In a much-publicized Senate foreign relations committee hearing earlier this month, Senator Barbara Boxer of California questioned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about who was paying a price for the Iraq War. Boxer’s own children and grandchild, she admitted, are either too old or too young to do so. And, she said, “You’re not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, with an immediate family.”
Ouch. In an interview the next day with The New York Times, Rice said: “I thought it was okay to be single. I thought it was okay to not have children.”
The Bush claque went to town on Boxer. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow called Boxer’s comment a “great leap backward for feminism.” (If Google can be trusted, it is the first time Snow has uttered the word “feminism” in public.) Rush Limbaugh, taking a page from the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearing, called Boxer’s remarks an attempted “lynching,” and on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, no less.
To be fair, Boxer surely did not consciously intend to disparage Rice’s single and childless status. But the “as I understand it” made Boxer sound snippy, and nailing Rice publicly for having — as Jon Stewart called it few days later — “a barren womb” certainly gave Rice the opportunity to claim the moral high ground.
Rice’s response may have been defensive, but it was also poignant. I can’t be the only one who secretly wonders if she is lonely, who speculates about her private life. Recall Rice’s inadvertent and widely reported reference in late 2005 to George W. Bush as her “husband.” Or maybe she just felt betrayed.
Boxer’s comment was, at the least, insensitive, but is it worse than that? Does it amount to a betrayal of feminism?
Superficially, at least, it is hard to argue that the remark is not based on some pretty pernicious stereotypes. For one thing, who ever worries about whether a man is childless? Who would think to suggest that a man who has not reproduced thereby has any less stake in the existential questions of the day?
The other side of that coin is that precisely because she is childless, Rice has evaded the most lethal of the gender discrimination bullets.
Gender stereotyping is rooted in women’s capacity for motherhood. This plays out in many ways in the workplace, limiting women’s opportunity because they are presumed to not have a long-term and sustained commitment to the workplace. The media love to portray working women, especially highly educated ones, as actual or wannabe dropouts, longing to leave their high-powered jobs far behind and answer to the pull of biology.
The reality is starkly otherwise. It is discrimination, including the absence of any substantial support for working families, that pushes mothers out of their jobs and then exacts a severe penalty when they (almost inevitably) attempt to return. While all women are subject to gender stereotypes that pit women against men, motherhood adds another layer, pitting women with children against other women without.
Boxer has borne some of these burdens. She has, according to the bio on her Web site, a seven-year gap in her work history, presumably to take care of her newborn children. (Highly educated mothers exit the work force for an average of 2.2 years.) Boxer was probably able to afford first-class child care when she returned to work, but even so, I’d bet she had far more family work responsibilities than her husband did.
Rice, on the other hand, has had the advantage of no gaps in her work history. She went straight through from college to graduate school, getting her doctorate at the age of 26, then on to an uninterrupted academic and political career, a feat few mothers can manage.
Which is not to say that Rice has not been affected by the “maternal wall.” Maybe its very existence caused her to make hard choices so as not to run up against it. If so, she has a lot of company.
The number of women who never marry has soared, more than tripling in the past 20 years, and voluntary childlessness is also up. One-half of childless women, up from one-third, say it is a choice, according to a study released last fall in The Journal of Marriage and Family. Childless women, 18% of all adult women, are disproportionately highly educated full-time workers.
Which is not surprising. Most top-of-the-line professional and managerial jobs are “extreme” jobs, those requiring 50 or more hours of work per week. How many mothers can do that? Many of the men in such jobs have stay-at-home spouses who take care of the other areas of life. (There’s even one study that purports to demonstrate that a man at home creates more work than he himself does.)
If asked, Rice might deny that discrimination and gender stereotyping played any part in her “personal choice” not to marry or have children. Some of the working women who leave the work force to become stay-at-home moms say the same thing. But personal choices about marriage and family are made within a thick but sometimes invisible web of societal expectations, prejudice, discrimination, and governmental action and inaction.
Rice’s defense of her right to choose is quite proper. She would be welcome as an advocate for governmental policy that makes women’s choice — of motherhood or not — a real one for all women.
Kathleen Peratis, a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden, is a trustee of Human Rights Watch.