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CIOS - Of Angst, Anecdote, and Anger: A Gender Communication Response to The Opt-Out Revolution
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Mary-Jeanette Smythe
University of Missouri-Columbia

Abstract: This essay adopts the lens of gender(ed) communication for responding to discourses of The opt-out revolution. In providing a response, I exploresome of the features of the article and the online postings that function as markers of gendered discourse. In addition to considering attributes that define feminine discourse communities, I consider two emergent themes of (a) women’s stereotyping of each other and (b) “the biology/destiny redux.”

Lisa Belkin’s (2003) announcement of a revolution at the nexus of feminism, the workplace, and motherhood occasioned one of the more interesting public conversations invoking these three often inflammatory elements in the past 30 years. The article on The Opt-Out Revolution itself was but one reason for the ensuing flurry of commentary in various arenas. More compelling than Belkin’s account of her conversations with a number of well-educated professional women were the postings to an online forum established expressly for readers to respond to the article. These texts provided a unique opportunity to explore a body of discourse that was by, for, and about the lives and experiences of contemporary U.S. American women. Scholars interested in the nature of gendered discourse were thus presented with a vivid and varied collection against which to examine relevant constructs. The goal of this paper is to explore some of the features of these postings that function as markers of gendered discourse (Mulac, 1998; Wood, 2005). Attributes that define feminine discourse communities are considered first and then the focus shifts to a view of two broad, gender-relevant themes that emerge within Belkin’s article and recur throughout the forum postings written in response.

Feminine Discourse Communities

The concept of discourse communities emerged in early analyses of the impact of race, socio-economic status, and class on language acquisition and performance (Labov, 1966; Langer, 1953). There emerged from these treatments, among other things, the difference and deficit hypotheses which offered competing interpretations of language behaviors. The deficit hypothesis argued there is one standard language form and that alternative forms are essentially sub-standard—associated with lower socio-economic levels, lower educational achievement, and lower levels of perceived credibility, power, and attractiveness. The difference hypothesis eschewed these implicit value judgments and their attendant social consequences in favor of an argument to the effect that different language forms function perfectly well within certain contexts and are thus not inherently deficient. The fundamental disagreement underlying these alternative views of discourse communities has continued to echo across the decades, particularly in the educational policy arena (e.g., English as a second language programs, Ebonics). What the difference/deficit hypothesis controversy brought into sharp focus for gender communication scholars, however, remains the same. Put simply, language usage has profound social implications, especially those associated with power, preference, and privilege.

Over time, the idea that there are multiple discourse communities embedded within all societies captured the attention of scholars in various disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, and communication. Researchers and feminists interested in the social inequities associated with different patterns of language usage began to systematically explore the nature and extent of difference in the norms, expectations, and practices of gendered discourse communities. Treatments range from the popular, application-oriented Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, (Gray, 1991) to the more scholarly nuanced texts (e.g., Gender in applied communication contexts; Buzzanell, Sterk, & Turner, 2004). One highly influential work that in effect straddled the extremes of the anecdotal/experiential orientation of the former and the rigorous/empirical approach of the latter was Deborah Tannen’s (1991) You just don’t understand. Tannen argued persuasively that women and men are socialized into distinct discourse communities. In this and subsequent works, she enumerated the ways in which masculine and feminine speech diverge, with an eye to the social, political, and interpersonal consequences of the differences that typify gendered speech patterns. As Wood (2005) notes, the term “typical” is extremely important to the discussion, because the differences researchers have identified are relative, general differences rather than absolute, invariant properties of masculine or feminine discourse communities.

Characteristic patterns of feminine discourse are readily apparent in both the content of Belkin’s interviewees’ comments and the responses readers posted to the on-line forum. Three patterns in particular seem noteworthy. First, there is the distinctly dialogic quality of the posts. Rather than free-standing observations posed in a linear sequence (e.g., “you have your say and then I will have mine”), these texts reflect a sense of full engagement, marked by comments building upon observations from previous posts, occasionally even speaking directly to one another. For instance, chester62 (#105-10/25/03) opened her post by acknowledging gatrix, an earlier contributor (#98-10/25/03): “The law student who just posted is right to wonder how she is going to swing family life while working at a big firm, and I have some practical advice for her...[gives advice]…Good luck—and your mom sounds fantastic!”

Throughout the 150 posts, there were numerous instances of such exchanges. The tendency to build upon one another’s accounts and experiences is a familiar pattern in feminine discourse communities. This sort of relationship-driven discourse recognizes and affirms the experiences of participants in the conversation. According to Wood (1993, 2005), this norm of feminine discourse communities shows how communicators express support, understanding, and sympathy for one another’s feelings. Interestingly, even when posts expressed disagreements with earlier comments, the objections were couched in language that was participatory and inclusive.

