August 07, 2008

What Feminism Has Wrought

Entertaining Atlantic read from a feminist taking down an academic who wrote a screed against stay-at-home mothers:
Not that being an academic isn’t a hell of a lot of fun; in fact, its very pleasantness contributes to a bias peculiar to members of the thinktankerati. So argues Neil Gilbert, a renowned Berkeley sociologist, in A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market and Policy Shape Family Life. According to Gilbert, the debate over the value of women’s work has been framed by those with a too-rosy view of employment,
mainly because the vast majority of those who publicly talk, think, and write about questions of gender equality, motherhood, and work in modern society are people who talk, think, and write for a living. And they tend to associate with other people who, like themselves, do not have “real” jobs—professors, journalists, authors, artists, politicos, pundits, foundation program officers, think-tank scholars, and media personalities.
Many of them can set their own hours, choose their own workspace, get paid for thinking about issues that interest them, and, as a bonus, get to feel, by virtue of their career, important in the world. The professor admits that his own job in “university teaching is by and large divorced from the normal discipline of everyday life in the marketplace. It bears only the faintest resemblance to most work in the real world.” In other words, for the “occupational elite” (as Gilbert calls this group), unlike for most people, going to work is not a drag.

Indeed, what does Linda Hirshman know about “work”? (It’s a veritable WWE Smackdown of Academics!) Parries Gilbert:
Linda Hirshman claims that “the family—with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks—is a necessary part of life, but allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.” Many people would no doubt find unpaid household chores less interesting than Professor Hirshman’s job … But walking up and down the super­market aisle selecting food for a family dinner is a job that has more variety and autonomy than the paid work being done by the supermarket employees who stack the same shelves with the same food day after day, and those who stand in a narrow corner at the checkout counter all day tallying up the costs of purchases, and the workers next to them who pack the purchases into paper or plastic bags. That space in the market is a bit cramped for human flourishing.

To be sure, attacking feminist criticism as being the extended whine of a privileged, educated upper class is as old as … well, as bell hooks’s 1984 critique of Friedan’s Feminine Mystique: “[Friedan] did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.” It’s a point that keeps having to be made, though. And hooks’s list doesn’t even include the legions of colorless office jobs that most women endure, “real” jobs that trap them from eight to five in a cramped cubicle under hideous lighting...The eight-to-five routine entails quite a few repetitious, socially invisible physical tasks (think Rob Schneider’s Richmeister on Saturday Night Live: “Makin’ kahpies!”). Research suggests that such drudge work holds no special lure even for (free at last!) females. Citing a survey of 909 employed women on how they had felt during 16 different daily activities, Gilbert notes:
Employed women expressed a higher degree of enjoyment for shopping, preparing food, taking care of their children, and doing housework than for working at their jobs—an activity that was ranked at the next-to-lowest level of enjoyment, just above commuting to work.
Further, in a development that would shock only today’s most radical feminists (where are those last two hiding? Buffalo?):
When it came to interactions with different partners, the women ranked interactions with their children as more enjoyable than those with clients/customers, coworkers, and bosses.
But aren’t women at home subject to the oppression of their chauvinistic, soul-crushing husbands? As if a mere human could compete with clogged freeways and Sisyphean paper pushing (or its more up-to-date equivalent, paperless pushing) and burnt-coffee-laced afternoons counting the acoustic tiles in stale conference rooms, and the hours spent arguing over the wording of a memo that within minutes after its dissemination will be dragged into the now-two-dimensional circular file. Unless he’s an abusive alcoholic or something similar, to be more oppressive than a “real” job, a husband would have to possess tireless text-messaging thumbs: “Where’s my dry cleaning?” “Did you pick up my dry cleaning?” “Where are you shopping right now?” “No! No! I told you—no butter lettuce from Safeway, only Whole Foods!” (Come to think of it, this may be a fairly accurate bit of communication between a privileged mother and a micromanaged nanny.) Even providing a chilled martini at six o’clock and roast beef at seven to the legendary suburban alpha male of yore allowed most of one’s day to be fairly flexible. As for today’s poorer husbands, many of them are likely too tired from their job’s repetitious, socially invisible physical tasks—such as makin’ kahpies!—to continually oppress their wives.
UPDATE: Apt Chesterton quote, via the ultimate Chesterton fan:
Of the two sexes the woman is in the more powerful position. For the average woman is at he head of something with which she can do as she likes; the average man has to obey orders and do nothing else. He has to put one dull brick on another dull brick, and do nothing else; e has to add one dull figure to another dull figure, and do nothing else. The woman's world is a small one, perhaps, but she can alter it. The woman can tell the tradesman with whom she deals some realistic things about himself. The clerk who does this to the manager generally gets the sack, or shall we say (to avoid the vulgarism), finds himself free for higher culture. Above all, as I said in my previous article, the woman does work which is in some small degree creative and individual. She can put the flowers or the furniture in fancy arrangements of her own. I fear the bricklayer cannot put the bricks in fancy arrangements of his own, without disaster to himself and others. If the woman is only putting a patch into a carpet, she can choose the thing with regard to colour. I fear it would not do for the office boy dispatching a parcel to choose his stamps with a view to colour; to prefer the tender mauve of the sixpenny to the crude scarlet of the penny stamp. A woman cooking may not always cook artistically; still she can cook artistically. She can introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the composition of a soup. The clerk is not encouraged to introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the figures in a ledger.

-- from essay "Woman" in the collection All Things Considered

No comments: