Thursday, June 27, 2013

What feminism means to me

Flavia has a fascinating post up; it's by a woman frustrated because many of the women she saw at a recent Ivy League reunion had, in her words, "dropped out": they had children but didn't work (to which I silently amended, each time, "outside the home"). 

I agree with a lot of what the poster said. In fact, here's the first part of my comment over there:
 There was a TIME magazine article a few weeks ago about the "no alimony" thing. One of those interviewed said that the chances of a woman in her 50s with no work experience getting a job are slim to none. In this recession economy--and I'm sorry, but unless you're a one percenter, it's still a recession economy--they have no supports left. They live with their children, or with their families, or on disability (the new safety net), or in cars. It's horrifying. So yes, I don't know why that's not more of a concern to women who don't work outside the home.
But I part company with the poster here (from her post):
Why aren't women who drop out of the paid workforce being treated for depression, or at least urged to get counseling before they go? Just imagine the social and moral panic if a large number of upper middle-class men between the ages of 30 and 55 decided that they didn't want to work. Here's a useful tip: if you have a college education and unemployment seems like a good idea, seek treatment.
 Two or three things:
  1. I don't see the decision to "drop out of the paid workforce" as a mental health issue, or a moral one, or even a "you're depriving the world of your talents" one. There are thousands and thousands of under- and unemployed lawyers, college professors, and other people, well-educated and otherwise, who don't have jobs in this economy. If you're not working, you may be depriving yourself, but you're doing someone else a favor.  Rather, I see their decisions as a personal or family issue governed by economics. 
  2. Now, I may think it is foolish not to work because: divorce! poverty! old age!, but elite women don't have a duty to stay in the paid workforce today, any more than, 100 years ago when Teddy Roosevelt was urging "elite women" to have eight children and stay at home, they had a duty to do that, or 50 years ago, they had a duty to stay home. It's their choice.
  3. I do get the economic argument. I have seen/known examples of the horror stories: of women impoverished when their husbands hid assets and took off with the girlfriend, convincing sympathetic judges that minimal child support was all that was needed. But still, if they know that and it doesn't scare them, it's their choice.
  4. That, as I understand it, is the point of feminism: to give women choices, not to prescribe what they ought to do. I get that this may be "serving the patriarchy," but after pointing that out, we need to recognize that it's a choice.
  5. I am also not worried that somehow elite women's voices will be silenced, although maybe I should be. As I read various media outlets, I'm confident that the world is never going to lack for elite women's voices, though other perspectives are a little less prominent. (Incidentally, I think the whole "elite" issue is a little troubling: is it just the elite women who can afford to opt out, or is it that they're the only ones that the media outlets are worried about because they are "more important"?)
  6. Some men do "drop out." Some women make more than their partners or support stay-at-home partners. 
I sympathize with a lot of what the poster has to say, but the two things feminism has taught me, as I have listened to various "you should do this" prescriptions over the years, are these: (1) learn as much as you can, but trust your own judgment; and (2) if people make a different judgment or decision from yours, that's all right, too.

13 comments:

nicoleandmaggie said...

Here's us on choice feminism: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/is-there-anything-wrong-with-choice-feminism/

Historiann, you will note, is vehemently against it. IIRC, she thinks that elite women have a duty to fight the patriarchy.

My mother believes that elite women should work or volunteer, but not because they are women. She has a strong belief that everybody has a duty to use their gifts to make the world a better place through labor (whether paid or unpaid). (She does not consider taking care of children 24/7 to be enough unless you're taking care of other people's kids too. Note: she has 6 brothers and sisters, and had a working mom.) This is a bit at odds with my father's belief that everyone's goal should be early financial independence.

Janice said...

I'm the breadwinner in our household ever since my t-t job brought us to this part of the world where my partner's skill-set is woefully under-appreciated. Matters became complicated with Autistic Youngest - it's really hard to manage her needs when we're both full-time employed.

That said, damned few people, even educated through post-secondary, understand the financial and relationship implications of becoming a dependent in a partnership. Being fixated on "I want to spend my time with my child" can blind you to the serious damage you're doing to other goals.

Women don't get prompted nearly enough to work through these questions when they declare they're leaving the paid workforce. Men do. Conversely, men get far less support for being a SAHP where women are expected to make such choices.

undine said...

Thanks the link, nicoleandmaggie; that's a great post. I especially like (as always) your economic take on it, and the rhetorical one: "When women opt-out, it’s called being a housewife. When men opt-out, they’re “financially independent”, or “exploring their muse”. I didn't know it was called "choice feminism," so thanks for that, too.

