Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Longest Revolution, Part II

Feminists call the women's movement of the 1960s and 70s, especially in the United States, the second wave of feminism. The first wave (which ended in the 1920s) won women the vote and the right to have some sort of a presence in the public sector. The second wave opened women the doors to most occupations. These waves, and others like them in earlier history, are not sudden inexplicable events. They are caused and made possible by societal and economic changes. The second wave, for example, grew out of the post-war attempt to redomesticate women, the already growing female labor market participation rate, and the political developments of the era which focused on equality and justice.

It is the nature of political movements to die when their main goals have been achieved, and this is what happened after both the first and the second wave. The backlash against emancipating women can be observed in the 1930s and at least since the 1980s. Here is Ray Strachey in Our Freedom and Its Results, published in 1936:

Modern young a strong hostility to the word "feminism", and all which they imagine it to connote. They are, nevertheless, themselves the products of the women's movement.

Sound familiar? And this was after the first wave...

These backlashes are responses to the gains feminism achieved, attempts to reverse these gains by those who have the most to lose from greater societal gender equality. Luckily, the backlashers have so far been unable to completely negate the gains of women though for each two steps forwards one step has been taken back.

I believe that we are still living the backlash to the second wave of feminism. The attempts to reverse Roe v. Wade, the religious right's desire to institute sex-segregated education, the fight against Title IX which guarantees girls and women equal access to education as well as the resistance towards anti-discrimination laws are all signs of this backlash. I would also include the many recent articles on women opting out of the labor force, on the framing of boys' problems at school as being caused by feminism and the Limbaugh-type name-calling of feminists in the backlash movement.

This, then is the background against which I read Linda Hirshman's article: that we are still living in the gloomy years of backlash and that everything we read must be interpreted in this framework. And indeed, Hirshman shows us how the backlash works on employed mothers:

But then the pace slowed. The census numbers for all working mothers leveled off around 1990 and have fallen modestly since 1998. In interviews, women with enough money to quit work say they are "choosing" to opt out. Their words conceal a crucial reality: the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism. Add to this the good evidence that the upper-class workplace has become more demanding and then mix in the successful conservative cultural campaign to reinforce traditional gender roles and you've got a perfect recipe for feminism's stall.

Indeed. It would be rather astonishing to find that feminism wouldn't stall given the enormous amount of conservative pushing in the anti-feminist direction and the fact pointed out in the above quote: that gender equality in the private sector, especially at home, is still an unattained goal of feminism. Not that second wave feminists didn't try; I have read dozens of books advocating the sharing of housework and childraising, and some minor progress can be noticed even here. But achieving full equality at home requires something more than women's eager participation in another revolution. It requires men's active participation, too, and so far the society does not reward men for such participation. Neither does the new men's rights movement attach any importance whatsoever on the kind of fathering that all men deserve to experience: hands-on and daily. Rather, the movement is more interested in returning us to a pre-1960s status quo.

So what is a feminist woman to do in this situation? Clearly, women follow various strategies and as pointed out by Hirshman, some of them are more damaging to the general progress of women than others. To give one example, if many educated women decide not to use their degrees in the world of work how long will it take before we start reading about the waste of societal resources on the higher education of women? It's worth pointing out that graduate education is highly subsidized by the general society and that tuition only pays a small fraction of the costs of, say, a medical degree. If women don't plan to use this subsidized education should they really have equal access to it? And as the original article points out, where will we get the female decision-makers of the future if the current crop of educated women retreats from the public sector altogether?

But it's good to remember that women are put into a double-bind here, as I pointed out in the first part of this post. Hirshman is correct when she argues that the gendered allocation of work at home is to blame for this. The right-wing propaganda aiming at causing guilt among employed mothers isn't helping, and neither is the unresponsiveness of the labor market to the needs of parents.

All this is hidden when feminism is interpreted as the idea of increasing women's choices. I find the idea of feminism as "choice" very close to feminism "lite", something that advertisements employ to make us buy more stuff we don't need, something so vague and generalized that it doesn't ultimately mean anything. Almost anything can be framed as a choice, after all, including the "choice" to become subjugated to a religious wingnut godly husband.

Add to this the fact that when most people hear the term "choice" they immediately visualize a situation of leisurely freedom, a situation of someone picking, say, the favorite color of a t-shirt or a dessert from a restaurant menu. This connotation of "choice" totally ignores how choices are made under constraints of power, of societal gender roles and of money. It is not at all clear that women's choices to drop out or not are "free" choices.

Choices also have consequences. As Hirshman points out, when couples with children calculate the financial effects of hiring a nanny or having one partner (usually the woman) stay at home with the children the calculations are often done not only unfairly in the sense of deducting all the costs from the potential stay-at-home parent's earnings but also shortsightedly by ignoring the long-term effects of the stay-at-home parent's financial outlook. Women and men who drop out of the labor force for longer periods of time never really catch up to their continuously working counterparts and their retirement incomes will be diminished. These costs should be taken into account in the financial calculations.

