Nina Shah

is a senior at Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service

First there was Simone de Beauvoir's "second sex," then Betty Friedan's "feminine mystique," recently Rush Limbaugh's "feminazis," and now Lisa Belkin's "opt-out revolution."

This latest addition to feminism's repertoire of catchphrases refers to the record number of high-powered women who are voluntarily curtailing or opting out of the career track in favor of staying at home to raise a family. So while the feminist discourse of the '90s was concerned with the glass ceiling at work, the discourse of this decade is concerned with the glass ceiling at home.

Indeed, the debate in feminist circles has evolved into one less about the workplace rejecting women and more into one about women rejecting the workplace. All in the name of motherhood.

Certainly second-wave feminists would find this scene bewildering and disappointing. Is this what they fought so hard for? That nearly half a century after the heyday of the women's liberation movement, Ivy League-educated women would not make good of their newly won advancements and would choose to stay at home and change diapers instead?

These are the thoughts and questions that have been occupying the minds of many prominent feminists, stirring up much controversy and debate. Most outspokenly, scholar and lawyer Linda Hirshman promotes the idea that the only way women can lead a fully "flourishing" life is through the public sphere. She disparages women who forsake their careers for domestic life as antifeminists undoing decades of hard-won advances and goes so far as to label these women "failures."

However, she and those who think like her may be the very object of their own accusations.

By declaring that the only worthy endeavor for an intelligent woman is holding a job, they are the real antifeminists and smack of patriarchy's insidious influence. They are caught up in the narrow male-capitalist straitjacket of success measured in terms of money, power and status.

What these anxious feminists do not seem to comprehend is that life in the public sphere as a pricy lawyer or a member of the corporate elite is not the path to happiness for everyone. For example, conventionally accomplished women like former Bush adviser Karen Hughes, who eventually opted out of the public sphere to spend more time with her family, may be more true to feminism than those who blindly pursue a career under the skewed notion that the only way to succeed is through paid labor and adaptation to male structures.

These women who were supposed to be, and could be, the professional equals of men, yet are choosing otherwise, are truly liberated. They refuse to "prove themselves."

As long as these women are staying home by choice rather than as the result of a workplace "push" - structural discrimination in the form of wages, inflexibility, bias - the opt-out revolution is not an indicator of feminism's failure but an indicator of an expanded set of options. Personal narratives overwhelmingly indicate that the choice these women make is a real one - a matter of taste and preference more than anything else. Lisa Belkin quotes Katherine Brokaw, who left her career to stay home with her three children: "I don't want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm . . . Some people define that as success. I don't."

Coercion into the home and coercion into the workplace are equally oppressive tools of patriarchy and equally threatening clamps on women's autonomy. This is precisely why the women of the opt-out revolution, refusing to be pigeonholed by either one of these tracks, represent an embrace of feminism, rather than a betrayal.

E-mail Nina Shah at nns5@georgetown.edu.