—Bernie D. Jones
Ten years ago, the New York Times Magazine published Lisa Belkin’s controversial (and now infamous) article, “The Opt-Out Revolution.” In it, Belkin argued that young women were increasingly disinterested in feminist gains in the workplace. These women were interested instead in being married and becoming stay-at-home mothers, taking care of the house and children while their husbands worked. Much hand wringing followed, as it seemed the women’s movement had been stalled in the wake of Generation X’s rejection of their Baby Boomer mothers’ efforts.
The article was controversial for other reasons, as well: once again, feminist emphasis on highly educated and highly remunerated professional women masked the true motivations of the women who left. The article ignored the existence of other women for whom the dreams of feminist accomplishment had not yet been reached. The question was whether women “opted out” or were pushed out of work environments hostile to working mothers, regardless of class.
The book I edited, Women Who Opt Out, gives a more complete picture of the nature of women in the contemporary workplace, one which addresses workplace pressures, class as well as race. Higher income women in environments hostile to working mothers leave because it becomes impossible to balance their caretaking responsibilities with their responsibilities in the workplace; staying home just seems easier. Lower income women experience workplace inflexibility—they cannot opt out because they must work. Women with lesser educations and who are not high earners thus do not experience the same luxury of being able to leave the workforce. Instead, they are pushed out.
Not only is women’s ability to opt out dependent upon the type of workplace they are in, as well as class, but when women contract out their caretaking responsibilities, they often hire low income women—quite often one of color, a woman who might also struggle with caring for her own children. As for more highly educated and remunerated women of color, the choice to opt out was complicated by the intersectionality of race and gender: leaving the workforce was seen as relinquishing their racial group’s gains.
Ten years later, the opt-out generation wants back in, as their realities have changed since they left the workforce. Some of them divorced. Many went back to work in the wake of the recession (or “mancession”) because their families needed the income. Others who did not experience the recession, especially those in the highly educated group, are finding that things are easier now than when they were in the workforce. Their children are getting older and don’t need them at home as much. With changes in technology, they find that they can work from home. Those who kept up their skills and who maintained their network of contacts in their old industries found the transition easier.
If anything, this retrospective on the opt-out revolution indicates that certain basics remain: women who leave the workforce should find ways to cultivate their skills and maintain their professional contacts in case they ever need to return to work. Further, workplace flexibility is the most beneficial to women in the workforce, as it enables them to better manage their family responsibilities.
But it’s also important to note that not all women who leave the workplace intend to stay away forever. Belkin’s article founded a movement out of a brief snapshot of these women’s lives—without acknowledging they might have wanted to return to work at a later date.
Bernie D. Jones is Associate Professor of Law at the Suffolk University Law School and editor of Women Who Opt Out: The Debate over Working Mothers and Work-Family Balance (NYU Press, 2012).