Thursday, August 08, 2013

One Man Away

Historiann has a piece up on the NYT "Opting back in" article that's well worth reading.  Go read them both, if you haven't already.

When I was growing up, back in the bronze age, there was a saying that every woman was one man away from welfare.  I grew up pretty middle class and very white, and there was a definite expectation that married women would pretty much stay at home and raise a couple of kids, two being the preferred number, keep house, volunteer in the community, and so forth.

But even then, the women my Mother's age talked about lost opportunities, how to support oneself if/when a marriage fell apart or a husband died, and so on.  I remember a point in the 70s when my Mom made a point of getting a credit card in her name.  (This wasn't a source of conflict within my family, but the bank had to be convinced.)

I guess pondering this article, and thinking that these women didn't learn the lessons of my Mother's generation (the 60s and 70s adult women, say), I wonder:  how can we convince young women who have opportunities to value their careers more carefully?

No, that's not quite right.  I don't know how to put it, exactly.  Here's what I'm after:

How do we convince young folks that you can't "have it all" if you define "all" as a high powered, high status career and full time stay at home parenting?

You can, if you're darned lucky, have it all if you define "all" as meaningful work and meaningful family/social relationships.  But luck plays a huge part, doesn't it?  I mean, I don't think I ever felt my work was especially meaningful when I worked in retail.  And I doubt working a factory job would feel meaningful.  Maybe?

How do we convince young folks that women AND men can parent, and that actually making equitable relationships would be better?

How do we convince everyone that pay inequity hurts us all?  (There's a hint in some of the stories in the NYT article that women made/make less money, so it was "natural" to have the woman stay at home and the man work full time.  Ending pay inequity would help us see that as not "natural.")

I'm sort of despairing here because the women the article talks about were/are way privileged; they sound like they all had college educations, and they all went to college when feminism was important on college campuses.  They all had job opportunities beyond what most people have.

And yet they thought they could use the social structures that feminists in the 60s and 70s had critiqued as disempowering women without being subject to disempowerment.

Did they miss the most basic Marxist base/superstructure discussion?  (Yes, of course there are problems with that idea, but it seems at play here, doesn't it?  Reproduce the economic structure of the 1950s middle class household, and you reproduce the social structure, too.)

Maybe what I'm after is trying to convince young folks to rethink "all"?  Or the desire to "have" it all?

I need to go finish up my syllabi.  I'm teaching Paradise Lost this semester.  Talk about a great text to discuss what it means not to have "all," eh?


  1. Tough topic. I think you know I've struggled with this one personally; it's been rough in many ways. I have felt what I consider to be pretty clear discrimination based on my gender, both in the equal pay area as well as societal expectations. I picked a career field that's pretty sexist, to be honest, and while I managed pretty well within that before we had kids, after kids we had to make choices about money and who had better money-making capability and who was the best choice to try to do a good job of raising the kids. And that was me, so my career took a back seat. It creates a very traditional picture and I have issues with that, but societal and economic pressure made it the best choice for us. And I have tried to make my peace with that, but there are times when I find myself really resenting the societal structures we live in.

    I think our moms' generation fought hard so that their daughters could 'have it all', but in reality it's much harder to actually make that happen. I've come to believe that it's just about impossible to pull off raising kids and keeping a home together while working a high pressure job; there's just not enough time and energy to fight all the battles at once.

    I wish it were easier to pick and choose without stigma and without this crazy expectation we've developed that we should be able to pull it all off with ease and grace, no sweat, no messy house, perfect children, lovely relationship, fabulous career, beautiful body, etc. etc. Bah.

    I've just kind of given the finger to it all and picked the parts I find most important to focus on and thrown the rest out the window. It's led to a messy, imperfect sort of life but one I can live with. Mostly.

  2. We need better part-time work. I stayed in the workforce my entire life, but my career has definitely taken a back seat. I left in the middle of finishing my Ph.D. and cobbled work together, some full-time and some part-time for the next six years or so. Now, I finally feel settled in a career and have a skill set that should I end up single, I could manage. I actually have a backup plan that includes moving to a lower cost of living area so that I could live off of just my salary.

    Part-time work that's meaningful and that gives women (men, depending who wants to downsize) good skills and good references can help when kids need the most intense amount of work.

    I've also taken it upon myself to pick up the slack for my colleagues with young kids. And, when talking to others about their work, I always focus on their skills, their professionalism, and their work ethic. No one really did that for me (though I did have a husband who picked up a lot of slack, another key factor for women). I think it's important to change the culture to be supportive of parents of young children (men or women). It's really only a short time for most people where things are intense--maybe 5-7 years before school kicks in.

    I teach only girls and I talk about these issues all the time. I talk about how I couldn't imagine myself not working, both for financial reasons, but more importantly, for personal reasons, for wanting to contribute to society in some way outside of just having kids.

    While men have definitely stepped up more in the last 20 years, there's still more work to be done on that front. Little things like saying to fathers that they're babysitting the children or not expecting them to take on housework and childcare. It's getting better and fathers 15 years or so younger than me are even better than my husband, who was pretty good on that front.

    I think girls, especially, need to be aware of the risks of opting out and to look for ways to create a flexible work life if they do want to commit more to raising kids. But if they're interested in a career that doesn't allow that flexibility, they need to get their husbands involved.

    It's certainly a complicated issue, fraught with all kinds of cultural norms that we often think have changed, but which really haven't. Maybe things will get better. Maybe these women had to go through this and the next generation won't. Could also be cyclical. Who knows.

  3. And yet they thought they could use the social structures that feminists in the 60s and 70s had critiqued as disempowering women without being subject to disempowerment.

    This is a brilliant summary of my problems with the whole "opt-out" concept and the reality of what that costs. It also is a great reminder of how difficult social change is, especially around gender roles & power.

    Thanks for the link, Bardiac.

  4. You can, if you're darned lucky, have it all if you define "all" as meaningful work and meaningful family/social relationships.

    You're right. In my partnership, I've been able to have a meaningful work life but my partner hasn't due to a combination of our geographic and family issues (his skillset isn't as valuable here and we always have to keep the needs of Autistic Youngest in mind). So we try to value the overall partnership we've crafted: I couldn't do this without support and I gladly give my support when opportunities exist for my partner because I'm conscious that so much has been sacrificed already on that side.

  5. Anonymous6:38 PM

    "no sweat, no messy house, perfect children, lovely relationship, fabulous career, beautiful body, etc. etc. "

    I come from a long line of pudgy professional women with messy houses and perfect children. It's very freeing! I can't imagine living any other way. (Though I understand that other people do.)

  6. Not better part-time work, a shorter work week for all. Part time is like piecework, bad for workers.

    Great post.

  7. Having it all - perhaps we need to redefine what "All" is. Food, shelter, love, maybe WiFi. The rest is superfluous. We don't need as much as we think we do. If we could get that through our heads, none of us would be working as hard as we are.