Similarly, another characteristic of feminine discourse focuses on the specific vocabulary used by participants. The norm is that women use concrete, personal, and disclosive language, and the posts are replete with examples of this phenomenon. Indeed, even a casual glance at the 150 posts would invoke thoughts of Altman and Taylor’s (1973) model of intimacy development; the early posts are shorter and more specifically directed to the content of the Belkin’s article and are gradually replaced by longer, more personalized, emotional, and disclosive texts. There is a testimonial, even confessional tone to some of these posts, in which women share their feelings of frustration, guilt, despair, or simply rant freely.

Even the language used to define the key terms in the conversation is distinctively feminine. Consider the words used to discuss the concept of success by women in Belkin’s article (as well as forum posters). The three most frequently occurring terms were “satisfaction,” “balance,” and “sanity.” These are not the words one would expect to read in men’s postings about how they define (or pursue) success. Moreover, the postings are marked by personal details and stories. The centrality of anecdote in these accounts is unmistakable, and uniquely feminine in tone and usage. Consider the following post from Ysolde1968:

Some of us just got tired of fighting. In a male-dominated field, in a male-dominated culture, I got sick and tired of the guys getting asked out by partners to play golf and go have drinks in clubs I could not get into. I realized I was never going to make it, top-notch, Ivy education and other sterling credentials notwithstanding, because I would never be one of the boys....I decided to do what I really enjoy...I have given up the dream of the “power career” for a balanced life, a life in which work, volunteering, spirituality, and my family are all intertwined. (#10-10/24/03)

Ysolde1968’s post reflects a common narrative that emerged in the posts, and while not all of the participants would agree with her specific choices, the way she tells her story, complete with self-mockery, is in typically feminine voice.

Finally, the gender-linked language effect, developed by Mulac and his associates (1982, 1998) is clearly evident in the forum postings. Identifying socio-intellectual status and aesthetic quality as characteristic of feminine speech, the gender-linked language effect is reflected by an expressive style that is literate, formal, and elegant. Prose that captures this phenomenon is sprinkled liberally throughout Belkin’s article as well as the posts. Belkin anticipates a time when “instead of women being forced to act like men, men are being freed to act like women” (p. 86) while a later post “wonder[ed] if the prize was worth the price” (ericawax, #7-10/24/03). Even the handles the women chose reflect a wry and witty sense of language (e.g., regurgit8, cluttered_mind).

Cluttered_mind uses vivid metaphor to describe the plight of contemporary women, “we think we are making a choice, but we do not realize that we are being brainwashed and guilt-tripped. We are puppets on a string, victims of current culture,”(#38-10/24/03) while Kaysmith0 makes her point with alliteration: “I love the way this new breed of stay-at-homes are quick to point out that they are educated as if that makes them a higher line of housewife” (#35-10/24/03). It is noteworthy that the stylistic prose appears on all sides of the discussion, as weezie 58 defends women assailed for “wasting” their advanced degrees: “We act as though a woman’s IQ drops in direct proportion to the expansion of her womb” (#46-10/24/03). When taken together, the posts exemplify the characteristics of feminine discourse communities suggested by Tannen (1991, 1993), Wood (1993, 2005) and numerous others. Although Tannen’s bald assertions of difference have sometimes garnered criticism from careful scholars (see Goldsmith & Fulfs, 1999), the postings reviewed here amply demonstrate the attributes she and others have identified as feminine communication norms and practices.

Emergent Narrative Themes

In addition to employing the somewhat microscopic lens of feminine discourse characteristics, it is useful and instructive to consider broader gendered discursive patterns present in Belkin’s article and subsequent forum postings. Analysis of forum posts reveals a number of themes that are by turn angry, defiant, cynical, and poignant. Respondents give voice to perspectives as diverse as their own social, educational, and employment histories, and yet in many, if not all of the postings, there are common threads which speak to the enduring nature of the challenges women face. Indeed, these postings present far more than a tale of two narratives; the traditional dichotomy of the mommy wars (working mother vs. stay-at-home mother) does not adequately explain the discourse. Two themes in particular seemed central to the broader cultural conversation about the meanings of feminism, motherhood, and work while revealing the intellectual and emotional faultlines underlying these conversations. The two themes represent something about the contradictions inherent in the opt-out “revolution” because those posting take positions and tacitly endorse ideas that are at best inconsistent.

