Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Mummy Wars Revisited

This is a post from last November. I wanted to write about the mummy wars, but realized I had already done so. Hence a slightly edited rerun, in honor of the approaching summer. Its topic is every bit as current today as it was last year. More's the pity.

For those of you who have been asleep for the last hundred years in an enchanted castle surrounded by thorny rosebushes, Mummy Wars are the vicious argument ongoing between mothers who work outside the home and mothers who are full-time caretakers of their children, or sometimes between women with children and women without children. It also has a subcategory of fights about women on welfare and women who work.

Mummy Wars are not real wars. They look staged to me; as if they are there to entertain someone else. Who is the audience? Who made up the rules of these wars?

This is what I wrote on one of my bad-hair days: ( Even goddesses have them, and then our power turns not-so-nice. Well, ok. Goddesses don't have bad-hair days, but then I need to find a language to communicate with mere mortals, and hair seems to be one of those things everybody is allowed to be angry about, even women.) So rather, here is my view from above on a cloudy day when the rain whipped down with a vengeance:

U.S. women are sharply divided by motherhood and its meaning. The ferocious battles being waged over this have been called the Mummy Wars. But what we are observing is not so much a real war as a series of carefully orchestrated matches in a sports arena. In fact, Mummy Wars are best seen as a set of fights between Roman gladiators in the Colosseum:

The first match of each night is always between the teams Mothers and Others. The Mothers are armed with accusations of selfishness against those Others who could've joined Mothers but didn't, and condescending pity towards those Others who tried to join Mothers but couldn't. For a long time the Others had very puny weapons and predictably lost most matches, but recently they have wrought a sword out of accusations that Mothers get preferential treatment in the workplace. This should make future battles much more interesting to watch.

The second match of the night is a filler where Mothers Who Pull Their Weight butcher Mothers Who Are Welfare Queens. As the latter team has no weapons, the match is enjoyed by only the most sadistic of spectators.

The third match is the main event of the night, and always promises lots of blood and gore. The teams are the Stay-At-Home Mothers and the Employed Mothers. The Stay-At-Home Mothers fight mostly with accusations of selfish greed and child neglect. Although these weapons are few, the ferocity with which they are used makes the team a formidable opponent. The Employed Mothers have an interesting strategy: They appear to fight almost solely defensively by using individual freedom of choice as a shield. This is because the rules of this Colosseum forbid open attacks against Stay-At-Home Mothers. But covert maneuvres are always possible, and the Employed team uses them brilliantly by whispering that their opponents should really be called the Ladies Who Lunch or Mealticketed For Life.

The outcome of this match is never certain, but one thing is: if you get turned on by a protracted struggle resulting in lots of severed limbs and bleeding guts, this is the battle for you to watch.

The real Roman gladiators fought each other to please their spectators. This is something all of us fighting the Mummy Wars would do well to remember.

Nasty, isn't it? A suitable episode in the Mummy Wars. Of course it has a point, all sarcasm does, and the point is that these fights are orchestrated by the way the labor markets operate and by the way women are judged. Children are not really regarded as the responsibility of both parents, and employment is still based on the Victorian assumption that each worker has a full-time caretaker at home for all those annoying things that happen to people, you know, small children, elderly relatives and so on. Lipservice is paid to allowing re-entry to labor markets for those who take time off, but in reality such re-entry is rarely possible without considerable losses of pay and retirement benefits compared to what would have been gained from an uninterrupted career path. This is why I find even the term "Mummy Wars" so incredibly insulting: these fights are created by the often impossible constraints under which so many mothers function and by our cultural obliviousness to the needs of those who take care of small children. Women are pretty much told:"You better choose to have children OR to work, for only perfect worker bees are admirable and only perfect mothers are admirable. Too bad if you can't make this choice or don't want to make it. Then you are on your own. Actually, whatever you choose, you'll be on your own. Now, pass the popcorn."

Mummy Wars do give us all free entertainment, including those of us who are fathers. Yet there are no Daddy wars. Now, I'm not one of those goddesses who did things with immaculate conception. For there to be babies, mothers are needed, but so are fathers. And their place is not in the stands, munching on popcorn and rooting for one of the favorites or not. Come to think of it, most people who are in the stands shouldn't be there.

Take a different view of the Mummy Wars. One I took on a lovely, bright day while being adulated by my snakes.

The human cultures have a biased view of women. Mostly, men are seen as individuals, but women are seen only partially as individuals and largely as members of an amorphous mass 'womanhood'. Think of actors: male actors are not asked the sorts of questions that women actors are, about how they cope with combining family and career, about how they stay beautiful. Men are asked individual questions about their acting choices and lives. Women are asked largely 'woman' questions (how do you compare to other women?). And so on.

So all humans, to some extent, see women as a mass and men as individuals. If these humans happen to be women themselves, they will partly view themselves as individuals, but also keep asking themselves how they compare to others in the mass 'women'. All other women then affect their self-esteem; others' choices affect how right our choices look. If a woman stays at home with the children and another one works outside the home but also has children, their choices are not seen as independent of each other. One woman affects the other, her self-esteem and the society's judgment of her 'goodness'. And this effect goes both ways. A working mother will be blamed because she is not at home, a stay-at-home mother feels that her choices are made unimportant by the existence of women who appear to be able to both work for money and care for children. Thus, both feel exposed and criticized by the existence of the other's different life. Sisterhood? Not likely. But it doesn't have to be so.

There are three secret devices that cause the Mummy Wars. Two I have already referred to: the way work is organized in this society and the tendency to see women as an undifferentiated mass of femaleness, both by men and by women themselves, when in fact we are all individuals with different temperaments, talents, limitations and life situations. The third one is the presumption that if two women make opposite choices, one of these choices must be wrong. This I call false duality. It is false, because we don't apply it to people's choices in general. Matt may choose to enter into engineering, Jessica into medicine. Yet nobody would argue that EITHER Matt OR Jessica must be right.

But when we talk about the 'female' kinds of choices, suddenly one choice must be right and the other wrong. This is because we see all women as essentially the same woman in this sphere, and therefore it appears obvious that one of the choices is better than the other. This is wrong, an example of false dualism, and it is false because all women are not the same woman.

These two devices also explain why women often have the tendency to be more judgmental towards other women than men. What other women do affects the self-esteem of the judging woman. What men do has no such effect in general cases, because the same false dualism is not applied to men.

So we women (I'll count myself here as one, to look less judgmental here...) can be cruel to our sisters, we sometimes keep them in line, because if we don't do so, our own self-image might shatter. This is all so sad and all so unnecessary. If we could only climb over the obstacles of regarding womanhood as one amorphous lump and of making snappy falsely dualistic judgments we could actually approach some idea of realistic sisterhood, lower our weapons in the Mummy Wars and start to plan the truly necessary military campaign: how to reorganize work and family life to bring about a more humane world for both women and men.