Driving sideways

I am no longer a young lady. As the teenaged boy who hands me the program at The Game reminds me, "miss" yielded to "ma'am" some time ago. For the most part, I don't miss "miss." I have indeed been lucky since Yale, blessed with work I love, a man I cherish, and two children of surpassing loveliness.

This year, once again, The Game is about The Boy. My fifth-grader, the younger and more sports-obsessed of my sons, is on my arm and for now, if not for much longer, happy to be there. He has promised to explain to me the art and mystery of football, which will take some doing.

This time, there is no pink angora. I dress for warmth and comfort, in Ibex woolens tip to toe, much like my Malcolm. When the wind kicks up in the second quarter, our long underwear saves us. How the coeds manage it in leggings, bare-headed, we can't imagine. Having sensed that some Yale mufti was called for, I am wearing the baseball cap I dug out of the swag bag from my 25th reunion last May. As the wind howls, I'm forced to cover it with my hoodie—which I realize, too late, is a deep shade of crimson.

We are sitting in the end zone. Our seats, in the front row of the bleachers, feet on the field, afford a curious perspective: so close, but so partial, the teams always working their way toward or away from us. They advance and retreat seemingly by inches, a stop-motion war of attrition waged over a few yards of artificial turf. Malcolm counsels patience. I tell him about Verdun.

At the beginning of the second half, the plodding march is punctuated by one long breathtaking run, as Harvard's wide receiver, Marco Iannuzzi, surges 84 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 14–14. Or so Malcolm says when I return to my seat, having heard the crowd erupt while I was in the women's bathroom, a surprisingly elegant affair jury-rigged in a trailer. Silk flower arrangements fill a quartet of unsullied urinals. Perhaps the 5,000 women of Harvard want that sort of thing.

Back on the field, the Harvard squad thunders past Yale's 10-yard line, almost into our laps. We can see them dance and feint and tumble. "They are really built, Mom!" Malcolm whispers, awestruck. "Just look at their thighs."

Me, I worry about their necks. Two helmet-to-helmet smash-ups take place during the second half—both accidental, Malcolm insists. The second is clearly serious. Yale's man, Jesse Reising '11, a 6-foot-3-inch 223-pound linebacker from Decatur, Illinois, stays down way too long. First the players, then the cheerleaders, drop to one knee in formation: a cross between a Marine honor guard and the Rockettes in mourning. Paramedics arrive on the field. Ever the optimist, Malcolm whispers, "Omigod, Mom, I think number 10 is paralyzed." After ten agonizing minutes, the team gets the signal: he is not. Reising is strapped to the stretcher and wheeled off the field to soft applause. How do their moms endure it, week on week, watching their breakable boys collide?

Too soon, the cheering resumes. "Harvard sucks!" the Yale side shouts, with diminishing conviction.

"Actually, they don't, Mom," Malcolm confides. And the scoreboard—showing 21–14, then 28–14—proves his point.

The Game grinds on toward Harvard's ninth victory in a decade. Malcolm rubs my shoulder and gently tells me to abandon hope. Why? "Because there are five minutes left, Yale's down 14 points, and Harvard has possession, is why. It doesn't look good, Mom." The man seated behind us—a computer science graduate student, we decide—tells his girlfriend: "It's whoever has the most points at the end." Malcolm rolls his eyes and smiles: somebody actually knows less than his mother. He ups the ante, schooling me on the short punt and the flea-flicker. Do I have any questions?

Only existential ones: are they mostly just trying to distract each other from what matters? And why do they spend so much time running sideways? Even from the end zone, I can see that most of the game is lateral. These powerful young men give every ounce they have just to hang on to what they've got. Here in the middle of the Great Recession, perhaps football rather than baseball best symbolizes the state of the American dream. "You can't just advance in a straight line," Malcolm explains, "not when the linemen are blocking you."

Are the linemen still blocking us? The Women's Table in front of Sterling Library, with its spiraling sequence of female graduate totals, tells a story of expansion. In many ways that story is true. Yale now has more female students than at any time in its long history, nearly 1,100 more than were enrolled the year I graduated. This year, women outnumber men in Yale College and in the university at large—an anomaly but hardly a surprise. Girls now outperform boys in American classrooms.

The number of female professors has grown considerably, too. Yale tenured its first female professor in 1952. Today, tenured women make up nearly 30 percent of the university's senior professoriate. The vast majority of academic units have at least one tenured female faculty member. The history department has nine, as many as any department in the faculty of arts and sciences (though other departments have higher percentages). It would be possible to graduate from Yale without having been taught by an eminent female scholar. But it would take some trying. The glass is still not half full, but it's less empty than it once was.

Yet the wage gap persists. My senior year, the year of the great clerical and technical strike that had Yalies eating ramen noodles out of hotpots for weeks on end and ended with the first contract for Local 34, Yale's pink-collar union, stickers went up in bathroom stalls around the campus reading "59 cents." That, the fine print explained, was how much a working woman earned for every dollar paid to a man. Twenty-six years later, the figure stands at a giddy 77 cents, down from its all-time high of 77.8 in 2007. From less than two-thirds to shy of four-fifths—not much of a quarter-century fund.

Opinions differ sharply about the cause. Conservatives frame the issue as a matter of choice: women want to work fewer hours, and so elect less demanding, lower-paying jobs, or drop out of the workforce entirely. Liberals blame entrenched structures of discrimination: try as they will, women cannot crack a ceiling made of bulletproof glass.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you will find what both sides agree upon: motherhood is the heart of the matter. This is as true, and as intractable, in academia as it is in pink-collar work. A decades-long study by the National Science Foundation documents what most female professors already know in their bones, that we pay a price for childbearing, a price reckoned both in tenure and in wages. Women with children are less likely to earn tenure than women without them; women with tenure are less likely to have children—or life partners—than their male peers. Nearly two-thirds of women in the social sciences and the humanities have no children after taking their doctorates. By contrast, male faculty members experience a positive career return on marriage and childbearing.

My older son was born almost a year to the day after I published my first book. It was an easy pregnancy, though my hospital chart noted in large letters my "AMA"—advanced maternal age—of 35. Gray hair, tenure, and diapers came into my life at about the same time, a coincidence that transcends good luck and verges on grace.

The grays have since taken over, and the diapers, thank goodness and alas, are long gone. When my female graduate students ask me what to do about the uncomfortable fact of their fertility—what the "right" moment is, and whether it comes only after tenure—the answer seems obvious, as clear and as near to me as a picture of my sons. Don't wait. The shortest, gladdest years of life are the fast-fleeting ones with these boys still tumbling about the house.

My sons like sporty girls, powerful girls. They have no truck with the hair-tossing, lip-glossing, Ugg boot–worshipping set—at least not yet. They prefer girls in sneakers, the ones who can race them to the end zone, as long as they don't dance too much when they score the winning touchdown.

I like to think that some of these schoolgirls will stay fast enough and smart enough and tough enough to make it to Yale, daughters of Eli for the year 2020. May they march, march on down the field, in boots or in cleats, breaking through all the lines that remain. And may my sons be there to applaud, and worry after their necks. Good luck, young ladies. You still need it. 

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