I am 91 and am proud of and deeply satisfied with the feminist life I have led, because I have chosen my lifestyle. Women should, of course, have the right to choose one’s mate, the number and timing of bearing children, and the right to organize one’s time between children, work outside the home, work at home, civic activities, etc. A true feminist believes that each woman should be free to make the allocation in line with her abilities, income needs, and personal views on what matters most. Similarly, every man should be able to choose from the same array. In a good marriage, of course, these decisions are made jointly. Yet a very different and troubling perspective on feminism is now taking hold. Instead of arguing for maximizing women’s ability to choose their life path, contemporary writing exerts pressure on women by telling us what is “right.”
Jill Filipovic, in her book “The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness,” gives no recognition to the desirability of choice, arguing that all our energies should be focused on working for the full right to full employment. Nowhere does Filipovic show respect for those who choose to “stay home.”
Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen recently presented research showing the United States that prosperity would be significantly enhanced if as many women worked outside the home as men do. So now it’s our patriotic duty to work full time! Some women can and want to contribute to society by devoting most of their time with their children, particularly in their earlier years. Shouldn’t that be respected equally? Similarly, men should be free to choose being an at-home father, and be fully respected for that choice. Freedom of choice is an essential characteristic of equality.
Recently, Claire Cain Miller, in an Upshot article in The New York Times, stated, in referring to college-educated women in high-earning jobs, “Children are particularly damaging to their careers.” What about what many see as the benefits to the children, and to the inner need to mother that many have?
Before I was married, I was professionally trained and served as the first female economist in a very large international corporation. As Sheryl Sandberg described in her book “Lean In,” I wasn’t paid the same as a man in the same position. When I was offered the job, the department head said, “We decided we could get the same brains for less money.” I was so delighted to be doing the work that I did not focus on the pay until years later. That no company executive could now say what was said to me is a sign of real progress for feminism.
I was married in 1953 and had three sons. My choice (jointly developed with my supportive husband) was to stay at home fully for the early years in their development — 11 years in my case. I cannot imagine more profound pleasure than I got in feeding and talking and reading to our children, to being present for every tear and each stage of development. I loved being at the front door as they returned home, to hear about their day or take them to the library. I liked being there for them.
I never thought that professional work was greater than parenting or vice versa. I loved both. In 1971, I was offered a position at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia (my children’s ages ranged from 13 to 17). I said “Yes,” but I could only work four days a week and wanted to be home by 4 p.m. They had never received such a request — but they agreed. After that stretch, my career unfolded with more professional satisfaction than anything I could have anticipated. In 1979, I went to the Wharton School to start a new public policy department. There, the teaching, the research, the governance activity were everything I could have wanted.
I had what every feminist wants — freedom of choice. The result was profound pleasure in marriage, parenting, career, and at different times each had a different emphasis. I hope that my four granddaughters and my three grandsons will fully recognize that, despite the current pressures, their choices should reflect their preferences.
Anita A. Summers is professor emeritas at the department of business economics and public policy at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.