By: Jennifer Saba It's been a lousy week for the ladies.
In a shout out of encouragement, the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, remarked during a conference that "innate differences in sex may explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers," according to story in yesterday's New York Times. Summers managed to hurl further insults explaining that some people took his comments the wrong way. You could almost hear him scream: Truth and enlightenment should prevail even if it is sexist! In other words: Tough break, cookies.
On the same day, op-ed readers of the Times were treated to David Brooks' column sweetly titled "Empty Nests, and Hearts." Brooks argues that women should forego any career ambitions until after they have settled down, in their 20s, still wet behind the ears, to produce at least two or three kids. As he has pointed out in previous columns, this is how it's often done out in the Red heartland.
He helpfully points out the obvious: "Women now have more choices over what kind of lives they want to lead, but they do not have more choices over how they want to sequence their lives."
You see, women are simply overwhelmed with options -- Careers! Babies! Shopping! Brunch! Shoes! Not leaving anything to chance, Brooks lays his argument out with Excel precision, using -- dare I say -- numbers to help math-challenged women along with that sequence.
"For example," he writes, "it might make more sense to go to college, make a greater effort to marry early and have children. Then, if she, rather than her spouse, wants to stay home, she could raise children from age 25 to 35. Then at 35 (now that she knows herself better) she could select a flexible graduate program specifically designed for parents. Then she could work in one uninterrupted stint from, say, 40 to 70."
Voila! A happy hearth, and heart!
In Brooks' utopia, a woman finds an emotionally mature soul mate at, say, 22, kicks out a couple kids by 27 (I'm being generous here), gets them well into their schooling, and then goes to an imaginary university set up for moms re-entering -- make that, entering -- the workforce. He then throws in some kind of tax-break to sweeten the deal.
As useful as Brooks is, he does not reveal how a woman is supposed to wisely choose a mate and happily raise healthy kids in her 20s if (as he suggests) she does not know herself until her mid-30s.
Apparently, Brooks, a middle-aged guy, feels he can talk about this subject with such authority because he happened upon a poll from the Gallup Organization. The study found that 70 percent of women over 40 who do not have kids regret that decision. To further bolster his claims, he consults with another -- I'm going to go out on a limb here -- middle-aged guy, Phillip Longman, author of "The Empty Cradle."
You can hear the whisper of "family values" throughout this entire piece. The message is clear: Women owe it to their children to sacrifice 15 years, give or take, to raise morally upstanding children. And those women who don't stay home to tend to their kiddies, before embarking on their (other) careers, should be embarrassed by if they have to balance the choice out. Never mind that many women don't have the luxury of staying home, no matter at what age they decided to start a family.
Brooks actually suggests that having children young and early is patriotic. He recruits Longman for this, citing his view (as he describes it) that "we are consuming more human capital than we are producing -- or to put it another way, we don't have enough young people to support our old people."
You see, having kids early and often is not only good for women's psyche, it's good for the economy, and good for the USA: Mom, apple pie, and the flag all in one package.
I could point out more holes in this column but some Times' readers already did, in today's Letters page.
Emily Fox of Los Angeles writes, "If Mr. Brooks would marry us off when we are young and fertile and emotionally unformed, he will find plenty of 'human capital' being cared for by plenty of unhappy (and probably divorced) women who married much too young."
Sarah Schmelling of Long Beach, Calif. weighs in: "Women in our 'fertile years' have enough to worry about without men troubling over our potential regrets. Please leave our decisions -- and our biological processes -- up to us."
Brooks does have some female defenders. Catherine Roche of Seattle, who met her husband in college, says: "I stayed home with [my three kids] for seven years. I'm 35 now and heading off to get my Ph.D. guilt-free, with three well-adjusted children, I'm looking forward to a rich and lengthy career."
And where did Roche meet her husband? At Lawrence Summers' Harvard.