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CIOS - “Choices” for Whom? A White Privilege/Social Class Communicative 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


Jennifer Lyn Simpson
University of Colorado at Boulder

Erika L. Kirby
Creighton University

Abstract: This essay adopts the lens of White privilege/social class for responding to discourses of The opt-out revolution. In providing a response, we challenge the language of personal “choice” on grounds that it masks institutional and systemic forces by (a) creating invisible identities that dismiss class and “e-race” race and (b) leaving invisible the institutions of marriage, family, and “responsibility.”

Lisa Belkin's (2003) article on The Opt-Out Revolution examines how women who have Ivy League degrees (e.g. Princeton, Harvard, Columbia) have “chosen” to “opt-out” of the workforce to stay home and raise their children while their husbands provide for the family. Belkin describes this phenomenon as “progress,” suggesting that such women are rejecting and subverting the traditional workplace and its lack of accommodation to working mothers. As illustrated in the Kirby introduction to these position papers (see Kirby, 2006 [direct link to article]), the article spawned much controversy, and a heated series of postings quickly emerged on The New York Times online forum.

In our discussion, we offer a communicative response to Belkin’s “revolutionary” tale (in the original article and the subsequent on-line forum postings) by critically examining the problematic invisibility of social class alongside the equally insidious ways in which race and class conflate and further mask the privileges of Whiteness. In adopting the lenses of race and class privilege many elements of Belkin’s article that remain un(der)stated become more sharply visible. While we share some of Belkin’s optimism that the choices women make vis-à-vis work and family have the potential to offer “sanity, balance, and a new definition of success” (2003, p. 86) we fear the narrow definition of “choices” offered up by her article are anything but revolutionary.

The Invisibility of Identity and Institutions in “Choosing” to “Opt-out”

Belkin’s (2003) exposé of the revolution being waged by the book-club and play-group set hinges on a discourse of “choice.” The women she interviewed are portrayed as empowered and self-determined women who earned Ivy League diplomas (many at both undergraduate and graduate levels), “chose husbands who could keep up with them,” (p. 42) who see feminism as “the freedom to choose work if we want to work” (p. 47), and who do not see themselves as trapped by stay-at-home motherhood because they are “making choices” and see their degrees as their “insurance policies” (p. 58). Throughout the article, Belkin sympathizes with these women for “making the choice” to leave their former career-driven selves (and paychecks) behind for a period of time to raise their children. In a subsequent on-line forum posting, stolaf99 lauds that such an option is even possible because “Choosing what she considers important for her own and her family’s happiness and well-being reflects autonomy that women have not always felt” (#2-10/24/03). While we can appreciate that Belkin (and stolaf99) see these women as being empowered and autonomous in making these choices, we fundamentally challenge the language of personal “choice” on grounds that it masks the institutional and systemic forces that shape such choices.

Invisible Identities: Dismissing Class, E-racing Race

What is (almost) left unsaid in the article is that not all mothers have the opportunity to “opt-out” of working in the paid labor force. Belkin (2003) devotes one sentence to this problematic, saying she is “very aware that, for the moment, this is true mostly of elite, successful women who can afford real choice—who have partners with substantial salaries and health insurance—making it easy to dismiss them as exceptions” (p. 44). But she then goes on to “argue that these are the very women who were supposed to be the professional equals of men right now, so the fact that many are choosing otherwise is explosive” (pp. 44-45). Glossing over the class privilege enjoyed by the women she interviewed with euphemisms such as “elite,” “successful,” and enjoying marital privilege to men with “substantial salaries and health insurance” is deeply problematic. Further, to argue “these are the very women who were supposed to be the professional equals of men” suggests the Equal Rights Amendment and struggles of the feminist movement were aimed at enabling “elite” women to be even more “successful.” As in this passage, most of Belkin’s (2003) article makes no mention of the race of the women she interviewed thereby e-racing their racial identities. Some argue that racism is so deeply embedded in the workings of U.S. American life it seems normal and natural (Bell, 1992; Delgado, 1995). Even if people do not recognize themselves as racist (which many do not) they often operate from positions of White and/or male privilege (McIntosh, 2003). Privilege exists when individuals from a different group cannot count on being able to perform the same behavior with the same effects as those in the dominant group (Crowfoot & Chesler, 2003).