The “Pogo” Theme: We have met the enemy and it

It is impossible to read the posts without noticing how faithfully the discourse gives voice to enduring stereotypes about women and the lives they lead. One poster was frustrated with the “belittling” of women in one economic, educational, or rhetorical position by women in a different position ( fahra, #107-10/25/03). This tendency, frequently noted in the gender communication literature, is stated powerfully by Tahuti0:

In a barely perceptible, gradual way, working women are once again painted as “having” to work, while those who stay at home, something our foremothers rightly considered a prison, are portrayed as “privileged” for “being able” to do so, as if “naturally” any woman with small kids would stay home if she had the “choice.” And women, probably affected by all the guilt-mongering of the family-values crowd over the last decade, are themselves the worst perpetuators of this. Men are not the enemy. The government is not the enemy. Women these days are their own worst enemy. (#8-10/23-03)

Sometimes the postings reveal sharp disagreements about what the opt-out discussion really entails. To opensewer, the opt-out discussion was dismissed as “a load of irrelevant hogwash” (#85-10/25/03). She further challenges the motives of Belkin and her interviewees:

and I bet these women—when they’re not sipping lattés at Starbucks—spend their time in “save the environment” groups to make sure that couples who can’t afford to own a home stay locked out of the housing market in whatever metropolitan area they have opted to opt out, thanks to their revolutionary husbands. (#86-10/25/03)

The contempt for “these women” characterized by abarnett922 toward “this pampered bunch [that] doesn’t need to be heralded; they need to be pitied” is unmistakable (#12-10/24/03), but is only one manifestation of the anger that women posting to this site feel. Some direct their anger toward Belkin for authoring an article that “is a complete and careless failure of constructive debate” ( jacjcp, #91-10/25/03). For others, the focus is on the various subtexts of the article; disbell notes that “On a rather unrelated note, I do get annoyed by those who assume that I’m staying home solely out of a religious sense of the absolute holiness of motherhood—as if economics had nothing to do with it” (#89-10/25-03). Forum posters casually and frequently attribute stereotypical motivations to Belkin’s interviewees and others posting to the forum.

spikehazelwood saw as the most egregious offense that the goals of feminism are being subverted—and by women, at that:

I was grossly appalled by the subtext in this article that women who make the choice to opt out are letting the feminist movement down...By portraying feminists as so rigid and judgmental and bureaucratic we run the risk—and a dangerous one—that fewer and fewer women will think feminism has anything to offer them. (#94-10/25/03)

It is thus unsurprising that arch-conservative, anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly applauded the Belkin article as documentary evidence that feminism had been “mugged by reality.”

More subtle, and in some ways more disquieting, are the stereotypic judgments that employ humor or misdirection but nonetheless betray denigrating attitudes toward women and/or their activities such as joining the Junior League or baking cookies. ysolde1968, whose career path parallels those of Belkin’s interviewees in “opting-out,” uses fundamentally deprecatory humor to characterize her life as “Looking for a group of like-minded women, I joined (OMG!) the Junior League, and LOVE the time I spend helping others...So, I have turned into my mother” (#5-10/24/03). The tag line is reminiscent of hostile, stand-up comedy. Few insults inspire as much laughter as the charge that a woman has become her mother.

Finally, some of the forum postings create the impression that these women are somehow channeling their harshest critics as they indict one another’s behaviors with abandon. As sfilimon notes: “However, since I’m being honest...A tiny part of me can’t help but look at these advanced degrees and think, ‘what a waste. What an absolute waste of time, of money, of occupying a seat in graduate school’” (#23-10/24/03). The familiar charge that women will not make good use of their educations seems unbelievably archaic, and yet this view is echoed throughout the forum. Others accuse women of broader, more damning failures; for example, Cluttered_mind portrays opting-out not necessarily as a matter of personal choice but instead as succumbing

to the cultural backlash that author Susan Faludi warned us about a decade heart, women are insecure, eager-to-please wimps afraid of attracting disapproval...Our sex gets what it deep down feels it deserves, and it deserves what it gets. Right now I am ashamed to be a woman. This selling-out is making me sick at heart. (#36-10/24/03)

More temperate is streesh8’s narrowed focus on Belkin and her interviewees and how they:

didn’t stop to think that 95% of the women who read this article get presented with the reality that…some women are out there making the hard choices between one luxurious life or another. I’ll bet not too many of the interviewees will be participating in this forum and are probably rather sorry they ever published their “dilemma.” (#101-10/25/03)

Taken together, the foregoing examples support the argument that women are highly critical of one another’s behaviors and choices. The implicit message is that women’s views are somehow suspect, whether on the grounds of their arguments, their motives, or the anecdote-laden accounts of their lives. It appears Susan Brownmiller may have gotten it right when she commented that the great difficulty for women fighting oppression is that the enemy has outposts in our minds.

