Sigmund Freud was supposed to be a wise man, but he could never answer the question “What do women want?” When he suggested that women who want the power and authority to be like men suffer “penis envy,” he coined a modern myth. He didn’t get it quite right, but the meaning behind his diagnosis became a driving force of modern feminism. (You could ask the women running for president.)
A half-century after Freud, ambitious women saw their chance. With the pill, affirmative action, college education and careers, they felt free not to marry. And today, they’re marrying later and marrying less. Fertility doctors increasingly treat women in their 40s who delayed having children because they wanted to establish careers first and are terrified they waited too late.
Women who married professionals like them in medicine, law and finance find now that if they finally have children, careers will suffer. Such women with children are learning to live a lot like their pre-feminist mothers, becoming chauffeurs for the kids, taking them to the doctor, the dentist, music lessons and Little League baseball games. What’s different is that such women gave up what their mothers never had, a successful career with a six-figure income. They fall into a new kind of gender gap.
Daniela Jampel is half of a two-career couple. She once had the same aspiration that her husband had when they met at Cornell. Both earned law degrees, and both got jobs at white-shoe law firms. Now the mother of children ages 5 and 1, Jampel works 21 hours a week as a lawyer for New York City, and her husband works 60 to 80. The difference is reflected in their earnings. She spends two days a week at home, and his time at home is rationed because he’s on call nights and weekends. “I’m here if he needs to work late or go out with clients,” she tells The New York Times.
Their arrangement is news told on the business pages because women like Jampel make up a new cohort of working women at the top, who are experiencing a decline in earning power as their husband’s income soars. She adjusts to the children’s needs. She’s the one who picks up the slack on snow days.
These women don’t blame their “gender,” but their choices affect the differences in their earnings. The enemy is not “The Man” so much as “greedy capitalism,” as well as the relentlessly inflexible nature of managerial jobs in finance, law and consulting. The lean-in philosophy for them won’t nurture their children, or buy luxury condos and vacations. But their husbands working long and exhausting hours enables them and their children to live the pre-feminist experience of abundant time at home.
There’s irony here, as there always is. The good life, which sounds so great, runs into the reality of unintended consequences. Just as there was always a touch of elitism in second-phase feminism, where middle- and upper-class women were liberated to go to work and earn a six-figure income, these are choices not available to their impecunious, less-educated working-class sisters, so there’s a new kind of elitism. Marriage to a man on the same economic trajectory enables the wife to spend more time at home.
The unhappy at-home mother that Betty Friedan, in her 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique,” famously described as living in “a comfortable concentration camp” would be surprised at how many newly enabled, powerful women are trading in work life to enjoy the luxurious “limitations” of the “comfortable concentration camp.”
There’s no gender gap in earning power between a man and a woman in these demanding high-status, high-salaried jobs if the woman is willing to put in the same exhausting extra hours. Many women simply don’t want to sacrifice all that time with their children. Day care is supposed to make a difference, but it doesn’t free enough time to make it an honest trade.
Feminist rhetoric has rarely acknowledged the reality that the gender gap in pay today is mainly determined by the kind of work a woman chooses, especially when she’s a mother. The gap rarely appears so stark as in the so-called “greedy professions.”
This was a hard lesson for Daniela Jampel. “Being willing to work 50 percent more doesn’t mean you make 50 percent more, you make like 100 percent more,” she tells The New York Times. That’s hard to give up, giving new meaning to women’s choices and the truism that a woman can’t have it all. High-tech frees a man or woman to work almost anywhere, but it can’t do much to reduce the hours.
If someone would ask Dr. Freud that famous question today about what women want, the answer might be “Certainly not that.”
Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times. Email her at email@example.com.