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Celibacy for Career Women?


By Frederick Sontag | June 1987
Frederick Sontag is Denison Professor of Philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, California. His numerous books include The Future of Theology: A Philosophical Basis for Contemporary Protestant Theology and, most recently, The Elements of Philosophy.

Celibacy for men is at least as old as monastic orders. It is a form of voluntary abstinence, a sacrifice made in the hope of accomplishing greater goals. However, practicing abstinence where bodily pleasure is concerned has been none too popular of late. Full exploration has been thought to be the way to prove that you are fully human. However, injuries resulting from injudicious experiments have caused some to consider the virtues of voluntary abstinence once again.

What about celibacy for women? Women’s religious orders are almost as old as those for men, although of late their attractiveness has been decreasing. However, celibacy for religious reasons is not my concern here, but rather celibacy as it might be part of the movement for full equality of opportunity for women. Traditionally, women have been at a disadvantage with men because biology has ordained them to be the child-bearers. I have long thought that Samantha Firestone was right when she put her finger on childbirth as the item that keeps women at a disadvantage.

According to Firestone (and many others), carrying the fetus for nine months, giving birth, and then nursing the infant create a special bond between mother and child that is not duplicated in the father’s relationship, no matter how devoted and attentive he may be. The simple awkwardness of pregnancy, the time out for childbirth and recovery, plus the mother’s attachment all interrupt the career mother’s fast-paced plans and give her male competitors an advantage. Who “covers the territory” while the new mother is tied up? Can she work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, as is necessary, to make it to the top of the Wall Street law firm? What will happen to her stock-market clients if the market falls while she is indisposed with morning sickness?

Of course, there have always been and still are professions not quite so antithetical to motherhood, which women flocked to in the past because of that fact. “The three best reasons for teaching are June, July, and August,” plus a shorter working day and a profession in which it is possible to start and stop, or come back to later in life, without too much loss of professional standing. But teaching and similar professions have not satisfied all women, and today such persons are asking for full equality in the top echelons of business, law, and politics. Fine. But what sacrifices are required if that is the goal? And, is top professionalism in every aspect of life compatible with motherhood? These are the hard questions. It is possible to write a short story while the laundry is being done or the baby nursed, but conquering Wall Street is a full-time occupation that allows no time out.

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