The most disheartening part about women's deciding to stay home is that they say doing so is their choice. "Choice" is the weasel word, and it is legitimated, especially for women who consider themselves liberals, because it's been adopted by the feminist movement. Even the most empowered women do not see how narrow their options are at the moment of "choice."
A couple of years ago, I was on 60 Minutes with a woman who had been the editor of the Stanford Law Review and was working, by all accounts successfully, at a huge and prestigious New York law firm. Not yet thirty, married to a would-be surgeon, she had a baby in the second year of her career, just as he started his surgical residency. With a straight face, she told the camera that "someone had to take care of the baby, and it certainly wasn't going to be a surgical resident." Since she only likes to do things perfectly, she felt she could not juggle two roles, so she "chose" to quit and has been unemployed for almost a decade. There was no discussion at all of her other, earlier, choices: her choice to marry an aspiring surgeon who felt he could not take care of the baby; her choice to have a baby at the beginning of his surgical residency, when he was least able to help out; her choice of indulging her perfectionism, condemning her to spend her talents on tasks that people with no degree at all can do, in which she would never be judged, wanting or no, a kind of miniaturist in the business of life. Had she not made all these other choices, when the baby arrived, she might have actually had more choice about what would happen to her career.
No one wants to face it. Stay-at-home moms do not like to hear that the sacrifice of their education, talents, and prospects to their spouses' aspirations and their children's needs was a mistake, so they contend the stay-at-home decision cannot be judged. "It was my choice." End of discussion. On the other side, workingwomen are glad to use the right to choose to protect themselves from the chorus of voices from the right telling them to go home. The epitome of the choice strategy had to be when Sex and the City's Charlotte tried to justify to her lawyer friend, Miranda, her decision to quit her job in response to pressure from her insufferable first husband. "I choose my choice!" Charlotte intoned repeatedly. "I choose my choice!"
Both the stay-at-home and working moms often consider themselves feminists. They reasonably make this claim because feminism has actively encouraged women to run from a fight by embracing any decision a woman makes as a feminist act. I have dubbed this watered-down version of feminism choice feminism.
The dynamic started in the very early years of the feminist movement. Originally, feminism was defined by the campaign for rights and opportunities, because women had very few of either, and very few choices. The result of that first wave of feminism was choice, and Friedan was the trumpeter, calling women to choose something different for themselves. Friedan was pretty clear on what the right choice was--she likened housework to the labor of an animal, and she wasn't much interested in an endless spiral of more and more worthy causes for feminism to include in its embrace.