Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Adventures in Feminism

I am a research scientist, and my husband stays home. We defy the stereotypes. We are a feminist’s dream!

I work hard all day, and when I get home, I’m mentally exhausted. I feel physically exhausted too. I sit down to a delicious dinner cooked by my better half. Sometimes, he hasn’t finished cooking it yet, so I sit down and watch him cook. And then I feel vaguely guilty and I ask if there’s something I can do to help.

I was raised in a family environment that was decidedly traditional. My mother gave up her career to raise us. We had cooked breakfasts every morning, and nutritious homemade dinners in the evening. Everything made from scratch by my mother. Sometimes Dad made breakfast on Saturday mornings, but otherwise he never graced the kitchen with his presence while food was being prepared. He did always do the dishes after dinner, though. But basically the domestic realm was left to my mother.

I think my mom felt used and unappreciated by this setup. Dad’s never been exactly prolific with his expression of feelings, although I know he appreciated her efforts a lot more than she thought he did. Once again this underscores the flaw that was the downfall of their marriage: their inability to communicate with each other.

I grew up feeling generally panicked at all times concerning the state of the world. A lot of what I absorbed was very apocalyptic in tone, including a certain amount of despair concerning the fact that not everyone in the world was as liberal as we were, surely resulting in the destruction of the world. I absorbed a lot of supposedly feminist ideas growing up, and looking back at them, I am horrified with their rigidity and judgmental tone.

Reading Linda Hirshman’s article from the American Prospect, I was nodding with familiarity at her assertions. From my reading of the article (do read it yourself; don’t take my word for it!), she’s angry about women with elite educations giving up the Feminist Cause and becoming stay-at-home moms. She seems to think that they give up their fulfilling careers to stay at home and wipe noses and do other unfulfilling drudgery, and by sacrificing their own dreams of a career, they are making it harder for the next generation of women to rise to prestigious careers.

I was somewhat horrified to see that I had inadvertently followed Hirshman’s advice for women who wanted to keep their careers: I married a liberal man of a lower socioeconomic status who therefore had less bargaining power in the relationship. It was important to me to marry someone who would be supportive of my career. But I didn’t exactly set out to do it in such crass terms.

Something I’ve learned in these past few post-judgmental years is that one size does not fit all. Women don’t have to keep working after their children are born any more than they have to stay home after their children are born. Maybe I would have been a happier and more fulfilled child if my mother had felt happier and more fulfilled. And if taking care of kids is not her thing, that doesn’t make her a bad person. It just makes her a person who would rather do other things.

Hirshman’s feminist utopia seems to be a place where women are full members of the “old boys club” – essentially, men-with-boobs. I don’t really like her idea, because I don’t want to be a member of the “old boys club.” I feel more camaraderie with the women who are suing Wal-Mart for gender discrimination than I feel with white men of privilege.

I think she’s wrong to believe in the “trickle down” theory of equality. It’s almost never the elites leading the fight for equality, it seems to me. It’s the people who have a self-interest in equality who tend to be the ones fighting for it. I think that women are not going to be treated fairly at the highest level until they are treated fairly at the lowest level.

And Hirshman is dangerously snotty towards women in lines of work that are not prestigious. While she’s advocating for these well-educated women to have a career, she doesn’t seem to think about the folks who are left caring for these women’s children. Never does she suggest that maybe the man could take time out of his career; instead she seems to advocate using a lower-class worker (who, statistically, will probably be female) to do the drudgery of childcare. In other words, these elite women should take advantage of less elite women, by paying them a pittance to do their dirty work.

I am of the opinion that my success should not be realized by stepping on others. This is a very difficult ideal to achieve, of course, because simply by being American I am part of a veritable third-world-abusing machine. But nonetheless, when I can see it, I try not to do it. This is one of many reasons I would be reluctant to leave my child in the hands of a stranger.

And my definition of success is different than Hirshman’s. I define success not as my ability to fit into the rigid, patriarchal structure as a man-with-boobs, but as my ability to fit into the human patchwork as a fellow human being. I don’t like the idea of having to “act like a man” in order to be successful. I would like to be treated with respect for the person I am, everywhere I go. If I happen to be the type of person who is a man-with-boobs, then so be it. But I would like to be respected as a kind, gentle, nurturing person if that is the personality that I have.

My idea of the feminist utopia is a place where people, men and women alike, can decide to do what they want to do with their lives, and be rewarded both emotionally and financially. For example, my husband is much better with kids than I am. If we had kids, he would want to be a stay-at-home dad. I would like to see a world where people would applaud his decision: a world where I didn’t get funny looks when I told people that my husband stays home while I go to work.

1 comment:

elswhere said...

"I define success not as my ability to fit into the rigid, patriarchal structure as a man-with-boobs, but as my ability to fit into the human patchwork as a fellow human being."

This is one of my favorite lines to come out of this whole brouhaha.

Actually, my favorite aspect of this whole brouhaha has been the blogs I've discovered or (like this one) rediscovered because of it.