By JUDITH WARNER
A couple of weeks ago, Bridget Kevane, a professor of Latin American and Latino literature at Montana State University, drove her three kids and two of their friends - two 12-year-old girls, and three younger kids, age 8, 7 and 3 - to a mall near their home in Bozeman. She put the 12-year-olds in charge, and told them not to leave the younger kids alone. She ordered that the 3-year-old remain in her stroller. She told them to call her on their cell phone if they needed her.
And then she drove home for some rest.
About an hour later, she was summoned back to the mall by the police, who charged her with endangering the welfare of her children.
"Be quiet," she was told, as she scrambled to explain herself, and a policeman threatened, as Kevane describes it in the current issue of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, "that if I 'went crazy' on him, he would handcuff me right in front of the children and take me away to jail for the night."
The children were fine - "smiling, eating candy" - or were, at least, until the police decided to make an example of their mom.
The city attorney who took on Kevane's case decided to do the same thing. She refused to hear of slapping Kevane on the wrist or accepting a guilty plea for anything less than "violating a duty of care," a child endangerment charge punishable by jail time.
Now, we can debate until we're blue in the face whether or not Kevane should have left those three young children alone with the 12-year-olds. The pre-teens in question, it seems pretty clear, didn't have the maturity to be entrusted with the care of younger kids; despite what Kevane calls their solid "experience" babysitting, they ditched their charges in the purse section by the cosmetics counter in Macy's while they went off to try on some shirts, setting off the whole sorry adventure with law enforcement.
That still doesn't mean that Kevane's error in judgment adds up to anything like child endangerment.
The issue I want to take up today, however, is not that of tricky choices, or over- or under-involved parenting, questions that have already been discussed with much gusto elsewhere. What really sent my head spinning after reading Kevane's story was the degree to which it drove home the fact that our country's resentment, and even hatred, of well-educated, apparently affluent women, is spiraling out of control.
The prosecutor pursued her child endangerment case ultra-zealously because she "said she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their 'heads are always in a book,'" Kevane writes. "I just think that even individuals with major educations can commit this offense, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education," the prosecutor wrote to Kevane's lawyer.
Kevane reflects, "I now realize that her pressure - her near obsession with having me plead guilty - had less to do with what I had done and more to do with her perception of me as an outsider who thought she was above the law, who had money to pay her way out of a mistake, who thought she was smarter than the Bozeman attorney because of her 'major education.' This perception took hold even though I had never spoken one word to her directly. Nor did I ever speak in court; only my lawyer did. I was visible but silent, and thus unable to shake the image that the prosecutor had created of me: a rich, reckless, highly educated outsider mother who probably left her children all the time in order to read her books."
This simmering resentment is common and pervasive in our culture right now. The idea that women with a "major education" think they're better than everyone else, have a great sense of entitlement, feel they deserve special treatment, and are too out of touch with the lives of "normal" women to have a legitimate point of view, is a 21st-century version of the long-held belief that education makes women uppity and leads them to forget their rightful place. It's precisely the kind of thinking that has fueled Sarah Palin's unlikely - and continued - ability to pass herself off as the consummately "real" American woman. (And it is what has made it possible for her supporters to discredit other women's criticism of her as elitist cat fighting.)
The idea that these women really should "be quiet" comes through loud and clear every time. Men, you may or may not have noticed, are virtually never accused of "whining" when they talk or speak out about their lives. When well-educated, affluent men write about other well-educated, affluent men - and isn't that what most political reporting and commentary is? - they are never said to be limited by the "narrowness" of their scope and experience. Well-educated fathers are not perceived as less real, authentic or decent than less-educated fathers. Even professor-dads, as far as I can tell, don't have to labor to prove that they're human.
The idea that women with "major educations" are somehow suspect, the desire to smack them down and tell them "to be quiet" is hardly new. At the end of the 19th century, as increasing numbers of women began for the first time to pursue higher education, a campaign began, waged by prominent doctors, among others, against these new unnatural monsters, whose vital energies were being diverted from their wombs to their brains. In the last quarter of the 20th century, feminists were routinely delegitimized as brainy elitists ignorant of and unconcerned with the plight of ordinary women.
It made no difference how much work groups like the National Organization for Women did on behalf of battered or economically powerless women. It made no difference how much advocacy was done for legislation promoting pay equity (a particularly acute problem for women at the lower end of the economic spectrum) or for affordable child care. The media - then as now - was interested only in more educated, more affluent women, and so it was these women who came to define the women's movement in the popular imagination. And it was these women, too, who came to be identified with social change, and who came to be despised when that change proved frightening and difficult.
This is why Palin - in her down-home aw-shucks posturing - is the 21st-century face of the backlash against women's progress. This is why Kevane could be threatened and humiliated in front of her kids, menaced with jail time and ultimately railroaded into cutting a deal with the prosecution, once she realized she'd never be popular enough with local jurors to have a shot at making a successful not-guilty plea in court. (Paradox of paradoxes, as part of her deferred prosecution agreement, she was sentenced to even more education: in the form of a parenting class.)
The hatred of women - in all its archaic, phantasmagoric forms - is still alive and well in our society, and when directed at well-educated women, it's socially acceptable, too. Think of this for a second the next time you're inexplicably moved to put an "elite" woman in her place.