Monday, December 13, 2004

Karen DeCrow

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Here's what former N.O.W. President Karen DeCrow said nearly a decade ago. The statistics are stale, but the insight is still valid. (Ms DeCrow joined what is now the National Congress for Men and Children in 1981):

IT'S IN MEN'S NATURE TO NURTURE, TOO. -- Karen DeCrow Women must join men in defeating the myth that only women can adequately nurture the young. As a feminist I have been strongly in support of joint, or shared custody since the early Seventies. It's clear that women will never have the opportunity for full participation in the world outside the home if they are designated as those solely responsible for the care of children --during an ongoing marriage or after divorce.

Researchers at the University of Illinois spent six years studying high school valedictorians, and found that the women were much more likely than the men to lower their career goals after college in order to pay "attention to families." Although 57.5% of the valedictorians were female, the women began to lower their career aspirations by the second year of college. Only 35 percent of these women who were first in their class plan to stayin the labor force full-time, while all of the men do.

Midway through college, the women studied also had lower levels of intellectual self-esteem. Dr. Joyce Van Tassel-Baska of Northwestern University, who reviewed the findings, writes: "It's a waste of an incredible talent pool." The waste of talent comes not from a mysterious disease which strikes female valedictorians at age 20. What strikes them down is the societal expectation -- reinforced by family, friends, the media, even their teachers-- that their main job in life is to have children, and anything else they do is secondary in importance. There's no place they can turn for a different message.

Do male valedictorians plan to be parents? Of course. But 100 percent of them plan to use their intellectual and creative abilities in their other sphere of "love" also: their work. Few women will have true equal opportunity if this role definition does not change. We must do two things to save female valedictorians.

First we must stop asking them when they are going to have children. (Surely brilliant young men are not often asked this question at cocktail parties.) And secondly, we must include fathers in matters of child rearing. No parental leave plan, no custody decision, no plan for child care facilities should be addressed to mothers alone. Providing shared responsibility for children, by law, is not only fair to men and more civilized for children, it's also to women's advantage.

Until women and men share parenting, there is little possibility they'll be able to share political, intellectual, economic and social goals. Because half of all marriages end in divorce, more than five million children now live with a divorced parent. Women receive child custody in nine out of 10 uncontested divorce cases. Support is awarded in only 59 percent of these cases. A recent study shows that two-thirds of non-custodial fathers stop making support payments after the first six months. The good news, however, is the same study shows that divorced fathers who have joint custody of their children make support payments promptly.

Under joint custody -- now legal in 38 states -- couples continue to share child-raising responsibilities after a divorce. They divorce each other, but neither of them divorces the children. Under joint custody, no parent has the humiliating experience of being a visitor in his own child's life. According to Webster's dictionary,"visitation" means an official visit, as for inspection, or special dispensation of divine favor or wrath. Why reasonable people would expect decades of financial cooperation from a parent awaiting special dispensation to take his own child to the zoo boggles the mind.

Twenty years ago, in the early days of the feminist movement, it was assumed that shared parenting must be the norm. In later years, responding to conditioning which has convinced many women their chief value is as mothers-- producers and tenders of children -- many in the feminist movement have, mysteriously to me, taken the position that it's to women's advantage to fight for sole custody of children. In this misdirected approach to family living, some women have resumed the attitude of possessiveness of children, attempting to eliminate fathers from the parenting role.

Early in the feminist movement, the anthropologists instructed that historically and traditionally women have been hobbled and enfeebled by sole responsibility for children. The attempt to fight against parenting by fathers is self-defeating for women. Winning sole custody and defeating the fathers movement's efforts to establish joint custody as the norm are Pyrrhic victories indeed. If men are talented enough to be doctors, lawyers, architects and college professors, let us give them the opportunity to be talented parents.

[Karen DeCrow was president of the National Organization for Women from 1974 - 1977. She is an attorney specializing in civil rights and resides in Syracuse, New York. This text downloadable as DECROW.INF from NCMC BBS]

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