Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Why Women "Prefer" Less Or Should Accept Less

That title reflects my understanding of these two recent New Republic articles by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig.  In the first one she argues that mothers prefer part-time work over full-time work and that perhaps we should not push more women into full-time work ("we" being the ubiquitous feminist powers), but should make it easier for women to work part-time.

The second one argues that what Pope Francis has achieved for women should be lauded by those same feminists, even if it sorta falls short on most actual measures.

So I want to spend a bit more time on each of these articles, to tell why my reaction is the title of this post.

The "Liberate Women From Full-Time Work" article states that most mothers (with children under eighteen) "prefer" part-time work and that the US should make it easier for that to be an option.

To support her thesis, she quotes Holland (see my post from 2010 about that) and a Pew Survey from 2013.  The Pew Survey from 2013 she didn't use is one I wrote about then here.  That may be because the latter survey suggests that fathers and mothers are becoming much more similar in their parenting roles.  The survey she links to is about mothers' preferences for part-time work.

That omission is important, because Bruenig begins with the term "prefer," defined oddly, or rather undefined:

While some women are forced out of the office by childbirth, it appears a significant proportion of women would prefer never to be stuck with full-time work in the first place. Data collected by the Pew Research Center shows not only that women are more likely to work part-time, but that women with children largely prefer to work part-time. The fact that single mothers prefer full-time to part-time work in greater numbers than married mothers suggests that the desire for full-time work is likely a function of financial necessity rather than a matter of pure personal ambition.
But what does "prefer" really mean?  Does Bruenig intend us to accept that mothers would prefer part-time work even if, say, their partners were taking care of the children?  Or participating equally in that care?  Or if there was better daycare available?  And does she mean that mothers also prefer the consequences of part-time work:  usually no retirement benefits, for example?

This is an important point.  The whole article is based on looking at mothers in isolation from their constraints (except for single mothers), and those constraints include the fact that mothers are expected to be and/or want to be, the main caregivers of their children.  Bruenig has painted fathers out of the picture, which is of course what the Pew Survey she linked to also did.  It didn't ask if fathers would prefer to work part-time themselves, for example.

But Bruenig goes a bit further, by suggesting that childcare costs are deducted from only the mother's potential salary, to determine if she should work, not from the salaries of both parents.  That's because she has set up the question from the assumption that parenting is women's job.

The wider problem is that the word "preference" is often understood as meaning what people like, without noticing that in most questions of the type Pew asked the answers are a combination of one's own desires, socially planted desires and norms and the actual constraints people face.

Suppose that those women in the Pew Survey had been asked if they'd like to work full-time in the absence of any children.  If they then  had picked part-time work we'd have a stronger case for a pure preference.  But then most men would probably also prefer to work part-time if doing so had zero negative effects on their career, earnings and retirement benefits!

Bruenig argues that part-time work should be made easier for women by, for example by instituting child benefits in the US.  (I'd love to hear what the conservatives think about that! )  But she says nothing about the other consequences of such a trend:  Fewer and fewer women in positions of power (do some reading on how labor markets punish women for less than full-time participation), more and more entrenched gender roles at home, more and more women with not enough money for retirement.

On the other hand, I'd be 100% behind her proposals if they were telling us that everyone should work part-time, provided that we'd get full-time pensions for that.  But offering this "option" just for mothers amounts to asking mothers to "prefer" less financial security over their lifetimes.

The second Bruenig article, "Feminist Should Not Give Up On Pope Francis",  is another appeal for women to be satisfied with less.  According to Bruenig, the Pope is a Catholic, duh, and therefore will not allow women into the priesthood and will not allow contraception as an actual alternative for Catholic women.

But never mind all that.  Priests don't have any actual power and even if they did, religions with priestesses haven't created any more gender-equal societies:

A few notes on that claim: the priesthood, unlike business leadership or political leadership, is not a regulation bureaucratic role. Being a priest is not like being a scout troop leader, team captain, CEO, or mayor. Celebrating Mass and performing sacraments are not like hiring employees or setting a political agenda. It is not clear how appointing women priests would do anything to reverse the tide of misogyny or counter the kind of sexism that impoverishes and imperils women worldwide. (There is no historical shortage of priestesses in any number of cults or in present Christian denominations, and yet pervasive misogyny marches on.)
If female priests wouldn't accomplish anything whatsoever, what do male priests accomplish?   It sounds as if Bruenig views the priesthood as a ceremonial role, without any real importance. Why then insist on only men in those roles?

I get that this is about theology and the very long roots of women's exclusion from all positions of power (and even ceremonial ones) in not only Catholicism but most other religions.  But still.

The hidden assumption in the above quote is that gender equality in religions doesn't matter, that it's AOK to have religious leaders everywhere be men, that this fact has nothing whatsoever to do with misogyny and sexism and that there is no reason to even demand things like female priesthood because Catholics are conservative to begin with. 

Bruenig appears to argue that we should be pleased with a Pope who speaks about income inequality and the environment, without even asking if his view of the necessary redistribution of income would distribute it to both poor women and poor men or only to poor men as heads of household.

Wonder about where banning contraception enters the article?  I did, too, but it probably is swimming under the waters in this quote:

Fortunately, Francis does not appear poised to dispense with his Catholic bona fides any time soon. While that will always mean tension with secular, liberal feminism, it doesn’t necessarily mean the anti-poverty goals Francis routinely works to advance will be at cross purposes with a feminist agenda. Francis’s remarks on population control in his recent encyclical Laudato Si, for instance, align with the current in feminist thought that argues women should have the ability not only to delay childbirth, but to schedule it according to their own interests rather than those of employers or markets. Population reduction plans, Francis pointed out, aim to reduce the number of births among the poor, instead of reducing poverty itself, which amounts to “an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption."
I waded through the recent Laudato Si.  Perhaps I missed the reference to anything that would align with the idea that women should have the ability "not to only delay childbirth, but to schedule it according to their own interests."  All I found was this:

50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”.[28] To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”.[29] Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.
In any case, it's very very hard to see how women could space the births of their children etc. without any access to effective contraception.

Don't you think that this article, too, sounds like telling women that they should prefer less?  Less than men, in this case, because all the good things Pope Francis advocates (and they are, indeed, many) would help men and women about equally (or perhaps men more if the redistribution of income would be to patriarchal heads of households only).  But given that the initial setting is one in which women have less power and less influence, the final outcome would still reflect that difference, only on somewhat better general levels.