Someday when they write a media history of the women's movement, the chapter on the 1970s will be called "The Bra-Burning That Never Happened."
This will focus on the nationwide report of the Flaming Feminists who set a torch to their underwear. In fact, no piece of lingerie was ever kindled in anger, but from then on, women's rights advocates were permanently labeled "bra-burners."
But the next chapter, the one on the 1980s, may well be called "The Trend That Never Was." Let me explain.
On Sunday, Dec. 28, the front page of The New York Times carried the headline: "Many Young Women Now Say They'd Pick Family Over Career." The story strongly suggested a new conservative trend on the part of elite female college students.
It opened with a short profile of a Princeton senior who planned to study in France, go to business school and work in international finance. But, she would then take 10 years off to be a full-time mother: "If I can't give my children 100 percent, I'd rather not be a mother at all."
The reporter had done "dozens of interviews." But interviews are not a scientific sample, so the whole piece hinged on a study. According to The Times, this research on 3,000 college students from six highly selective schools showed that "77 percent of the women said that mothers should either not work at all or work only part-time until their children were 5 years old."
Here was a tale that fit perfectly into the New Conservative Era. What's more, it bore The New York Times Front Page Seal of Approval. So, faster than you can say "high speed data wire," the news of a T-R-E-N-D was sent across the country to the 511 newspapers that subscribe to The Times wire service.
In a mere two weeks, we have been peppered with the notion -- loosely interpreted and popularized -- that 77 percent (count 'em) of the young elite women believe that the place of a mother of a preschooler is in the home.
All this is fine and dandy and typical. But this time the "hinge" for the story was so loose that, when you wiggle it, the whole trend falls down.
Allow me to wiggle it. The crucial statistic came from a 300-page Brown University report designed to find out how well Ivy League Schools, such as Brown were treating women. The data was not vintage 1980; it was collected from 1976 to 1978.
In one small section of the study, students were asked how they felt about a mother's working when her children were very young. Among the women, 27 percent thought mothers shouldn't be working at all when their children were between 2 and 5 years old. Fifty percent thought mothers should work part-time and 16 percent chose full-time.
If you aren't suffering from math phobia, you can read these figures at least three ways: 1) 77 percent think women shouldn't work full-time or 2) 66 percent think they shouldn't be at home full-time or 3) 50 percent prefer part-time jobs.
But in no way can you read this statistic as a trend backward.
Helen Astin, the UCLA professor who did this research, says that the students' attitudes reflected long-term trend away from strict traditional roles. Jean Howard, who wrote the conclusions to the Brown study, agrees: "We found women who want to work longer and longer, and to combine that with families. We don't have some conservative revolution on our hands."
The data did point out some potential conflicts for the students. Conflicts between men and women. Conflicts between the women's ideal life plan and reality.
For example, two-thirds of the women expected full-time careers. But only two-fifths of the men expected their partners to work full-time. At the same time, the women preferred to plot out flexible lives, with time to reduce and then resume career commitments. But in the real world, career patterns are more rigid, economic needs more urgent and part-time professional work more scarce than these women suspect.
In fairness, many of The Times interviews captured the ambivalence and uncertainty of young women. But the whole piece shouted Conservative Trend. u
The media tale would be unimportant, except that a story like this takes on a life of its own in the public mind. "According to The New York Times. . . " It becomes part of the self-fulfilling prophecy of the retreat to traditionalism.
Prof. Carol Leland, the project director who tried to dissuade The Times reporter from "misusing our figures," now says: "I guess this made it a better front-page beginning-of-the-year story."
Does she sound paranoid? Well, what do you expect from those bra-burners?