In my youth I had a sense that my generation was perfectly poised to make a leap toward gender equity. A child of the 1970s, I admired the strength of my grandmothers’ generation, which had negotiated the Depression and World War II (my grandmothers worked at a shipyard and building airplanes during the war). And I happily rode the crest of “second wave” feminism, confident that the women’s movement had provided enough momentum for radical change. Being an outspoken feminist in a staunchly conservative rural community was not easy, of course. But I drew strength from the womanist Alice Walker’s poem “Be Nobody’s Darling.” I dared to speak out against patriarchy and sexism, willing to be an outcast in the best sense. More tangibly, I was in the first generation of high school female athletes competing after Title IX. I also benefited from an increasingly gender-neutral education, which led the way to more women in the U.S. attending college than ever before. I truly believed that the more women occupied positions within structures of power, the more those structures would change to accommodate their needs, resulting in new social formations that would benefit our entire society. My idealism drew strength from that most precious commodity of youth – naïveté.
As a young woman I did not fully grasp the ways gendered inequality underpins our social structures and how deeply individuals have internalized it, myself included. It took my own lived experiences and over a decade of academic inquiry to teach me these lessons. After college I taught social studies at an urban high school and volunteered for my teacher’s union at the local and state level. But when I had my son in 2001, I chose to stay home. Lack of paid maternity leave and the exorbitant expense of infant care combined with my adherence to the guilt-inducing “attachment parenting” model nudged me out of the work place against my own social and economic self-interest. Suddenly, my household became traditionally gendered despite a previously fairly equitable division of labor. My husband’s career in engineering soared while I racked up a stack of zeros on my annual social security reports. I’d never worked so hard in my life, yet will not benefit after retirement from those years of unpaid labor spent raising future workers. Despite the joy I derive from parenting and the breastfeeding advocacy work I did in this period, the economic sacrifice remains a bitter pill to swallow. I have paid the “price of motherhood” that Ann Crittendon has so skillfully documented.
Gendered Realities of Daily Life
In 2003, I found out I was expecting my daughter one week after gaining acceptance into a graduate program. My husband was working full time and pursuing his MBA, with tuition, travel, and expenses paid in full by his employer. Not surprisingly, the few women in his program were either single or empty-nesters. But I didn’t have a spouse to perform crucial domestic labor in my absence, and no employer to foot the bill, so my path to an advanced degree took a more circuitous route. I took night classes part time, but then stayed home for another year following a cross-country move. During my master’s program, I drew upon in-home childcare that allowed me to focus on my work. While not the sole factor, my determination to get a PhD at a Research 1 University, despite my husband’s refusal to move, likely hastened our divorce. As a result, I spent my first year of coursework at UIUC commuting over 200 miles one way, taking classes during the week and returning home to my “birds’ nesting” kids on the weekend while I negotiated my divorce. My second year I moved with my kids to Urbana – my head and heart in one place – but now with the added challenge of single parenting on a significantly reduced income. A happy second marriage has alleviated many economic and personal pressures, though I remain the primary caregiver due to my husband’s busy travel schedule.
When I graduate with my doctorate in history this May, it will be the culmination of 13 years spent balancing my personal life as a woman and mother of two with the demands of academia. Graduate school is not designed for mothers; the system best suits a single young man or a parent with a spouse dedicated to domestic labor. With less money and no free time I often missed extra lectures and campus events I knew my peers attended; travel to conferences proved similarly challenging; I was unable to complete extended international archival research that would make my good work great. I often joke that not one sentence in my dissertation was written without at least one disruption. Through these experiences I see that graduate school in particular and academia writ large has not adjusted to the needs of parents, a clear example of how adding more women to the system has not led to radical change. Now I find myself seeking an alternative-academic position that will allow me to utilize my education and skills in a more manageable work environment. My experiences to this point are a testament to how gendered realities of daily experience shape our lives in unpredictable ways.
Barriers to Radical Change
There are times when I become overwhelmed thinking of the barriers that block the way to gender equality. Women around the world remain vulnerable to gender-based violence throughout their lives, contributing to an imbalance of power within intimate relationships as well as in public space. Lack of access to comprehensive, affordable health care and increasingly successful attacks on family planning undermine women’s right to control their fertility, a key to women’s health and economic stability. Without comprehensive family leave or subsidized childcare, working mothers have to make impossible choices between the demands of paid and unpaid labor. Even for the socio-economic elite the glass ceiling has but cracked, and one wonders what new tactics are necessary to break it. The advice to “lean in” from those with economic power and social prestige is both inadequate and insulting. The widening gap between the rich and the poor leaves the latter little room to move in any direction, let alone one that might risk their livelihood. These are just a few of the areas that demand our concerted political action to create a more equitable society.
These pessimistic musings on gendered inequalities are a testament to how far removed I am from my naïve younger self, but still I remain optimistic. I still believe radical gender equality is possible, and I have dedicated a large part of my life to thinking and teaching about these issues through my life and work because I believe there is power in bearing witness to inequalities, in utilizing our voices to speak on behalf of justice. Women’s History Month provides the perfect moment within which to teach and dream about a future when our society will be more equitable towards women and therefore more humane to all. As a parent, I strive to bring these lessons to my children, both of whom would call themselves feminists and bravely name the inequalities in their world. I only hope that their generation recognizes how far we still have to go and does not give up the fight.
Julie Laut lives in a drafty old house in Urbana with her husband, two kids, and two dogs. After earning her PhD this spring, she will be embarking on her third career since leaving college two decades ago. She is relieved to have finally decided what she wants to be when she grows up, for now.