As Kimmel (2003) illustrates, “to be White….is to be simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. You’re everywhere you look; you’re the standard against which everything else is measured” (p. 3). Feminist scholars of color have long levied these criticisms against liberal feminism, including its foundational sources such as Friedan’s (1963) The feminine mystique. As Bell Hooks (1984, 2001) critiques:

Friedan concludes her first chapter by stating “we can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my house.’” That “more” she defined as careers. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor…She ignored the existence of all non-White women and poor White women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute, than to be a leisure class housewife. She made her plight and the plight of White women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women… (cited in Pearsall, 1993, p. 165)

Hooks (1984) further asserts that oppression is characterized by an absence of choice, and so, in framing the behavior of “elite,” “successful” women as empowered choice, Belkin simultaneously dismisses the liberal feminism of Friedan as passé and further obscures the absence of similar choices experienced by a great many women in the U.S. today.

Indeed Belkin’s notions of choice did not sit well with posters to the forum as a whole. In many families, two incomes (or the income of a single mother/parent) are necessary for survival, and no “choice” is really involved (Casper & King, 2004; Clampet-Lundquist, Edin, London, Scott, & Hunter, 2004; Coontz, 2000/1992). In one forum posting, amcc5233 offered “a quick reminder that this is only a small portion of the population (mostly White, middle and upper class heterosexuals). Once you add race, social class and sexual orientation to the mix then women’s ‘choices’ are absolutely restricted” (#103-10/25/03). illovich believes that while many people would appreciate being able to decide not to work for pay, “unfortunately it seems like a choice available only to a minority of folks. God bless ’ em . . . [but] it is not necessarily ‘explosive’ that someone given the choice to not work for pay would take it” (#25-10/24/03).

Absent in Belkin’s framing is much consideration of how the economic circumstances of women allow (or not) the ability to choose to participate in the paid labor force. aries87 “wish[ed] more had been said about the choices and struggles of many educated African-American and Latino women [who] can’t always ‘opt out’ as easily as their White counterparts, given the needs and desires of both their nuclear and extended families” (#28-10/24/03). sunsteph summarized a common theme across posters: “it’s time that writers like Ms. Belkin started delving into articles that might validate the existence of the single working woman, not to mention women of color, and disabled and lesbian women” (#116-10/25/03).   bejam gave a concrete example as to how that should happen: “Ms. Belkin notes that African-American women differ in their choices to opt out, but she then fails to interview any. How about a book group of Howard graduates? Or SUNY Binghampton graduates? Why this narrow focus on the super-elite?” (#149-10/26/03).

Indeed, Belkin (2003) contrasts the rate of full-time employment for White men with M.B.A. degrees (95%) with that of similarly educated White women (67%) but refers to racial variations only in a parenthetical, “(Interestingly, the numbers for African-American women are closer to those for white men that to those for white women)” (p. 44). As benin_dakar analyzed, “The reason boils down to economic necessity: African-American women do not (in most instances) have men who can maintain the level of economic achievement alone, that together they can attain” (#76-10/24/03). Indeed, dependence on a single income has been particularly hard for African-American families due to the combined effects of reduced educational access and discrimination (Williams, 2000). Belkin’s casual dismissal of something so “interesting” is troubling and weakens her argument that the trend she is reporting is “explosive.” Indeed, as Hooks (1984) notes, “privileged feminists have largely been unable to speak to, with, and for diverse groups of women because they either do not understand fully the inter-relatedness of sex, race, and class oppression or refuse to take this inter-relatedness seriously” (in Pearsall, 1993, p. 172). That Belkin (lisabelkin) responded to her online critics by arguing “The reason I concentrated on this group of women had nothing to do with their bank accounts and everything to do with their educations…these are women who have choices in life because they are educated” (#47-10/24/03, #118-10/25/03) only underscores Hooks’ criticism.