And choices have societal consequences, although these are probably unimportant in the private calculations of individual men and women. Nevertheless, if the stay-at-home parents are almost always women employers will start assuming that most, if not all, women will quit working in the middle of their careers. Why train such women? Why promote them? Though not doing so might be illegal we all know that such calculations are being made by those hiring and promoting workers all the time, and the overall effect of this will be to depress women's average earnings. This, in turn, will almost guarantee that it is the women who are going to stay at home if someone is, because the loss of their earned income will be less. Circles within circles.

At the same time, parents are concerned about the rearing of their children, and most want to spend time with them. Childcare can be difficult to find and of low quality, and when good childcare is available it will be expensive. The labor market is not kind and gentle towards parents with small children or towards anyone with caregiving obligations and the parental leave in this country is a truly nasty joke for most. And, as Hirshman points out, taking care of children is very much seen as the mothers' responsibility.

Maybe the third wave of feminism will solve these problems. Or maybe not. It could be that a wholesale refusal by educated women to have children would force the necessary changes in the societal value judgements and the labor markets. But I doubt that, and most women do want to have children.

In the absence of a new wave of feminism, Hirshman advice to a career-minded young woman is well worth considering:

There are three rules: Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don't put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.

The preparation stage begins with college. It is shocking to think that girls cut off their options for a public life of work as early as college. But they do. The first pitfall is the liberal-arts curriculum, which women are good at, graduating in higher numbers than men. Although many really successful people start out studying liberal arts, the purpose of a liberal education is not, with the exception of a miniscule number of academic positions, job preparation.

So the first rule is to use your college education with an eye to career goals. Feminist organizations should produce each year a survey of the most common job opportunities for people with college degrees, along with the average lifetime earnings from each job category and the characteristics such jobs require. The point here is to help women see that yes, you can study art history, but only with the realistic understanding that one day soon you will need to use your arts education to support yourself and your family. The survey would ask young women to select what they are best suited for and give guidance on the appropriate course of study. Like the rule about accepting no dates for Saturday after Wednesday night, the survey would set realistic courses for women, helping would-be curators who are not artistic geniuses avoid career frustration and avoid solving their job problems with marriage.

Very good advice. I have been shocked to find that a large number of the women I have talked to admit that they paid no attention to the profitability of the field of work they chose until it was too late to do much about it. Remember the circles within circles? Given the fact that most men choose their careers largely based on income potential this gender disparity means that it will be the women who will opt out or at least bear the brunt of household and childrearing tasks.

Why this difference in the economic awareness of men and women? I suspect that it is mostly a reflex-like leftover from the era of traditional gender roles though some individuals probably make these choices consciously, too. Whichever the case, a career-minded woman should pay much more attention to what she studies and how she treats her job.

Avoiding a marriage or a partnership with someone who has access to more resources might also be good advice if it can be achieved, and so is the emphasis on more equal sharing of chores:

If you are good at work you are in a position to address the third undertaking: the reproductive household. The rule here is to avoid taking on more than a fair share of the second shift. If this seems coldhearted, consider the survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy. Fully 40 percent of highly qualified women with spouses felt that their husbands create more work around the house than they perform. According to Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling's Career Mystique, "When couples marry, the amount of time that a woman spends doing housework increases by approximately 17 percent, while a man's decreases by 33 percent."

And please remember the chore of keeping track of the chores in the fair division of labor within the home. Almost nothing is as soul-draining as having to be the one who is always in charge of remembering whether the toilet paper has run out, whether there is enough milk for the morning cereal and whether Fido's veterinarian appointment was this week or the next.

Struggles. A lot of individual struggles. It would probably be more efficient to just initiate the third wave of feminism and get some real change in the societal institutions. What would such a movement look like? As I mentioned earlier, it would certainly have to include men in much more active roles and it would have to address the question of who does what at home as well as at work. But I also believe that we need much more discussion on the value of the unpaid and paid work done in households, including the work of caring for children and for the elderly, and more real societal valuation of those who do such work. True, we pay lip service to the mothers (and fathers) who care for their children or to the daughters (and sons) who care for their elderly parents, but we expect them to do all this work without any more compensation than perhaps bread and board and while sacrificing their own future prospects. And paid providers of care are not only paid poorly but on the whole distrusted and viewed as inferior to the unpaid providers.

There are women (and men) who want nothing but a flourishing career from this life, and there are other women (and men) who want nothing but a life spent at home. But if meaningful work is bread and meaningful relationships roses most of us want both. We cannot live by bread alone and we cannot eat the roses. A society that demands we "choose" between the two is indeed ripe for a new feminist movement.