Mommas in the Marketplace.
Thursday, November 20, 2003
There it sat on the dining room table exuding kryptonite: the Sunday New York Times Magazine with the cover headline: "Q: Why Don''t More Women Get to the Top? A: They Choose Not To." The subtitle read, "Abandoning the Climb and Heading Home." An angelic white Madonna in her Ann Taylor outfit with what appeared to be the Hope diamond on one finger and a toddler in her lap represented all these American mothers who are "heading home." I feared the worst--yet another post-feminist piece of swill about how mothers can''t hack it at work and would much rather play Chutes and Ladders all day. I was not to be disappointed.
Since the late ''80s and the debut of "the mommy track," we have been subjected to these stories about mothers seeing the light and chucking it all for junior. The format is almost always the same. Five women who went to Yale and, say, the Harvard Business School, married to men whose salaries equal the operating budget of Wal-Mart, decide to have kids and then quit their jobs and--poof--there is a national "movement" of mothers not only rejecting the workplace, but feminism as well. This article, written by Lisa Belkin (a former Times reporter who decided to quit and write freelance because her husband could easily support them), follows the template perfectly. Only here the privileged white women we meet from the "Opt-Out Revolution" are Princeton alums (as is Belkin) or from other elite universities who then went to work in law firms or newsrooms.
This post-feminist drumbeat is a slap at mothers who do work for a living because they need to, want to, or both. It is also an assault on feminism as misguided, irrelevant, out-of-date, or all the above. As one of the mothers tells Belkin, "I don''t want to take on the mantle of all womanhood and fight for some sister who isn''t really my sister because I don''t even know her." Ouch. Well, as a feminist throwback to the days of "sisterhood is powerful," I do think that all mothers must debunk these stories each and every time they appear. We mothers, whether we work outside the home or not, must say "Excuuuse me" to such alleged "trend reports" that pit working mothers against stay-at-home mothers and undermine mothers who work. So let''s begin.
Excuse me #1: Class bias, race bias, need we say more? In fact, at one point Belkin notes that 95 percent of white men with MBAs are working but only 67 percent of white women with MBAs are. But she adds that the numbers for African-American women are closer to those of white men. Doesn''t this make you a tad suspicious about the whole notion of "choice?"
Excuse me #2: The discourse of "choice." What we learn inside the article is an attorney and a television reporter were confronted with speed-up at work--55- to 75-hour weeks--at the same time they were having children. Both asked for shorter and more flexible hours and were turned down. Their "choice" was to maintain their punishing schedules or to quit. I am sorry, but this is not a choice.
Excuse me #3: Selective use of statistics. The article emphasizes findings from a recent survey in which 26 percent of women in senior management said they did not want a promotion. So that means nearly three-quarters did.
Excuse me #4: Biology is destiny. Belkin uses baboon analogies. She tells us that we mothers (but not dads?) are genetically driven to protect our kids and "seeking clout in a male world does not correlate with child well-being." You mean earning a decent salary does not correlate with being able to take care of your kids?
Excuse me #5: Buried lead. The real story here is not about mothers "choosing" not to work. It''s about the ongoing inhumanity of many workplaces whose workaholic cultures are hostile to both men and women.
But, you know, when the real story is about capitalism run amok, it''s commonplace to turn it into a story about a human failing, in this case the failure of feminists. So let''s be clear about who has really failed mothers, including the privileged ones in this article. First: Congress and successive presidential administrations. For decades, the federal government has refused to provide a quality national daycare system, decent maternity and paternity leaves, or after-school programs. Second: much, though not all, of corporate America and the preposterous workaholic culture it fosters.
Mothers of America, it''s time to talk back and refute insulting post-feminist propaganda.
Susan Douglas writes for In These Times magazine.
Great Balls of Fire
Is it a hoax, swamp gas or snake burps for Buddha? Why a robotic tuna will be probing the depths to solve a mystery of the Mekong.
By Jan McGirk
On full moon nights at the end of Buddhist lent, Naga fireballs suddenly glow pink above the surface of the Mekong river. Each orb hovers a moment, speeds noiselessly skyward, only to vanish like a bubble 30 meters overhead.
There is no sulphur smell, no smoke or mirrors, no falling debris arcing back to sizzle in the water. Along ten miles of the broad brown river that cuts between Laos and Thailand, huge crowds gather at dusk to watch the autumn spectacle that has dazzled generations of skygazers in Thailand''s Nong Khai province.
To local monks and village elders, the bung fai paya nak (Naga fireballs) are no mystery: they scoff at outsiders who assume they are either seeing sophisticated Chinese pyrotechnics with no hiss or boom, or something otherworldly, worthy of the X-files. The faithful believe that the mythical Naga serpents who live in the depths are just up to their annual tricks: saluting Buddha by burping up great balls of fire.
These fireballs shimmer in russety hues and float away, heralding the start of rainy season, much like the noisy handfired rockets that Northerners in the hills launch to pierce the clouds for monsoon.
But a fiery debate has grown around how this celestial lightshow works. Is it a religious miracle or an ingenious hoax; a homemade folk festival or tropical marsh gas spontaneously igniting?
An international row erupted last year, when a Thai television crew claimed that communist Lao soldiers were firing tracer bullets on the far bank to dazzle the superstitious Thais. The documentary maker was forced to apologise for offending religious mores and admit that he doctored his evidence, while five Laotian soldiers reportedly were courtmartialled for taking part in the ruse. Agitated letters filled the newspapers, and an art film, "Mekong Full Moon Party" gently mocked the ruckus, showing how village spats about whether the fireballs are fake left everyone virtually howling at the full moon.
Richard Freeman, reporting for the Fortean Times, a monthly which concerns itself "with the cosmic farts of a dyspeptic universe", sneered at the festival after being jostled by nitwits with laser pointers.
"If this were a natural phenomenon, it would surely be occurring across the entire width of the river. The lights were springing up from the far bank in... an extremely orchestrated fashion. The fabled naga fireballs seemed to be nothing more mysterious than maritime distress flares. I was satisfied that the Laotians were having a good chuckle at their friends across the river," he wrote.
Thai scientists were not so easily satisfied. The Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Saskit Tridech, set out to investigate whether these fireballs do exist as pocket of methane gas that become luminous, and are not tomfoolery for the gullible. The Laotians, quick to see a tourism opportunity, are fully cooperating in the study.
When the full October moon was glimmering on the Mekong, Tridech took a team of 20 specialists to gather samples of water and soil from the riverbed; since then, they have attempted to recreate the phantom fireballs in the laboratory.
"We still are analyzing the data, but we are quite sure it is a natural phenomena," he said.
"I myself watched 20 of these fireballs form on the Mekong in three hours; most were about the size and colour of basketballs, an orangey-red, but there were some littler ones, more like grapefruits. My assumption is that methane forms underwater, and natural ignition takes place five or six meters above the river."
Professor Udom Buasri, a cultural anthropologist, said "Nong Khai people feel angry when someone says this is man-made. They lose face when it looks as though they are cheating people. As a logician, it is difficult to believe that there are groups of Naga puffing out these fireballs. There must be some unexplained natural phenomenon at work. Who would dare dive into the river with a cannon? That hypothesis is impossible!"
Sarot Saimek , an engineering lecturer at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi , has proposed a submarine robot, based on a mechanical tuna, to monitor the currents and riverbed in the Mekong and determine any influence on the Naga fireballs. It will take five years to perfect his experimental probe, and he is seeking funding. What happens if the robotic tuna encounters a mythical Naga, surely as elusive as the comparably sized Loch Ness monster, remains to be seen.