The New York Times reported on Saturday that an exchange between California Senator Barbara Boxer and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has led to much critical commentary – largely from conservative bloggers – accusing Boxer of being anti-feminist. The controversy surrounds Senator Boxer’s comment to Secretary Rice suggesting that neither woman was in an ideal position to appreciate fully the consequences of committing more troops to this war, because Senator Boxer’s children and grandchildren are, respectively, too old and too young to serve, and because Secretary Rice does not have children. Rice was apparently offended by these remarks and responded later that she thought it was okay to be a single woman and not to have children, implying that Boxer had impugned the legitimacy of her life choices. Commentators have similarly characterized Boxer’s remarks as turning the clock back on women’s rights.
In one sense, we might view all of this commentary quite cynically. The very people who accuse Boxer of turning back the clock – including the likes of Rush Limbaugh, who reportedly said that Boxer had “lynched” Rice and hit her “below the ovaries” (whatever that means) – would like nothing better than to turn the clock back on advances of feminists (or, as Limbaugh has called them, “Feminazis”). Furthermore, the substance of Boxer’s argument is sound – the people committing troops in this war are largely disconnected from the loss of life that troops have suffered, (mostly because their children are privileged enough to avoid service, despite their falling into the appropriate age group for deployment). That disconnect validly raises the concern that the Bush administration may far be too ready to dedicate troops because they (and others in positions of power) have so little invested -- at a personal level -- in troop survival. Many have claimed persuasively that if all of the young people in this country were equally likely to die in this war, it would have ended quite some time ago.
Despite the merit of Boxer’s point and the hypocrisy of her critics, it is nonetheless worth considering the claim of sexism. The problem, of course, is more complicated than Rice and her backers suggest. A stigma continues to attach to single women, along with pressure to marry and have children. At the same, however, the career ladder can be quite punishing toward those women who give in to the pressure. While the wage gap between men and women has been closing over time, the wage gap between women without children and women with children has been simultaneously growing. This suggests that women, as a general matter, cannot “have it all.” They must choose between a family and a highly successful career. This is unfortunate and wrong.
If women in general must make this choice, then it might legitimately gall someone like Secretary of State Rice to hear people express doubts about her ability to make sound judgments about the war on the ground that she does not have children. It may indeed be precisely because she does not have children that she has been able to ascend to the position she currently occupies, where she is charged with making the sorts of judgments whose validity are now called into question. Perhaps it would have been better, then, if Senator Boxer had said that almost no one in the room (including the senators and the secretary of state) have loved ones serving in Iraq; it was unnecessary to that point to highlight Rice's childlessness (and, for that matter, the age of Boxer's family members). Though I have little sympathy for Rice and her politics, there is a grain of truth in what she says. It is easy to question the ability of single women to understand the circumstances of women with children. If we believe, however, that having children is an important part of being a well-balanced person suited to a life in public service, then it is incumbent upon us to do a far better job of making it possible for mothers to thrive in the work force.