Friday, August 25, 2006

Career women and Jane Austen

The internet is abuzz about the Forbes article, "Don't Marry Career Women," just as it was when Linda Hirschmann published her article on "choice feminism" being a cul-de-sac in the real march towards gender equality last year. What both of these articles brought to the fore for me was a long standing debate that I have had with a very good friend about whether we would have been happier as characters in a Jane Austen novel, or ourselves.

Both of us are are career women, and by happenstance we were trained as Russia experts in graduate school. Today she's one of the world's authorities on private sector provision of health services, and I'm one of the co-founders of GlobalGiving. She "ran away" from small-town America, I've taken refuge in the US from familian and cultural expectations in Japan. Over many years of relishing our careers (including their unexpected turns that have taken us both far from our original focus in grad school), and puzzling over exactly how we balance our professional and personal lives, we've always used Jane Austen characters as our counterfactuals. Why? Because we both love Jane Austen, identify strongly with her heroines, and it's the easiest way for us to imagine having far less choices than we have ever had in our lives. And it has never been clear to us that we would have been actually unhappier as Jane Austen characters.

Of course, Jane Austen isn't a particularly grim writer, but the nub of our question was around choice--an issue that has been perfectly framed by Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz makes the case that too often we are made unhappy by too many choices because the more choices we have, the more we second guess any choice that we make.

But I think where I come out on this choice issue these days is not that I'd rather I was Emma rather than Mari. There are some choices that are worth having, for which I definitely have to thank women who came before me, and that is the choice to set off on your own. This is a choice men have had forever, and if we were to flip the Forbes article on its head, we'd be counseling women not to marry career men, but to go out there and find house-husbands because they appear to be less inclined to divorce. My favorite corollary to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has always been "a car of your own" if ever you decide you want to set off on your own--and you can't have a car of your own unless you can earn your own way. So yes, Michael Noer may well be right, and it's just as well.

[Sorry, Jane!]

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