Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” appeared nearly a decade ago. Now Helen Andrews believes it’s time to “lean out:”
Obviously there are women today in America who are trying to have it all, and many appear to be doing so successfully, at least insofar as they have both demanding careers and children. But look more closely at those households, and almost invariably you’ll see that behind every woman who is balancing work and family, there is an army of low-paid labor, immigrant cleaning ladies, nannies who are paid cash under the table, Door Dash delivery men who deliver the meals that mom never had time to cook. It’s no coincidence that the vast increase in female workforce participation has coincided with the reappearance of something that the more egalitarian America of the early 20th century did not have, and that is a servant class.
America today is more prosperous than it was 70 years ago, and yet it is no longer possible for an ordinary worker to support a middle-class family on a single income. The story of how that happened is bound up into a lie that has become gospel today, which is the lie that women can have it all. Undergirding that lie is a further lie that the Republican Party can have it all. The GOP has very much hitched itself to the idea that it can be the party of stay-at-home moms and girl bosses equally. Again, superficially this seems like it ought to be possible. Live and let live, it’s a free country. But this bargain is unsustainable in practice. We only have to look at the last 30 years to understand why.
The official position of the Republican Party today is that the government’s job is to make it possible for everyone to make the right choice for their family. This rhetoric of maximizing choice requires politicians to talk as if some women will choose to be moms and some will choose to be girl bosses, and it’s really 50/50 which one you end up being. You know, both are equally valid. Who’s to say one is better? But that’s just false, and it’s false according to women’s own preferences. The number of women who say they do not want to have children is very low, in the single digits, around 5%—and that’s just the number who will tell surveys that they predict they won’t have kids when their childbearing years are over. The number of women who actually reach old age and feel satisfied with their life, being just a girl boss with no children to keep them company, is even lower.
Squaring away all this family happiness is and ought to be a higher priority than maximizing women’s career success. It is also a more urgent priority. A woman cannot simply wake up at age 35 and decide she wants to have a family. Everyone says that the sexual revolution was brought about by the advent of the contraceptive pill, which was supposedly ushered in at an amazing new age of a new human experience thanks to science. But it actually changed a lot less than we think. We’ve gotten quite good at not having children when we don’t want to have them, but the science that gave us the pill has not made us very much better at making children arrive when we do.
Look at the Supreme Court—a perfect example. The first woman on the court, Sandra Day O’Connor, had three kids, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had two kids, and both of them had their kids quite young. I think the last one was at 32. Both of these women followed the life course of having kids young and then pursuing their career ambitions afterward. And apparently it worked. They wound up on the Court.
Then look at the two women appointed to the court afterward. Sonia Sotomayor had a brief marriage to a high school boyfriend when she was young. It was annulled shortly after she graduated from law school. Elena Kagan never married. There was some speculation during her confirmation that she might be a lesbian, but her friends confirmed to reporters that she’s straight. She just never managed to put it together, to have a family.
So, this generation gap between the female Supreme Court Justices born in the 1930s and those born in the 1950s illustrates the paradox of having it all. If you put family first, you can end up doing both. If you set out trying to do both, you will end up probably or likely enough with just the career. And worst of all, you’ll end with neither in the sense that you’re not going to be a Supreme Court Justice, you’re not going to have wonderful, stimulating, intellectually accomplished work to console you in your childlessness. You’re going to have a laptop job doing corporate busywork.
Sotomayor and Kagan are both boomers, and even among the boomers childlessness is still relatively rare. That’s not the case for millennials. Millennials are on track to be the most childless generation in American history. Projections have it that 25% of millennials will be childless. By comparison, for boomers it’s closer to one in nine. For millennials, it’s going to be closer to one in four.
Andrews concludes by offering “three things we could do right now that would put a big dent in the multiplying lies” concerning happiness.
It should be fairly obvious that most husbands and wives, most American households, would prefer to be able to rely on a single income rather than two (or more) incomes. Elizabeth Warren’s book “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are (Still) Going Broke” underscores the frustrating point that two (or more) incomes is not only not a path toward empowerment for many families, but is in fact a trap whose numerous trade-offs are too often taboo.
Blake Masters, the U.S. Senate candidate in Arizona, picked up where Elizabeth Warren left off, releasing this campaign ad during the primary last year:
Let’s have more courage to speak about this.