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Bookworm: Educated women – a class apart?

Your mother worked for as long as you can remember.

Whether inside the house or out, for money or motherhood, she worked — hard. She might not have had prestige. Maybe she was a cog in a wheel in a factory or in a corporation. Or she might have pulled 24-hour days without ever leaving home.

XX FactorMaybe she still works, and so do you. But who’s better off? Read the new book “The XX Factor,” by Alison Wolf, and you might be surprised.

For much of the last century, women’s lives were relatively the same. Once they married, they quit work and focused on home and hearth because that was what society expected. Today’s women, though, have “become a class apart,” says Wolf. Their gender “does not define their fate.”

Then again, some women — the “highly educated” ones, the “elite” — have surely defined the fates of their poorer sisters, in both work and family. One key difference between the two classes of women, Wolf says, is in childbearing.

Today’s elite women have fewer children than their less-educated counterparts, partly because they’re eager to (or must) return to work more quickly. There’s also “overwhelming evidence that money affects the birth rate”: Poorer families are larger, earlier, while highly educated women statistically have babies later in life — or they’re “not having babies at all.”

Money also rears its ugly head in the rearing of those children. Because elite women return to work sooner, they often rely on paid nannies to help with the kids. This, and the “outsourcing” of other domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning, Wolf indicates, has created a class of workers that she calls “servants.”

Servants, as you’d expect, are not “elite.”

And even with this new “class” of workers helping at home, women still assume the larger share of domestic chores. This inequality between men and women endures (though Wolf indicates that this gap is narrowing), but that’s not the bigger issue: the inequality between elite women and lower-income women continues to widen. This leaves us, in part, with a dearth of educated workers in certain essential (but un-flashy) careers, lingering inequality and “not much sisterhood.”

I really wanted to like this book. Alas, I didn’t much.

“The XX Factor” is, first of all, not very engaging. No, it’s downright staid, and only occasionally interesting, perhaps because it felt repetitive to me. Author Wolf drives her points home with a sledgehammer, which isn’t needed for the educated reader for whom she’s reaching.

What’s worse is the controversy. Wolf makes too many generalizations in this book. She claims that working women often “behave … like men,” and I’m afraid dedicated legions of teachers and nurses may feel insulted here. I also had to question if a chapter on sex, strippers and prostitution was truly warranted in a book on today’s modern workplace.

Overall, there are a few points well made, but this book is a struggle. Unless you want to delve into statistics and controversy, I believe “The XX Factor” is a book you can cross off your reading list.