Belkin’s core argument throughout her (2003) article is that the “explosive” and “revolutionary” choices being made by highly educated and successful women can put pressure on employers to adopt more humane policies that might “usher in a new environment for us all” (p. 86). In response to this set of claims, jeniferlewis reminded readers that “ Not everyone works for large corporations…We don’t have the luxury to muse over whether or not we ‘want’ to work or if we are ‘feeling’ ambitious...It’s pretty simple: If we don’t work, we don’t get paid” (#39-10/24/03). Nippert-Eng (1996) has illustrated that the ability to work reduced hours and other “flexible” benefits are received by higher-income rather than lower-income workers and by white-collar rather than blue-collar workers. Thus, in addition to often being prevented from staying-at-home with their children because of financial needs, lower-income women also find it more difficult to find jobs that provide any work-life benefits to help them find the “balance” that Belkin suggested was the wave of the future.

Posters to the online forum also discussed the larger social ramifications of these “choices.” When individuals who can choose to “opt-out” do so, issues of work and family become further privatized and characterized as the responsibility of individuals. Rather than “push for general provisions for everyone in the United States who has children…the decisions become privatized and based on race, gender, and especially socioeconomic status. And they are called ‘choices’” ( rabiasb, #27-10/24/03). This then precludes a larger discussion of universal health care, flex time, standard overtime pay, and subsidized quality child care. The fact that such concerns are of little interest to the “revolutionary” women Belkin interviewed does not factor into her analysis of whose lives stand to be transformed. As shermankrs argues, “f or every high earning professional woman in this country there are 100 poor and middle class women struggling to support their families with a meager paycheck” (#51-10/24/03) .

Indeed, resentment emerged on the online bulletin board over the fact that the featured women did not use their (multiple forms of) privilege to help other “sisters” who do not have the same opportunities and choices. One of the women Belkin (2003) interviewed admitted she did not “want to take on the mantle of all womanhood and fight a fight for some sister who isn’t really my sister because I don’t even know her” (p. 46). In response, rabiasb noted in the online forum:

It would be nice, given the class and time privileges that these women have, if they would fight for other women (and men) who would like to spend time with their children as well. But I suppose that’s too much work, and, as the women in the article said, what do they owe other people anyway? (#27-10/24/03)

Because Belkin (2003) chooses (and hers was a true choice) to celebrate the retreat of educated, wealthy, and e-raced women from the workplace, she leaves no room for a dialogue that might force a “radical encounter with Otherness” (Deetz & Simpson, 2004) in which the lived experience of other working mothers might inform, round out, and add depth to her analysis of the changing face of the contemporary workplace. In adopting a discourse of “choice,” she also occludes the institutional and systemic forces that constrain and shape the choices of the women she interviewed and circumscribe the work-lives of the millions of U.S. American women not represented in her rendering.

Invisible Institutions: Marriage, Family, and “Responsibility”

One of the most dangerous side-effects of universalizing the “choices” of e-raced upper-class women is the reification of systemic forces that operate both to shape and constrain the choices of the women themselves and to preclude others from making similar choices. The first such institution that goes unchallenged is the institution of marriage—as gigikratz argues, “These pampered women did have a choice to stay home because they married into it” (#15-10/24/03). Belkin responded in her first posting that “They didn’t marry money; they married classmates—men they met while following ambitious career paths” (lisabelkin, #47-10/24/03). rabiasb did not buy this argument; as she noted, “these women did marry money, it just wasn’t old money” (#52-10/24/03) and later contrasts these women to single mothers who “have only themselves to rely on to bring home a paycheck, clean up, and take care of their children” (#123-10/25/03). In another recent New York Times Magazine piece, Maureed Dowd (2005) poignantly narrates the role of marriage and family life in narrowing and constraining choices, particularly for the well-educated and well-to-do that Belkin (2003) portrays as empowered and avant-garde. Dowd (2005) explains “Women moving up still strive to marry up. Men moving up still tend to marry down. The two sexes’ going in opposite directions has led to an epidemic of professional women missing out on husbands and kids” (p. 55). So, on the one hand Belkin’s (2003) book-clubbers can be portrayed as choosing kids over career, on the other we see data suggesting that many women who choose the career never have the kids. Dowd (2005) further commented on the phenomenon Belkin (2003) describes saying:

