Elevate Difference

Washington, DC: A Feminist’s Friend or Foe?

The great thing about Washington is that it’s a city with a job for everyone. As a native, I certainly held my fair share over the years: writer, administrative assistant, graduate student, usher, professor and cashier, to name a few. But it wasn’t until I was established in my academic career that the city became more of an obstacle to my personal peace and ambitions, rather than an ally. As a long-time fan—and defender—of my hometown, I began to question its idiosyncrasies from the perspective of a woman trying to “make it” well past the point where she already thought she had.

It started with the birth of our first child. Although I went back to work when our daughter was three months old, I soon encountered the difficult demands of full time motherhood and full-time teaching. My work commute was twenty miles one way—on a good day, this could take a half hour. On bad—most often the case—over an hour.

Before Lucy, my commute seemed like a fair trade-off for someone who wanted the vibrancy of a city, yet whose career ambitions led them to the suburbs. But once I became a mother, two hours a day in the car meant I was without the company of my daughter ten hours a week—a hefty sacrifice.

Adding to my disenchantment was the fact that as a college professor living in DC, I earned just enough money each month to hand it all over to my child’s caretaker—who worked part-time. I also happened to work in a place where more than one female colleague could recount a period of time in the 1970’s when they were asked not to return to work once it was known they were pregnant. One woman told me she was allotted only two weeks’ maternity leave after having her second child. Two weeks! I could barely walk two weeks after giving birth to Lucy.

Inarguably, this was the year 2005, not 1972. Life at the college was noticeably improved for women. My boss, after all, was a woman, as were many of my colleagues and most of my students. But as I soon discovered, although we’d come a long way since my colleague was granted a miserly two weeks’ worth of maternity leave, imagine my surprise to learn that in this country, that particular benefit is still an option for employers rather than a requirement.

While my college did offer maternity leave, I was dumbfounded to learn that only two weeks of that time would be paid 100%. After that, my pay would diminish, first at 90%, then 80%, 60% and so on. And because I was due to give birth in the middle of the semester, I agreed when my Dean suggested I wait until the spring to return to work. What I didn’t realize was that doing so meant forfeiting my salary for any additional time off—another six weeks without pay following six weeks of reduced salary.

Could we manage?

Fortunately, we could. A lot of women, I imagine, could not. Unlike them, the worst consequence of my personal choice—if I chose to go back to work after six weeks—would be a few disgruntled students and their substitute. My job wasn’t on the line or even in jeopardy. Quite the contrary, my colleagues and supervisors were incredibly supportive of my decision to work and have a family.

Everyone, it seemed, except the state of Virginia. Working at a state college, our policies were determined by the Richmond legislature. This got me thinking: Were there places to live that provided more support for women? It seemed like such a simple thing. But still, I wasn’t sure. What did such a place look like? Where might it be? Would I recognize it if I saw it?

There was an article I clipped out of the Washington Post some years ago, written by a woman who had recently returned to the US after living in France for many years. The premise of her article was that of the two countries, the US came across as a better place of opportunity for women but it was actually Europe who put their money where their mouth is. There, working women are given a full year’s maternity leave, with the promise of their job upon their return; work/life balance is better mediated by a 35 hour work week; and healthcare is available for all. Sadly, these are all privileges we women here in the states do not enjoy.

For many years, I dreamed of moving to Europe. Sadly, this has yet to happen. But after Lucy’s birth, I found myself once again sorting through what kind of life I wanted to have. My return to work proved to be incredibly exhausting, and our 600 square-foot apartment was shrinking with each passing hour. And yet, even with a healthy combined income, we still couldn’t afford a house in the city. In our neighborhood alone, the average price of a house topped just under a million dollars.

A million dollars! Who were these neighbors of mine?

One afternoon, Chris and I looked at a two bedroom apartment opening up just a few blocks away. One step inside and I loved it. It was beautiful, just like ours, with all the same character and period charm, but infinitely bigger. And the rent wasn’t much more than we paid for our place! So how can I explain what came over me as I stood in that gleaming living room? In that moment our future was made clear to me in writing on the wall so bright and shiny I couldn’t miss it: For the next ten years, you will work your ass off and have absolutely _nothing to show for it!

Statistically speaking, Washington, DC is the place to be if you’re a woman. Just this past year it ranked the highest US city for female labor force participation, with an earnings ratio of 85.5%. More good news: 52.5% of these women are employed in managerial or professional positions. If that’s the case, then why did I find it so much the opposite?

For me, it all goes back to France versus the United States. Although DC employs a lot of top o’ the ceiling women, it’s also a city that hosts the nation’s seat of government. In other words, there are a lot of jobs in that town. And the government is one of the few places of employment where minority status matters—it’s a much needed leg-in and often times, a leg-up. In addition, Washington is saturated with institutions of higher learning and non-profits—two fields known to employ more than their share of women.

But ask any of these professional women to rate their quality of life, and I’m sure you’d find an interesting mix of answers. For what’s missing in all these wonderful career opportunities is what’s missing in too many places in this country—the ability to pursue a satisfying career and maintain a decent standard of living. Lack of affordable housing, healthcare and childcare greatly affects a person’s quality of life, no matter her job title.

This injustice was something I became good at rationalizing—haven’t we all? Sure, it was royally unfair that I had to shell out so much of my earnings just to ensure my daughter was well taken care of while I pursued my professional goals, but—hey. Isn’t that how it is? I considered myself one of the lucky ones—at least I could afford the babysitter. Sort of. But certainly, more so than the woman earning minimum wage. How in the world would she do it?

The truth was, I was doing it. We may have had to cut back, but no one in our house was going hungry. And it is for this reason that, while I found my hometown to be, well, not exactly hostile to feminists—welcome, Nancy Pelosi!—I did find the liberation somewhat botched. One where the basic tenets of feminism—the right to pursue all possibilities of the life I’ve imagined for myself—wasn’t so much a reality as a work-in-progress. And maybe that is simply the fault of our nation, exemplified here by its capitol. A problem not of choice or opportunity, but of support for those choices and opportunity. And I do mean financial.

Maybe there is no city in the US that’s a perfect haven for a feminist, but I do believe there are some that come closer than others. As for me, Chris and Lucy, I’m happy to report we decided a radical change was in order: like so many of our ancestors facing questionable times, we decided to pack up and move west, hitching our dreams to a smaller, more affordable city: Portland, Oregon.

Written by: Janet Freeman, January 14th 2007

Janet--As a current DC resident, I appreciate your thoughtful feminist commentary on this complex, hard to love yet hard to forget city.