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Letters from alumni about the Prof. Sara Curran and Opting-Out

May 25, 2004

It was a little after 9 p.m. on a weeknight, just after getting my two little ones to bed, that I finally sat down to relax and picked up the May 12 edition of PAW. Of course, the article on "Opting Out" immediately caught my eye. I was interested to learn that Princeton women undergraduates are so concerned about this trend and that some view it as a betrayal by alumnae to their own gender, as somehow "irresponsible."

Perhaps it is just the opposite. Perhaps the choice to "opt out" is just the type of choice women ought to have as liberated individuals. Going to work after having children because you have to, not because you want to, is certainly not liberation. By and large, the women discussed in Lisa Belkin's New York Times Magazine article that caused such a stir were able to choose to opt out — for the time being — because they had the financial backing (usually a spouse making a good income) and the confidence in their own achievements and capabilities to do so.

It is probably hard for many young women without children to imagine wanting to be with your children more than wanting to achieve something important in the world through your career, but this is, in fact, what many women feel. We should be happy for such women that we have advanced to the point where they can make this choice with some degree of certainty that they will have options in the career world when they decide to opt back in.

Another way to think about it that might give Princeton undergraduate women more hope for their futures is that opting out does not have to be opting out of work entirely. Opting out may also be defined as opting out of the work structure that the currently male-oriented workplace has defined, which Prof. Curran so deftly describes. If the current model of professional achievement of an "all-or-nothing commitment to work" requires one to put all other aspects of life second to ones job, then we should rejoice that talented women have the courage to opt out and ask for something better for themselves, their children, and their husbands.
Since giving birth to my first child in 1999, I have opted out of the traditional work structure and worked a flexible schedule (3 days per week) as a research analyst in investment management. While prior to having children, my average work week was 60 hours with frequent travel, today I average 30 hours with limited travel. I may not be on the fast track to the corner office, but I enjoy work that is stimulating and still have enough time to enjoy raising my children, building a family, and participating in community service.

While I do not deny that the work place has a long way to go before we are at the point where achieveing balance in work and family care is a realistic goal for all, I am encouraged to see many of my women friends from Princeton and law school who are asking for such accomodation and getting it. These women have been able to control their work weeks to achieve greater balance and more satisfaction in their lives (e.g., a doctor who works 2 days per week, a lawyer who works a part time schedule for a government agency, a JD/MBA who works 2 days for a health care agency, a MBA who runs a non-profit 3 days a week, a M.Ed. who stays at home with her children and tutors on the side). These women are laying the groundwork for future men and women who would also like to build more balance into their work and family lives, especially when raising small children.

Let us also be careful not to deride the choices of any women. I know many extremely talented Princeton women who have opted to raise their children full time, with no short-term plans to reenter the work force, who are enjoying the satisfaction and stimulation of motherhood, which, despite the idealization of motherhood in the media, is low-status, no pay, often exhausting work. Still others choose to work full-time, yet still participate in PTA, volunteer at church, and plan birthday parties to beat the band.

Women today have more choices than ever before. These options should be open to all, and we should not villify any women (or man) for choosing any one of them. The new models of work that today’s women are carving out—opting out and back in, flexible work schedules, starting their own business and running them from home, staying at home with their kids because that’s where they get the greatest satisfaction—are building the foundations for the women and men of tomorrow to have much better options than they have today.

Each person must decide for herself what balance between work and family is most appropriate for her situation. What we must strive to do as a society is to ensure that more work places are willing to accomodate alternative approaches to work life balance so that all women and men, and their families, have better options.

Lisa Baird ‘89
Darien, Conn.

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May 16, 2004

The "time-bind" that Professor Sara Curran refers to in her article "The "F" Words (Perspective May 12, 2004) has affected many men over the years, too. It is not only women who find that professional expectations impinge on their ability to participate fully in their family's lives.

Feminists have tended to underplay the economic effects of women having entered the workforce in large numbers from the '70s onward, which are at least twofold: 1) Women's income is seen by many as supplemental to that of her husband's in a traditionally structured family, and I believe this has contributed significantly to continued gender-related wage inequity — whether done consciously or not is not the issue here — because many employers see second jobs within a family as less essential to support than "primary" wage-earning.

2) At the same time, and in direct opposition to this, there has been a downward pressure on wages, backed by the (historically recent) assumption that most families consist of two wage-earners, thereby relieving any single employer of a sense of responsibility to pay a "living wage" to an employee head-of-household.

While recognizing that many families do not fit this duel-earner mold, either by choice or by necessity, Prof. Curran seems to imply that parents or social scientists who believe that having a relative at home with young children is better for their wellbeing than is sending them out to daycare are either unjustified in applying this belief to their own lives, or unjust in attributing it to one of the root causes of the huge numbers of children suffering from neglect in our country.

In an ideal world, all children would be wanted, and able to be supported materially by their own families. I recently marched in Washington, D.C., for women's right to choose when to bring a conception to term, because I believe that all women should have control over their medical care and over important choices like whether or not to have a baby.

Restrictions on these rights open the door to threats on men's privacy as well, so if compassion doesn't lead to support for those who are fighting for reproductive freedom, then maybe self-interest eventually will. Only when the workplace and our government come to fully respect the needs of families will our society attain that ideal.

Susan Post Lichtenstein '77 s'72
Belmont, Mass.

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May 12, 2004

I was pleased to see Professor Sara Curran's essay (Perspective, May 12) about the tricky balance between work and family. In my own observations, a persistent obstacle to finding satisfying solutions is that women have failed to adequately bring men into the discussion. While Curran acknowledges a need to challenge societal expectations of men as well as women, she asks, "How well am I preparing the young women in my own class — future Princeton alumnae?"
What about preparing the men to question the societal pressures on them?

Curran notes that in her spring term course entitled Sex, Sexuality, and Gender, only two of the 28 students are male, suggesting a lack of male interest in the subject. (I believe this is a common occurrence on other campuses as well.) Is this because the word "gender" is perceived as a euphemism for "women's studies" or even "male-bashing"? If so, how can we help our alma mater change this perception and turn the classroom into a forum for both women and men to discuss and become active in these life decisions?

Academics and activists alike need to continue working to treat gender not as a women's concern, but to make the balancing of work and family (among other problems) a salient issue for us all.

Katherine Lee '99
Cambridge, Mass.

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May 10, 2004

Professor Sara Curran thoughtfully and thoroughly discusses the challenges of balancing work and family (May 12, Perspective). But I do not believe these topics are "discouraging."

Future female Princeton alumnae should be excited by the multitude of opportunities and choices that will be available to them as they embark on life after Princeton. The beauty of feminism is that women, especially those with a Princeton degree, can choose to shape their careers and family life in any way they see fit.

Sharon Isaacson Aucoin '84
North Andover, Mass.

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