Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Baby in the Briefcase! Look What Feminism Did!

Here's something for you to ponder:  The role of the Atlantic Monthly in the gender wars.  I first spotted it when Caitlin Flanagan ruled supreme about the desirability of returning to imaginary 1950s gender roles, it continued with articles which told uppity women that the sky is falling (no good men), that men are going extinct  (The End of Men) and it may have culminated with that blog post about how men are discriminated against in the US economy.  Though perhaps that was not the culmination.  I may be just oversensitive because I got called feminist scum in the comments.

But most recently the Atlantic seems to try to eat its cake and save it, too, by posting two at least quasi-feminist takes on the issues of women and work.  Well, on the issues of pretty well-off educated women and the kind of work they are trained for.

This post is about one of those two articles, Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece fetchingly titled
Why Women Still Can't Have It All

 Too bad that the whole message for those sailing past the actual article is in what I have shown you here because the article is much more complicated though still essentialist.   But that short message is the usual one the Atlantic Monthly has been sending to uppity women.

I encourage you to read Slaughter's article because she makes several good points.  But I also urge you to notice that the scenario she discusses involves living apart from her family during the weekdays while her husband takes care of their two young sons.  It is this arrangement that raises her doubts about whether women can have it all.  Of course any parent living apart from his or her family cannot have it all, given that the family is in another geographic location.   That's also true for the Philippine nannies who come to the US while leaving their own children at home.

I'm utterly sick of something that crops up in this context, so sick that I need to write about it before discussing any of the issues Slaughter brings up in her piece.

This is the way feminism, out of all social justice movements, is the only one blamed for anything that might go wrong in women's lives.  Advocate for  wider avenues for women?  If they are not as wide as we may have hoped, blame feminists, that lazy work crew which should have fixed the roads by now!

Urge women who want to have a career to pursue it?  You get told off for "having sold a fiction to younger women."

You know, I have read extensively in the literature of the second wave of feminism and I don't recall anyone promising that all women can have it all or  that there would be no resistance for entrenched sexism.  Such a book probably exists somewhere but the "have-it-all"  phrase probably came out of silly popularizations.  Do people really believe that anyone,  man or woman, can have it all?  To rephrase the idea that women, just as men, have a right to have both a family and meaningful work has now become "have it all?"  And nope, you cannot have it!

All that feminism-bashing!   Even Slaughter refers to that silly study about why women are presumably less happy now than when they were all tethered to their traditional roles!  That must be the fault of feminism so let's turn back the clock!

Be my guest.  Better still, turn it back to Afghanistan-time and see whether the work of past feminists had any value at all.

It's enough to make a goddess want to give up.

Now to the meat in the article:  Slaughter's own personal example of "no-she-couldn't-have-it-all" is an extreme case because she clearly is having it all with her academic job (if "having it all" means both meaningful full-time  work and time with the family).  But the points she makes are relevant for women in less high-flying occupations:  The US labor market is still organized on the implicit assumption that every worker has a wife at home to take care of everything.

This can  amounts to structural discrimination  when combined with the expected gender of those who are responsible for the running of the household, the care of minor children and the care of elderly and sick relatives.

Slaughter's essentialist argument is a bit trickier to handle.  She appears to state that had it been her husband who spent weeks in Washington D.C. while she continued working at Princeton and taking care of the children it all would have worked out better.  Her reason is that she felt she cared more than her husband did, in essence.   In the attached video she argues for a different essentialist explanation:  That with three males in the house her presence was needed to balance the testosterone.

What about the implications of this piece, then?  It has several good points, about the arrangements in the labor market and about the fact that most of us do really want to have both love and work, just as we need both food and water.   It mentions that work-home balance is an issue younger men are also confronted with because of the more involved fathers of the current generation.  And it urges for societal change, not just individual adaptations.

On the other hand, it's about a very privileged situation and some of the undertow is not helpful for most mothers in the labor force who need the paycheck and need good and affordable daycare.  Things like flexible work arrangements tend not to seep down in these kinds of organizations.  They are mostly helpful in the more powerful types of jobs.  And it's still true that the employers are not going to reward women for being family-centered,  rather the reverse, because that is seen as a signal about someone planning to quit.

Which means that the societal change she is looking for might be slow in coming.

Oh, I nearly forgot!  Do read Rebecca Traister's take on this.