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PALKO POV: Choice, Take #2

We live in a society that does not value mothering (as measured in economic terms).The amazing thing isn’t that it is hard to make all of these pieces fit together in a coherent, sane manner – it’s that anyone manages to do so! Simultaneously, our national ethos of bootstrap independence suggests that success is a wholly personal accomplishment that is achieved with no external supports. So it’s little wonder that when a woman who seems to have made the unworkable work is asked how she does it, the default answer often is to choose your partner wisely. But it is all so much more complicated than the choice of romantic partner. I wrote last month’s post a few weeks ago. Then I was at a speaking engagement during which I spoke briefly about “choices” I had made to pursue higher education. I put choices in quotes because they were dependent on a number of factors outside of my control: having mentors to suggest it and guide me through the economic aspects, being free of familial responsibilities and therefore free to continue on to graduate school, having had a stellar undergraduate education, being born in a family that valued education, etc. I’d spoken about these factors in the context of discussing changes in gender norms and roles in the US. After I finished, an older black woman who’d been in the audience came up to me. We had a brief exchange that reminded me to think about how I was presenting the issue of partner choice in a wider lens. It seems to me, she began softly, “that white women and black women have a different perspective on these things.” I rushed to agree, both because I do agree and because I think it’s vital to affirm the impact of these differences. But… Reflecting on my initial thoughts about the marital/professional advice we give women, I was struck by how clearly they reveal my white, middle class upbringing. Our brief conversation culminated in the reminder that white women and black women have different perspectives – as do women of different ages and from different groups, however we configure them.Economic factors are one source of these different perspectives. We recently marked Equal Pay Day, the day designated in April to mark the fact that the average woman works 15 months to match her male counterpart’s earnings from a 12-month calendar year. On the website for Equal Pay Day, the organizers note, “Because women earn less, on average, than men, they must work longer for the same amount of pay. The wage gap is even greater for most women of color.” In this explanation, we have an important acknowledgment of the impact of race. The pay gap impacts women of different races to greater degrees; it also impacts men of color.

This economic discrepancy further impacts people’s career and family decisions. Accounting for the differences that race, socioeconomic status, geography, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, ability status, among other characteristics, introduce into our lives is what we mean by the term intersectionality. When the conversation is entered into with compassion and openness, paying attention to these differences is not meant to launch a competition of who has had it worse. It isn’t an attempt to shut down debate and dialogue. Rather, it is an empathetic acknowledgement that not all struggles or experiences are parallel. It is a way of being in relationship with our fellow human beings that recognizes their lived realities. This observation about different perspectives matters when we think about the advice we give women who are juggling competing demands: we tell women to choose their partner carefully as if everyone wants a partner. As if everyone’s heterosexual. As if everyone lives in a community with a lot of men who fit that model of “good partner,” or agrees on what a good partner is. As if everyone wants a family and a career. As if everyone has a stable job. As if everyone is healthy. We offer this advice as if the failure to be able to juggle it all is a personal failure and not a reflection of the lack of support we offer families. It’s trendy right now to criticize students on campuses and activists marching for their insistence that we attend to intersectionality. But mocking a fact (or the people who call your attention to the fact) doesn’t negate it. And that’s the problem with the advice to choose wisely: some of us choose from a deck of cards with 52 cards; others with 25; others with 5 or 2. Perhaps the person dealt a hand of two cards chooses much more wisely than the one with a full deck: but that doesn’t guarantee a better outcome. Working to better outcomes requires a lot of hard conversations and honest reflection on our priorities, both individual and collective.

This is just one of many posts to come in our new blog series, The Palko POV. As the Director of the Women’s Center, Abby Palko has a rich array of interactions in the UVA community far and wide and we’ll bring you the insights she gains from those here. Stay tuned!

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