Selective Darwinism: The Biology/Destiny Redux

Perhaps the most curious theme apparent in the Belkin article and the ensuing posts is an ethological argument so widely reviled and ridiculed three decades earlier that its appearance here is oddly jarring. Even Belkin, reflecting on her interviewees, notes:

When these women blame biology, they do so apologetically, and I find the tone as interesting as the words...we accept that humans are born with certain traits, and we accept that other species have innate differences between the sexes...What we are loath to do is extend that acceptance to humans...because so much of recent an attempt to prove that biology is not destiny. To suggest otherwise is to resurrect an argument that can be—and has been—dangerously misused. (p. 47)

Ironically, misuse of the sociobiological perspective on human behavior is precisely what emerges within the article and some of the ensuing posts. Particularly troubling are some of the comments within the article itself, such as anthropologist Sarah Hrdy’s assertion that “seeking clout in a male world does not correlate with child it’s not that women aren’t competitive; it’s just that they don’t want to compete along the lines that are not compatible with their other goals” (p. 47). This generalization about what women are is followed by another, more convoluted observation: “to turn that into dogma—women are caring, men are not, or men should have power, women should not, that’s dangerous and false” (p. 47). One can only wonder whether Hrdy and Belkin honestly believe it is possible to pick and choose among those aspects of sociobiology that support their position, or whether they fail to see the logical lapses in their own statements. Isn’t being “somewhat hard-wired” akin to being “a little bit pregnant”?

Later in the article, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist by training, is said to “suspect that policies and committees, while crucially important, cannot change everything. And she wonders whether evolution has done both men and women a disservice” (p. 85). And when it seems it could not get worse, Tilghman states:

My fantasy is a world where there are two kinds of people—ones who like to stay home and care for children and ones who like to go out and have a career...In this fantasy, one of these kinds can only marry the other. But the way it seems to work now is that ambitious women seem to be attracted to ambitious men. Then when they have children together, “someone has to become less ambitious.” And right now, it tends to be the woman who makes that choice. (p. 85)

Though surely unintentional, the tacit assumption that people (men or women) are essentially one thing or another and ought to be mated in some arbitrary way invites comparison to some of the uglier episodes in human history. To another interviewee, Sarah Amsbary, however, selective darwinism represents neither a sinister threat nor a limitation on personal possibilities. Rather, it is a “gift” that biology gives women, enabling them to act upon “the option of being their child’s primary caregiver. When a man gets that dissatisfied with his job, he has to stick it out” (p. 86).

Within the forum posts, sociobiology garners more distinctly mixed reviews. Some “thought that I was the only woman who worked so hard on her education and career and is ready to jump ship...after getting married a month ago, I now have more options; to have a baby” ( cliberante, #22-10/24/03). Even when objecting to the biological argument, posters often echo the very argument they have attempted to disarm. For example, amcc5233’s analysis of gender inequality in institutions of work and family as the central problem facing women is undermined when she observes “no mother is going to ‘choose’ work over family in the long run” (#102-10/25/03). Yet for others, sociobiological arguments were not persuasive; Zeno123 was:

surprised that so few people took issue with the sloppy sociobiology in the article; the conclusions were, well, conclusory, shockingly so...Personally, I think it’s just dandy that Lisa Belkin doesn’t want to run The New York Times...But that doesn’t support the leap to the conclusion that ALL women feel that way, or should have their path impeded by a specious theory that such aspirations are completely at odds with women’s biology, not just some women’s, but every single woman’s. (#112-10/25/03)

Even men posting to the forum, who might be expected to be more sanguine about the sociobiological argument, took exception to the wholesale generalizations, such as Daviddesj:

I disagree with Ms. Hrdy’s premise, that lack of interest in family and an affirmative interest in “forging ahead and climbing a power structure” are inherent attributes of men. I think that some men are this way, and some women, but the number of men of this type is vastly overstated, at least by this article. (#110, 10/25/03)

Ultimately, it may matter less that Amsbary calmly misstates (or at least misapplies) the results of MRI comparisons of male and female brains, or that so many of the posters appear to accept the idea that women are more inclined to nurture their offspring than men. The seductive allure of essentialist characterizations of the sexes, however, warrants a careful re-examination by gender communication scholars. When women in positions of authority and as opinion leaders (e.g., Princeton President, anthropologist, respected columnist) espouse these views, the implications cannot be ignored.

Lisa Belkin’s (2003) The Opt-Out Revolution and the subsequent forum posts examined here are texts documenting the ways in which respondents describe their lives. The themes emerging from the discourse, as well as the linguistic means of expression used, offer insights into the social construction and maintenance of gendered identities. For those interested in the performative elements of discourse, there is no more fertile ground for exploration.


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