The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- It is better to learn from mothers' mistakes

Louise Story wrote a front-page story in New York Times of September 20. She began with Cynthia Liu, a bright female student of Yale who expects to do law and then stay at home and become a mom. She went on to cite a survey of 138 Yale women students, 60 per cent of whom planned to stop working and have children after receiving an elite education. Shocking' Self-indulgent' Wasteful'

Nothing new, apparently; many American women have received, earned or appropriated advanced education and then sat at home to bring up children. Surveys cited by Story show that although the proportion of workers amongst men and women graduates of the Eighties was about the same in their 20s, the difference widened at higher ages; by their 40s, when they would have finished child-rearing, only about half the women were in full-time work. Whatever their expectations and ambitions, half the graduate women gave up eventually.

And is that so bad' What did one expect' That educated women should have no children' Even if one did not believe that intelligence was inherited, such a rule would soon reduce Americans to haulers of wood and hewers of water ' or a nation of an educated male elite using unlettered women for recreation and procreation. An Islamic state without the moral dimensions of Islam.

So what is new about Story's news' According to her, women earlier expected to combine a career with motherhood, or strayed out of career ambitions into motherhood. Having observed them, their daughters want to make a clear, early choice ' that they would separate career and motherhood, and give priority to the motherhood. Since one has only one life to live, one cannot indulge in learning by doing ' have children and regret, or have a career and regret. It is better to learn from mothers' mistakes.

Louise's story became a sensation. It drew the second largest number of e-mails amongst New York Times stories; 67 blogs and web sites were connected with it. It also drew flak. Jack Schafer, Slate's editor at large, counted the weasel word 'many' 11 times in Story's article, and implied that her evidence was unreliable and statistically meaningless. He unearthed a similar story New York Times ran in 1980. The older story started in the same way, citing Mary Ann Citrino, a bright female student who was going to have kids; it too used 'many' 11 times: 'Do trend writers buy the word in bulk at Costco' asked Schafer. He traced Citrino, the lead character of the earlier article. She said that the New York Times reporter had misrepresented her 25 years ago; that she never wanted to stop working, and never did although she had three children.

That led others to contact the sources of Story's story. One of them had become an embarrassed celebrity; she had been fielding inquiries and comments all day. She said she had told Story that she would stop work if or when she had children; but she felt that was just part of the equal rights of women to decide their own lives. She was sore that Story had not bothered to mention what obstacles she had overcome as a woman immigrant.

Did Story make feminism look outdated' Did women care no more about clawing their way up the corporate ladder' Were they losing their paranoia' No; things are not so bad. According to Judith Tucker of Mothers Movement, 'If we want to see qualified mothers filling more leadership positions, we either have to make sure they're represented in the upper echelons of high-powered professions in the same or greater numbers than men, or we have to figure out a way to change the dominant culture so that individuals with exceptional skills and talent [read women] can compete successfully with those of higher status for positions of authority [read men]. Given women's lingering status as the secondary sex in this society ' a bitter truth that becomes glaringly apparent when motherhood enters the equation ' it's fair to say that simply pressuring women to excel in public life won't do the trick.' There had to be more progress towards moving mothers into positions of power, and making dads do more at-home parenting. And she did not believe that mothers staying at home brought up better children. That was true only for the first four years; after that, children brought up in day-care homes became pretty normal.

There are fathers who are already answering her call. According to US Census Bureau, there were 1.9 million at-home fathers in 1997, 105,000 in 2003 and 98,000 in 2004. It is an unbelievably sharp fall. The latter figure looks puny when compared to Japan, a far more patriarchal society with a third of America's population which is supposed to have 80,000 at-home dads. If it is right, there are 50 times as many moms-at-home than dads-at-home in the US. Feminism has far to go.

But some men think otherwise. According to Richard Posner, the intellectual judge, the reason why women graduates of elite schools drop out and raise children is because they can afford to. They marry their fellow students, who rise up the corporate hierarchy and bring home big pay packages; with such money at their command, playing with kids at home is one of the most enjoyable things women can do. 'Given diminishing marginal utility of income, a second, smaller income will often increase the welfare of a couple less than will the added household production if the person with the smaller income allocates all or most of her time to household production, freeing up more time for her spouse to work in the market. The reason that in most cases it is indeed the wife (hence my choice of pronoun) rather than the husband who gives up full-time work in favor of household production is not only that the husband is likely to have the higher expected earnings; it is also because, for reasons probably both biological and social, women on average have a greater taste and aptitude for taking care of children, and indeed for nonmarket activities generally, than men do.' He recommends that elite schools should raise their fees, and give a rebate to alumni for every year they work after graduation.

Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who wrote A Treatise on Family, sees no additional social value beyond their private returns being created by professions like business and law, and hence no social loss if educated women do not work. He sees no reason to discriminate against women in professional schools. Let the schools decide whom to admit. They would probably admit the same number of women even without positive discrimination. They would find that it is good to have smart young women in the company of smart young men; it civilizes young men.

I tend to agree with his laissez faire policy. Education is primarily a consumer good. It is true that educated people earn more; some of them also do something productive, such as inventing and accounting. But most create work for fellow educated and have fun doing so. So if, after getting an expensive degree, some of them want to go and have children, that is just fine. But all ' men and women ' should be made to pay the full cost of higher education. There should be no subsidies, and educational loans should be given at commercial rates. Scholarships should be based entirely on performance.

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