Feminism redux

It could reflect only my previous ignorance, but I feel like Feminism and women’s issues have been getting a lot of play lately. We had Mareen Dowd’s urban-white-successful-girls’ lament1 about how hard it is to find a husband. Then there was Linda Hirshman’s article in the American Prospect describing the “Opt-Out Revolution” (educated women dropping out of careers to be stay-at-home moms) and decrying the brand of feminism that says this is okay if it’s their choice (“choice feminism”). It was an excellent article, if extreme in it’s view that educated women ought always to put careers first, and try to marry dumber, younger, less successful men to make sure they continue to be the bread-winner.

The death of Betty Friedan stirred up the feminist discussion once again and propted Salon editor-in-chief Joan Walsh to enter the fray with “Feminism After Friedan“, which criticizes Hirshman’s absolutism and tries to find some balance in the debate over whether educated stay-at-home moms can be consistent with feminism.

Meanwhile, there was the Samual Elito confirmation. And, spouting bullshit about the “war on boys”, some conservatives are advocating affirmative action for boys entering college (the poor blokes aren’t the majority anymore), and aparently some colleges are already subtly practicing it. What’s more, they tell us all this education is only going get women a harder time finding husbands and raising families, and thus being happy.

There’s significant evidence that men don’t like women who are smarter. They don’t like women who are more successful. They don’t even like women who are funnier.2 What an astoundingly insecure lot we are. Yet somehow, marriage makes people happy (though kids, apparently, do not).

There’s a thorny conceptual challenge at the heart of this mess, which, like many feminists and humanists, I’m still struggling with to develop an opinion. It is fair for women, even successful and educated ones, to want a family and the fulfillment it offers. Unlike Linda Hirshman, I don’t think the workplace is necessarily a greater place for human expression than the home. Betty Friedan asserted that housework could not require enough thought or energy to challenge women. She seemed to think of life as essentially progressive, and that moving forward, leaving one’s mark on the world, is the full expressions of one’s humanity. Work is implicitly a progressive activity in her view, whereas home life is about living vicariously through the progression of your family. But there are a lot of jobs that are no less inane than tending house. And a lot of people feel raising and providing opportunities for their children is the ultimate progressive act.

On the other hand, if more women choose to accept traditional roles, fewer women are able to choose at all. There is still clearly a battle raging for gender equality, less so in the workplace and more so in the home, if one agrees with Walsh. Women seem to be in the position now of having career responsibilities and family responsibilities (or at least of desiring both), creating a tension that doesn’t exist for men, who have not been expected to shoulder much of the family burden. Conservatives advocate a “separate but equal” approach to gender roles. They say “family is what you really want; give back the career.” And those who “opt out” appear to agree. But this approach leads in a dangerous direction. We’ve seen how well separate remains equal before.

I expect there is some new organization of society which will eventually solve this problem — when there is a critical mass of stay-at-home dads, or when technology and labor reorganization (e.g. day care) have so reduced the burden of homemaking that neither parent is expected to stay home. And I would love to see what gender differences look like in absense of social conditioning (how much does biology really matter?). But I tend to believe Hirshman’s claim that feminism is stalled. How do we move toward this new paradigm? And how can women balance their lives in the mean time?

I hope for comments.

  1. “What’s a Modern Girl to Do? New York Times. October 30, 2005. [Lexis-Nexis]
  2. Strike previous three statements and replace with statistically precise and rhetorically clumsy analogues. []
  1. #1 written by pepperedjane February 16th, 2006 at 09:34

    I was reading this article, Betty Friedan, in the The Nation yesterday and was really struck by what the columnist shared. Friedan envisioned world of equality, where women were given the same kind of opportunities for human expression and development as men. I agree whole-heartedly, and I question socialization that still, after 30 years, seems to make child-rearing the only real job for a woman to have.
    I like this point,
    “Or maybe the mystique is gone but the structural obstacles it obscured are still there: job discrimination, the old boys’ network, workaholic job cultures, lack of childcare. ”

    I hope there is a new society to come. I wonder how gender differences play out in other countries? In my limited interaction with Europeans in a work setting, I find they seem to be more willing to treat me as an equal.

    But if folks want to pair off and raise a family, I think there is a need for equal sharing of child-rearing (something my male friends seem keen on). Even more revolutionary (and, gasp, socialist) would be collective rearing of children. Perhaps not kibbutz style, but a system that takes a step away from the nuclear family model and helps everyone share the load. It also opens up child-rearing to those who can’t conceive on their own, and allows children to see different models of love beyond the man-woman pairing.

    RE Q
  2. #2 written by joshuah February 16th, 2006 at 12:53

    You know, we have talked about collective child-rearing before, and I basically think it’s a good idea for practical reasons, but I hadn’t thought about it playing a part in gender equality. I might be a kind of “third way” in the who-takes-responsibility-for-the-kids dilem.

    I wish I knew how to get people to act more collectively in general. We might have to get them to stop living in the suburbs first.

    RE Q
  3. #3 written by allison February 16th, 2006 at 13:26

    whoa. I just clicked the comment box specifically to suggest raising children collectively. Great minds! great minds….

    Has anyone seen actual proof that children raised in homes without a stay-at-home parent are less successful? Or is that just an urban legend?

    In any case, my visceral reaction to women chosing to be a housewife over having a career is wanting to scream “the womyn’s movement happened! It did! You can have it all!” But ultimately I think the New Feminism will be supporting womyn in whatever choices they (we) make.

    Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that this (also the main cirticism of Friedan’s work) is a debate for the wealthy and upper middle class. How many families truly get to choose whether or not a parent can stay at home regardless of gender? Especially with the economy going the way it is and all of the social program cuts in the new budget. Which only proves my point that George Bush does hate babies.

    RE Q

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