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CATHY YOUNG

The postfeminist mommy track

THE LATEST round in the mommy wars is being waged over women who aren't even mommies yet: They are high-achieving Ivy League students who are planning to scale down or even give up their careers once they have children.

A front-page New York Times article about these exotic creatures has caused a flurry of debate: Some conservatives see it as a blow to politically correct orthodoxy about women, some feminists see it as a sign of the dreaded ''backlash" against women's gains. Still others shrug it off as pseudo-journalistic fluff with more hype than substance. In fact, reading too much social significance into the Times story would be a mistake; but it still points to lessons that feminism ignores at its peril.

Some serious questions have been raised about the reliability of the article, which suggests that the educated young women planning to embrace motherhood as their primary commitment represent an emerging and growing trend. The article's only real data came from an e-mail questionnaire answered by 138 freshman and senior women at Yale. (There is no indication of how many received the survey and didn't return it, making this a self-selected sample.)

About 30 percent of the women said that they planned to leave the workforce while their children were young, while another 30 percent planned to work part-time. While the article mentioned that most of the women who expected to stay home planned to return to work later, the closing section focused on a young woman who seemed to see a career as something to play with for a few years before settling down.

Yet, despite the flaws in the article, there is little doubt that the underlying phenomenon is real. What's far less clear is whether it's a cultural shift of some kind. The story points out that in several surveys of Yale alumni and Harvard Business School graduates, the majority of women were not employed full-time 10 to 20 years after graduation.

Nor it is necessarily new that young women are scaling down their career expectations while still in college. In 1980, The New York Times ran a front-page story headlined ''Many Young Women Now Say They'd Pick Family Over Career," with uncanny similarities to last week's piece -- right down to the opening paragraph profiling a female high achiever who seems to represent a feminist dream come true, except that she plans to trade it for full-time motherhood.

What's clear is that, in the 40 years since the rise of the modern women's movement, large numbers of women blessed with the opportunities denied to previous generations have not followed the egalitarian feminist script. Instead, they have, to a greater or lesser extent, embraced traditional female roles -- much to the chagrin of feminists such as Yale women's and gender studies professor Laura Wexler. ''I really believed 25 years ago," Wexler told the Times, ''that this would be solved by now."

Should this persistent traditionalism be regarded as a problem in need of a solution? One could argue that stay-at-home mothers, present or future, are exercising their freedom of choice in the most feminist way possible. Yes, this likely means that women will not reach parity in leadership positions. But to ask women to sacrifice their personal aspirations to a feminist vision of parity would be a peculiar kind of liberation.

Still, not everything is right with this postfeminist world. Men, for one thing, do not have the same options of career flexibility as women. For women, meanwhile, the abundance of options can lead to painful conflicts. The choice to curtail one's career for motherhood can be the result not only of personal preference but of guilt and fear that a mother's work outside the home will be damaging to the children.

If there is a solution to this conundrum, it is greater flexibility of gender roles in the home. But to move in that direction, we need to get past the notion that the only obstacle to equality in parenting and homemaking comes from sexist men clinging to patriarchal privilege. Women are just as likely to regard child-rearing as their turf and to regard the freedom to choose between various options of work-family balance as a female privilege. Yet few feminists have confronted the hard truth of this female version of sexism. What's more, all too often, feminism -- academic feminism in particular -- has been inclined to treat men as ''the enemy" rather than potential equal partners. Until that changes, feminists are doomed to wring their hands over young women's abandonment of equality.

Correction: In last week's column, I identified Stephen T. Katz, author of a book on the Holocaust, as a history professor at Cornell University. He now teaches at Boston University.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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