Perhaps it is my imagination but it seems to me that the NYT has a tendency to frame stories about women, work, and family in a way that is somewhat reactionary. This morning’s story, “Coveting Not a Corner Office, but Time at Home,” is a case in point. The thrust of the article is that most middle class working women with families don’t want to “lean in” and climb the corporate ladder but rather are looking for jobs with flexible schedules and good benefits – although the article does note that ideally they would like the job to be rewarding as well. But isn’t this something that working men with families also desire? The answer to that question – according to an analysis of a longitudinal study released by the Pew Research Center this spring – is likely to be “yes”. And yet, the Times article is exclusively about women.
Part of the reason for that seems to be that it is framed as a response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (the much-discussed article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in last summer’s Atlantic Monthly is also referenced), even though the article notes that these pieces offer advice from and to elite women – not the average working class woman. This framing is reminiscent of the critique of second wave feminism that it did not address the needs of most women – which was somehow supposed to make the critique less legitimate. While sexism takes on different shapes and nuances when combined with class (as well as race, ethnicity, disability, and different gender identities) it is nonetheless sexism. That a particular author addresses one version of sexism but not others does not thereby invalidate their observations.
Sadly, the Times has a history of undermining women through stories that might appear to be speaking to them. There was Lisa Belkin’s infamous “The Opt-Out Revolution” in 2003, for example. This sort of article paints a world in which feminism has largely achieved its goals and women are now free to make choices, including the choice to opt-out of the work force (as in the case of the women that Belkin describes) or at least opt-out of the cut-throat-corporate-ladder-climbing work force that they are being urged into by women who don’t understand them (like Sheryl Sandberg). These articles embrace “choice feminism” – as this view is sometimes called. They do not question the very assumptions that keep systemic sexism in place – assumptions such as: it is women who are (and should be) primarily interested in and caring for children and the choices people make within particular societal structures should be read as if they were choices made from all possibilities (not just all of the options that are readily available given the very real constraints of those social structures).
Perhaps I am being unfair in expecting that a newspaper story (even in the NYT) would manage to engage in some deeper social critique rather than standard, unreflective fare. But I would think that the idea that many humans are (or should be) invested in the well-being of the members of their families and not merely in their own careers is not something that should be treated as a story about women.