Saturday, October 10, 2009

Overhead on the MIT Saferide shuttle

I overhead the following conversation conducted in earnest by two (presumably) undergraduate women on the shuttle to Boston the other day:

Woman #1:
Sometimes I don't know what the point is of working so hard. I mean, what if I graduate college and then get married right away?
Woman #2: Yeah...
Woman #1: I mean, that's what my mom did.
Woman #2: I think I'm going to work for 5-10 years, then start popping out the babies.
Woman ?: I would get so bored. There would be so much Oprah...
Woman ?: Yeah, a lot of talking on the phone...

I will admit my first reaction was one of disbelief: a combination of "can you believe these girls?!" and "what a waste of an MIT education!" I was struck by how resigned these girls were to their fates, and how unreflective they seemed to be about the other life possibilities out there. I was particularly surprised to hear such a conversation on an MIT shuttle: it seems like if you are going to spend all this effort (and tuition) on an undergraduate education in order to stay at home, it is a waste of your own time/money and the institution's time/money that you did not get a liberal arts education.

Though it is easy to blame these girls for not having more agency in deciding their futures, we must take some societal responsibility for these attitudes. Most people do not really know what's out there for them at age 20 and follow models that others have set out for them. While the young man who does not know what he's doing with his life will often find himself enrolling in law school, business school, or some prestigious Ph.D. program, the young woman who does not know what she's doing may have much less career-oriented paths to fall back on*. While I fully believe in the freedom to choose, it is not freedom if the chooser is not aware of what the choices mean. Choosing to go to MIT and work hard seems to be at odds with the "choice" to stay home with Oprah and the phone; I believe that if these women were aware of their life choices, they may choose differently. (Even if they chose to stay at home, they may discover that Oprah and phone are not the only possible activities.)

While on the shuttle, I wanted to tell these girls that they do not have to be like their mothers. Perhaps I will do that if there is a next time.

* This is an instance of the phenomenon where many women default to their mother's template of domesticity, often without reflecting upon why they are doing this. (I discuss this in my post about My Mother My Self.

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