how people reacted to my message.
My principle opponent was Linda Hirschman, author of a book charmingly entitled, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, (which I reviewed here.) She said she read my book, Love and Economics, on the plane. She noticed that I thought properly brought up children were necessary for a free society. But her spin on the that was that I thought women should stay home with their chidlren, so we could have a capitalist society. I don't think she quite grasped the significance of infant/mother attachment for the development of the child and for the long run good of the whole social order. That was of course, the whole point of Love and Economics. She made the predictable comments that fathers should be involved with their children, which of course, I never deny. In fact, I have a whole section in Chapter 6 called The Irreplacable Contribution of Fathers.
Luckily, I had prepared my opening statement in advance: I was concerned that I might be diverted into responding to her, and not make the points I really wanted to make. Readers of this blog know what that opening statement said. I had made up my mind that I would begin and end my opening presentation with stories, but I would decide exactly which story to use once I heard what she had to say. Given what she said, I decided to tell the part of my story about adopting a child who proved to be very needy. He didn't need High-Quality-Low-Cost-Daycare. He had enough institutional care. He needed a mommy. (People who have heard my talks, or listened to my CD's, have heard this story.) I ended with this story about Jonathan Hughes.
In 1991, I was a tenured professor of economics at George Mason University. I received a phone call from a dear friend of mine, Jonathan R.T. Hughes, who was one of the Great Men of Economic History. He had received our adoption announcement for the arrival of our two and a half year old son from Romania. He had also heard through the grapevine that I was pregnant. And, as I knew, Jonathan Hughes had terminal cancer.
So he called me up to congratulate me on our new arrival and to coo over the photo I had sent him. Then he said, “when you get to be my age, you realize that being a parent was the one thing in life that was really worth doing.” Mind you, Jon had a distinguished teaching and publishing career. But that was how he saw his own life from his death bed. He went on, “Enjoy your kids while they are young. The university will still be there after they have grown up.”
I wanted to take his advice, but I was afraid to quit my job. I’ll never get another tenured position, I told myself. Yet the tug, the pull of the children was unmistakable. And our son had genuine needs. He’d had plenty of institutional care in his orphanage in Romania. He needed a Mommy. That would be me.
My husband had moved to the DC area for the sake of my teaching job at Mason. He is a nuts and bolts engineer. There was nothing really for him in DC. He had worked with the same contracting firm for ten years. By 1996, he deeply wanted to move to California to join a laser company and get in on the high tech boom. I was finally ready to let go.
I took a leap of faith and went with my husband. When we left the DC area, I did not have another job lined up. I made a decision that the family would be my first priority, and I would fit my work in around the edges of my full-time job. As it happened, part time research and writing positions fell into my lap. I had all the work I wanted.
During those years, our family had any number of problems to deal with. Death and dying, mental illness and physical illness, all came into our immediate world. The fact that I had made myself available to my children meant that we had some “slack” in our family system to deal with these problems as they arose. As a bonus, I got the opportunity to do many other wonderful things I didn’t have time for when I was working full-time. I could actually plan vacations and outings for our family. I could help at the kids’ schools, and bring casseroles to sick friends. I got to have friends, dear women friends, really for the first time since high school. We were foster parents for three years, to a total of eight children.
And you know what? Jonathan Hughes was right: the university is still here. Here I am. University life hasn’t changed all that much. It is almost as if I never left.


Anonymous said...

Then of course, there's women like my mother. She happily gave up her job when she married - and 12 years later, when her marriage fell apart, ( a breakup initiated by my father, BTW) nobody wanted to hire someone who ' hadn't worked in more than a decade '. She finally got a job - more physically punishing, and with less pay, than the one she left when she married. After watching the way my mom got screwed, there is absolutaly no way I'd give up my job for anything. (I'm single, so it hasn't become an urgent issue as of yet. )

Jennifer Roback Morse said...

Dear Anon
Your mom's situation, is, unfortunately, all too common. However, most self-proclaimed feminists do not want to deal with the root cause of the problem: unilateral divorce. Under fault rules, or really, under any civilized rules, your father would not be allowed to walk away from a blameless wife and leave her holding the bag, without facing some kind of negative consequence. Yet most feminists use this kind of story as the trump card in their campaign to get more women to work. They don't seem to realize that their attempts to destabilize marriage, including their support for easy divorce and limited alimony, are the major contributing causes of the injustice of the displaced housewife.

Carol Marie said...

I can totally relate to your concern. My mom ended up divorced when I was 18 and my youngest brother (of 6 kids) was less than 3 yrs old. Their marriage was already on the rocks when she found out she was pregnant and the first thing she was asked by the nurse when told she was pregnant was, would she like to schedule an abortion. My youngest brother is a great person and I'm glad he's here.

And you know, while my mom didn't work during the first 16 years of my life, she, through her own ingenuity and drive, managed to jump start a sales career and became extremely successful, buying a nice home on the SF Bay Area Peninsula and driving a Jag. And no, she didn't do it using money from dad. He seemed to derail after the marriage broke up.

So, the moral of the story could have been, heck guys shouldn't commit to marriages, they might not work, and you might find yourself alone.

But, life happens. What matters is, are you willing to commit yourself to the possibility of having a happy, successful marriage? Marriage and raising a healthy family requires a 110% commitment from each partner, without concern for whether or not your partner is willing to put in anything at all.

And to make it work, as Dr. J says, we need the laws that support marriage, not undermine it.