Saturday, September 15, 2012

Dr. Slaughter’s Interview with Lauren Young

Dr. Slaughter was also interviewed this summer by Lauren Young.  Excerpts of the interview are available in the link below.

The interview sheds some light on the generational gap among women.  Dr. Slaughter is now a woman in her 50s.  She talks about growing up in Virginia in the 1960s.  She describes it as a time and place when women were “seen but not heard.” 

She also talks about the huge reaction she has had from her article—particularly from women who are now moms but who were themselves “raised to believe they could compete on any terms they want—their teachers, parents and society expected it.” 

Think about the range of experiences of women currently in the work force.  Think about the differences in how women like Dr. Slaughter were raised compared to these moms who’re responding to her article.

Women like Dr. Slaughter were essentially raised as second-class citizens.  There was not an expectation that they would rise to elite levels of education attainment and professional success.  When they went to grad school and pursued ambitious careers, they were really breaking down barriers and defying the expectations of their culture.  They had been raised with the clear understanding that men got the lion’s share of education, and it was only the men who would have careers.

But somewhere in the 1970s that all changed.  Title IX was enacted in 1972.  That federal statute prohibited gender based exclusion in educational settings if federal funds were received.  Dr. Slaughter doesn’t allude to Title IX in this interview.  But my sense is that after Title IX, there was a huge attitudinal shift.  Gender-based discrimination in educational settings was no longer permitted in most cases.  As a result, an attitude emerged that everyone was equal regardless of gender, there were no longer formal barriers to females. 

I began grade school just a couple years after Title IX was enacted.  I certainly don’t ever remember thinking that my gender closed any doors.  We were all encouraged to think about what we wanted to be.  No one laughed if a girl said she wanted to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer.  Why not?  There were not explicit barriers.  Lots of my female classmates excelled in school and strove to get college degrees.

But when I look back on it now, I realize we were really living a lie.  We thought everyone was equal because there were no formal barriers.  But there were still plenty of subtle barriers that I for one just did not recognize at the time.

First, our parents and teachers seemed to groom the boys for a different type of professional success than the girls.  I remember right before high school graduation seeing a list of all the seniors’ post graduation plans.  The list indicated where they were going to college and what they were going to study.  I distinctly recall being stunned because many of the males were listing “engineering” as a major.  This may sound pathetic, but I had actually never heard of that discipline at the time.  I was about to graduate from high school, already had firm plans to attend a competitive state university, but I had absolutely no clue what engineering was.  I had some vague notion it might have something to do with working on a train.  (Sadly, I’m quite serious; that is not a joke!) 

By contrast, the majors listed for the female graduating seniors were more diverse.  There were a bunch of us who were going to study various liberal arts or fine arts.  A few mentioned being pre-med or pre-law.  Some were undecided.  A couple might have mentioned something involving business or science.  I myself was in the  liberal arts camp, but I didn’t have a solid plan.  I ended up changing my major half a dozen times my first few years of college.  I had no real clue what I was going to do professionally.  Teaching seemed appealing because I wanted to help people.  And frankly, I just didn’t have a sense of what career options there were.

I don’t think these experiences were unique.  Similar things happened around the country around the same time.  In a very different community, far from where I went to high school, my husband and his brother were encouraged to go into professional degree programs like engineering and business.  On the other hand, his female friends from their rural high school pursued fine arts, liberal arts, agricultural science, and/or education.  Many of them apparently dropped out before finishing their degrees.  Alternately, some finished their degrees but only worked a few years before staying home full-time as new moms.  Before staying home, most of these women apparently worked either dead-end clerical jobs or had been grade school teachers.

The second major barrier I wasn’t aware of in my early adulthood was the huge disparity in household responsibilities.  I vaguely remember hearing from time to time in the media that there were statistics indicating women on average did more housework than men.  Those media reports did seem to jive with the families I knew.  As a result, such statistics therefore seemed pretty unimpressive.  Duh. 

When I heard about such trends in the media, I don’t recall anyone ever connecting the dots to point out that they undermined women’s ability to have a career outside the home.  No one ever made the link between what was happening at home and what was happening in the workplace.  The attitude seemed to be that whatever happened at home was a private, personal matter and was irrelevant to the workplace.  These types of stats seemed to be reported in an almost comical vein.  It was sort of a human interest item to fill in after the hard news and before signing off for the night.

But now I realize that attitude was pretty short-sighted.  In the past, the model of professional attainment has always been a white man with a spouse devoted full-time to handling all the household responsibilities so he is liberated to focus on his career.  If that spouse is now pursuing her own career, but is still having to feed everyone, clean all the clothes, help with the homework and tend to the boo-boos, something has to give.  In essence, women were given this unrealistic role to fill—they could have a career as long as they continued their previously assigned homemaker jobs.  That is pretty crazy if you think about it.  In essence, modern women are doing the jobs that our grandmothers did full-time plus the jobs that our grandfathers did full-time.  We’re doing the work of two human beings.  That is not sane.

But what I’ve come to realize is that our society so undervalues the role of homemaker, we don’t think that it is important.  And frankly, because we so undervalue it, we don’t think it should take much time.  The attitude seems to be that homemaking is a personal responsibility not meriting discussion outside the home.  Moreover, it is viewed as such a simple, small responsibility, it doesn’t merit much thought or effort:  Homemaking is not brain surgery.  Any moron can do some laundry and whip up supper.  Kids are in school most of the day, they don’t really need much care or oversight. 

Though I vehemently disagree with such sentiments, I think that they are subtly pervasive in our culture.  They do much damage to children, to families—and yes, to women’s ability to maintain a professional career.

Romans 12:4
We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function.

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