WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

E.J. Graff

E.J. Graff, a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, is an author and journalist who has written primarily about social justice, particularly same-sex marriage, feminism, family, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights.

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E.J. Graff's Blog Introduction

Women, Media, AND... Work/Wages

In my blog entries I'll critique coverage -- or the lack thereof -- of media, women, work, and wages.

The background: Once upon a time, people believed that the wage gap between working women and working men would close on its own. But it hasn't. In fact, the wage gap between women and men has been roughly the same since the early 1990s: a woman working full time makes about 76 cents to a full-time working man's dollar. Why? In October, Simon & Schuster will publish the book I collaborated on with author and former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, titled Getting Even: Why Women Still Don't Get Paid Like Men--And What To Do About It. The book will give you an answer to that question about the wage gap, so I won't go into it here. But I can tell you this: the media consistently get the answer wrong. When they do, I'll point it out.

And wages, it turns out, are a stand-in for a lot of other questions about how women are treated on the job. Do working mothers get treated fairly? How much money does sexual harassment subtract from women's earnings? Why, more than forty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate based on sex, are women with high school educations still shunted into minimum-wage jobs like filing or housecleaning, while men with the same qualifications are hired for better-paying light industrial or construction work? And why aren't the media looking into questions like these, which shape the daily lives of more than half our nation's adult population?

Here's one of my pet peeves: the ongoing miscoverage of what's called the "mommy track." Over the past decade, coverage of women's income has dwindled to oddball stories on high-income professional women who "opt out" of the job market so they can stay home with their kids. The New York Times Magazine ran a version of this story twice in five years, once in 1998 and then in 2003.). Lisa Belkin's infamous version of the story, "The Opt-Out Revolution," (New York Times Magazine, October 26, 2003 - note that it's available free) was on the magazine's cover. But there's a problem with this story. Very few women can afford this "option." The handful of high-earning women with high-earning husbands who choose to stay home are extremely privileged. Even given that, these highly educated women's "choice" to stay home often wasn't their first choice: they'd have preferred to work, had reasonable accommodations been made, and had their employers not condescended to them once they got pregnant. Belkin's profile of a group of Princeton graduates includes this, from Sally Sears, class of 1975, described as a local television celebrity in Atlanta :

"I would have hung in there, except the days kept getting longer and longer," she explains. "My five-day 50-hour week was becoming a 60-hour week." As news reports could be transmitted farther and farther from the "mother ship, " she found herself an hour or two from home when the nightly news was done. "Will was growing up, and I was driving home from a fire," she says. "I knew there would always be wrecks and fires, but there wouldn't always be his childhood."

First she tried to reduce her schedule. "The station would not give me a part-time contract," she says. "They said it was all or nothing." So in August 2000, she walked away from her six-figure income and became a homeroom mom at her son's school. "It was wrenching for me to leave Channel 2."

Or this, from attorney Katherine Brokaw, who had proposed a reduced schedule while her children were young:

"Every once in a while I would raise my head from the grind of getting this case ready and I would say, 'Where are we with my proposal?''' she remembers. "Finally... I did a lot of soul-searching. My life, my home life and my new family life were at the mercy of other people's whims... My partners had chosen not to place my request on high-enough priority."... And that is when Brokaw quit. She now cares full time for that eldest daughter, as well as the two children who followed. "I wish it had been possible to be the kind of parent I want to be and continue with my legal career," she says, "but I wore myself out trying to do both jobs well."

Sometimes reporters actually make the point in their stories that women would have preferred another option-but that given the work world's limitations, they chose to leave. Nevertheless, editors or producers usually write headlines that emphasize the idea that, gosh darn it, women just naturally want to stay home and be mamas, bless their pretty little heads.

This strange emphasis on what editors think of as counterintuitive (because it goes against an uninformed notion that "feminism's" goal was to get every woman to the top of the corporate ladder) actually erases the fact that sex discrimination is still rife in the workplace-and that it hits working mothers especially hard.

In the coming months, when media mangle stories about women, work and wages, I'll let you know.

More to come.

E.J. Graff's Biography

E.J. Graff, a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, is an author and journalist who has written primarily about social justice, particularly same-sex marriage, feminism, family, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights. Her book What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution, is an engaging examination of 2,500 years of a central pillar of social life-and why same-sex couples belong today. What Is Marriage For? is called "essential reading" by leading same-sex marriage advocates, including Evan Wolfson, founder of the national group Freedom to Marry, and Mary Bonauto, who won the breakthrough Massachusetts same-sex marriage case. Widely praised and often cited in legal journals, What Is Marriage For? is now used as a women's studies text and as a courtroom exhibit, and was quoted by the Canadian Law Reform Commission in its recommendation that the Canadian government open marriage to same-sex pairs.

E.J. Graff is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, a contributing writer for Out magazine, and a contributing editor for Plenty. Her work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, Ms., The Nation, The New Republic, The Village Voice, Salon.com, The Women's Review of Books, and in more than a dozen anthologies. A founder and senior advisor to the Center for New Words' WAM! (Women, Advocacy, & Media) conference, she has given talks and engaged in debates on at universities, conventions, churches, synagogues, law schools, and other public forums, and is regularly interviewed by public and commercial media outlets across the United States and abroad, including MTV, PBS, NPR, CBC, and the BBC. She has been a Visiting Scholar at the Radcliffe Schlesinger Library, and a Liberal Arts Fellow at Harvard Law School.

Most recently, E.J. Graff collaborated on former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Evelyn Murphy's book Getting Even: Why Women Still Don't Make As Much As Men--And What To Do So We Will, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster/Touchstone in October 2005.

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