Cover Story

A Women's right to choose

Today's choosy woman is choosing conservatism

Issue: "Worse NOW than ever," July 24, 1999

At the second busiest intersection in San Diego, a bright morning smiles in through the broad plate-glass window at Starbucks. But while the seductive scent of espresso rules the air inside the cafe, the morning outside must compete with a little girl's wide, green eyes.

"Hannah-Kristin-Kahl!" the sandy-haired 5-year-old announces brightly when asked her name. She leans forward to show off "Stinky," her Beanie Baby skunk, then skips off in pink sneakers and patchwork bike shorts to terrorize the condiment table. Two years ago, Hannah Kahl would not have been here to enjoy a morning treat with mom Colleen. Instead, she would have been in daycare from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. while Mrs. Kahl managed her husband's environmental consulting office. But in 1997, Mrs. Kahl hired a new office manager and quit her job to stay home with her kids. At that moment, she joined the growing ranks of American women who are marching to the beat of a more conservative drummer.

Researchers Liz Nickles and Laurie Ashcraft found that a growing number of women are kicking career off the top rung of their priority ladders. Ms. Nickles and Ms. Ashcraft have surveyed a statistically representative sample of 5,000 women ages 20-50 once each decade since 1979. The third installment, released late last year, found that the share of working women who said career is as important as being a wife and mother has plunged 23 percent since the 1970s.

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And, to take the matter a step further to the right, another study released earlier this year found that nearly half of women ages 18 and older feel society benefits when the man is the achiever outside the home, and the woman stays home to concentrate on nurturing hearth and family.

But the trend toward female conservatism extends well beyond the question of career. The second survey, conducted by the liberal Center for Gender Equality, also showed that three-quarters of women surveyed now say religion is very important in their lives (up 6 percent from two years ago); half say it would be better for politicians to be guided by religious values (up14 percent since 1993); and 70 percent favor more restrictions on abortion, including 40 percent who think it should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the mother's life, and 13 percent who would not permit it under any circumstances. Two years ago, 45 percent of women would have restricted abortion in those ways, compared with 53 percent today.

So what's pushing the ideological pendulum from left to right for women in particular? Among the myriad causes: increased activism among Christian and conservative women; backlash among younger women against bankrupt Boomer values; legions of black women who've grown weary of the crime and poverty caused by liberal social programs; the glaring irrelevance of the ultra-feminist agenda; and a rising awareness among women of the high moral price of the daycare culture.

For Colleen Kahl, 34, an evangelical Christian who bet the you-can-have-it-all feminist philosophy of the 1970s and '80s, the payoff was a vicious cycle of boomerang guilt. Plagued by guilt for never being with Hannah and Bryce, her then-6-year-old son, she also felt guilty for her sub-par job performance, which was, in turn, the reciprocal fallout of guilt caused by absentee mothering. The result: a nervous breakdown.

"It just wasn't worth it anymore," says Mrs. Kahl, a slim and pretty green-eyed blonde, "I was sacrificing my children for my career, and it was making me physically sick." Mrs. Kahl isn't alone. A 1979 Nickles and Ashcraft study showed that nearly half of working women felt career was as important as being a wife and mother. The 1998 version of the same study showed that number had fallen to just over a third.

"Trying to maintain a career and a family is taking a larger toll on the peace of daily life than I think anyone expected," says Janet Bernstel, a freelance writer and mother of two in West Palm Beach, Fla. Mrs. Bernstel describes herself as a social moderate: liberal on the subject of religion or a "higher power," but growing more conservative on issues like education and welfare. She says "there is no utopian arrangement" for balancing career and family. But she knows what Utopia is not: Last fall, she quit a lucrative position as managing editor of an online magazine.

Mrs. Bernstel now works from home so that she can spend more time with her kids, ages 2 and 7: "Women are rethinking their options and I think that is definitely a good thing."

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