To the extent that young women are rejecting the old idea of copying men and reshaping the world around their desires, it’s exhilarating progress . But to the extent that a pampered class of females is walking away from the problem and just planning to marry rich enough to cosset themselves in a narrow world of dependence on men, it’s an irritating setback. (p. 56)

By framing her interviewees’ situations in terms of personal choice, Belkin (2003) masks the ways in which the institutions of marriage and family life both shape and constrain the options available even to these most privileged of women. Their “choice” to stay home with their children and be supported by their husbands has an impact on the many women who remain invisible in Belkin’s (2003) article as well.  Specifically, the choice to marry is lauded as the right choice for all women. As material evidence of this expectation, one of the (second) Bush administration’s strategies to reform welfare and to help women exit poverty was to promote marriage; Congress was asked to allocate $300 million of welfare money to programs encouraging marriage explicitly (Karney & Springer, 2004). Such programs hold as the exemplar the “success stories” of well-to-do families and ignore the historical and material realities of poor women, women of color, and (of course) lesbian or bisexual women for whom marriage may not be viable alternatives.

Belkin (2003) paints a portrait of utopian self-actualization in which women have access to the best education and the best jobs, can choose to take as much time off as they need or want to to have a family, and then opt back in at any time (though even Belkin raises doubts about the reality of that choice being available when the time comes.) Yet as Medved and Kirby (2005) illustrate, the choices of low-income women are constructed differently in an era of welfare reform (also see Casper & King, 2004; Clampet-Lundquist et al., 2004). While for rich White women, staying home and opting out is the “best thing” they can do for their children, for low income women, the “best thing” they can do is get a job (indeed they must under welfare reform)—not stay at home with their children even if they wanted that choice.

Belkin (2003) shares several stories of women who “were no longer willing to work as hard” to manage work and family. Such “choices” are not available to poor women and women of color. We find it likely that mediated portrayals of these mothers would not characterize their “choices” as self-sacrificing for the good of the child, but as being “irresponsible” and too lazy to work in the first place. Public discourse surrounding underprivileged mothers rarely portrays the sacrifices involved in surviving on the minimum wage with increasing welfare work requirements and limited affordable childcare options (Crouter & Booth, 2004; Ehrenreich, 2001). Instead, the “new momism” offered in public discourse posits a set of impossible ideals for mothering, redefines all women in relationship to children, and marginalizes many minority women in the U.S. (Douglas & Michaels, 2004).

Medved and Kirby (2005) assert that while stay-at-home “mothering is often positioned as essential to ‘proper’ childrearing by middle to upper-middle class women…An opposite expectation is then placed on women of lower class” (p. 466). Just like more privileged women, these low income mothers also “view raising [their] children as [their] most important job” (Clampet-Lundquist et al., 2004, p. 205). Struggling to ensure the well-being of their children in an era of welfare-to-work has forced many low-income women into finding childcare arrangements that are substandard, and often left them “feeling uncertain about whether the children were benefiting from [their] efforts to play by the rules” (Clampet-Lundquist et al., 2004, p. 205).

Thus, while many low-income women might appreciate the opportunity to stay-at-home and raise their children as full-time mothers, they are not allowed this “choice.” White women are more likely to work due to personal preference, while African-American women are more likely to work due to economic necessity and are overall less likely to stay-at-home (Herring & Wilson- Sadberry, 1993) reflective of the historical circumstances of many minority women (Williams, 2000). Overall, our lens reveals that “opting out” may be a revolution—but only for a small minority who are educated, rich, married, and (often) White. Even for these women, we caution that adopting a discourse that focuses on personal choice to the exclusion of identity and institutional politics reproduces their position in a hegemonic system that is not stacked in their favor and in which the comfort of their “choices” come at significant cost to the great many women made further invisible by their actions.


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