I agree with your mother: everyone should use his/her talents to make the world a better place, whether paid or unpaid. I have never known anyone for whom early financial independence was even remotely possible, except the kids in my hometown who were born into that kind of wealth.

Some of my perspective comes from the experience of being on the receiving rather than giving end of lectures about why I should do X or Y in the name of feminism. Like gratuitous child-rearing advice, I found it unhelpful and mostly just plain wrong, as subsequent events bore out.

And the "elite women" thing troubles me, too, as though they're the only women worth listening to/saving/counting on.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I think in many cases "elite women" are the only ones who have real choices. Other folks are either working because they have to have the money to pay for necessities for their kids or they're not working because daycare costs more than what they can bring in (or because they have terrible credit and no high school diploma and thus can't get a job at the dollar store).

undine said...

Janice--good point about not being encouraged to think about the long-term implications of leaving. There needs to be more discussion about this from the SAHD's point of view, too.

nicoleandmaggie--that's true; they are the ones with choices. There are overtones of these arguments that remind me about early 20c. arguments about "the mentally and morally fit" and their duties to the nation because of their superior intelligence, though, that make me uncomfortable. It's probably unwarranted discomfort, but it makes me squirm a little bit.

undine said...

Janice--good point about not being encouraged to think about the long-term implications of leaving. There needs to be more discussion about this from the SAHD's point of view, too.

nicoleandmaggie--that's true; they are the ones with choices. There are overtones of these arguments that remind me about early 20c. arguments about "the mentally and morally fit" and their duties to the nation because of their superior intelligence, though, that make me uncomfortable. It's probably unwarranted discomfort, but it makes me squirm a little bit.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Undine-- You're forgetting that in the early 20c/late 19c they also straight-out said, "white" and "Protestant"!

Actually, those arguments are still being made if you listen to the religious right.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--I didn't forget, but I think I am just oversensitive to this issue of class privilege and need to drop it.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I'm reading a fascinating report from 1914 that suggests if the then current rate of proper British women not having children continues, it will be disaster for England in 40 years. The author admits that maybe women don't want to have more children than they can afford to "rear to the highest standard of their class," and the wife may not "wish to forfeit her personal health," but, she should think of England. "In this narrower morality the broader national aspect has been too far often overlooked."

Perhaps we can save feminism without taking away women's choices. I don't think it was the declining birth rates that took away British supremacy in the end. And they haven't done too badly for themselves even if they're no longer the hegemon. So, drawing a parallel, perhaps we can fight the patriarchy without shaming SAHM. There are many other battles to fight.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie: "So, drawing a parallel, perhaps we can fight the patriarchy without shaming SAHM." Exactly the point I was trying to make; you said it beautifully.

naptimewriting said...

I really appreciate this post and the ensuing discussion.

The elite women caveat troubles me, too, because it suggests that some women are more important to industry, but also that motherhood as a profession is fine for poor/uneducated/Other women but not for "useful" women. Further, it means that the next generation should be raised by "lesser" women so industry can be built by "elite" women. That creates and furthers status strata, it seems.

Janice's point, specifically, hit home. "Being fixated on 'I want to spend my time with my child' can blind you to the serious damage you're doing to other goals. Women don't get prompted nearly enough to work through these questions when they declare they're leaving the paid workforce." I can't agree more.

I left the workforce (mostly) to raise my children. I focused on "I don't want to pay someone else to raise my children because I want to invest my time rather than my money in my children" and "they're little and need me more than I need my current income; my career will be there when I get back."

And it will.

What I didn't consider, and was blindsided by (stupid, perhaps, but I just didn't think about it in part because it's not part of the mainstream discussion), was what a ten-year retirement does to salary, hiring prospects, and retirement savings for a woman in mid-life.

[My husband and I talked about him staying home rather than me. There were several reasons we decided I'd take this break rather than him.]

I've been freelancing since I left formal employment, but it's certainly not enough to completely cushion the significant professional and financial damage.

I wouldn't have done things differently, but I wish I'd heard this facet of the argument. Our choices are not as black and white as we'd like to make them. We owe that honesty to all women, since feminism, at its core, is about educating women specifically because they are smart enough to make choices for themselves if they have all the information.

Thanks again for the post and the link, Undine.

undine said...

naptimewriting--thanks for this thoughtful comment. Those points are well taken about having women think more about what an absence from the workforce would mean in the long term. I think the issue of whether a career will be there when a person is ready to return depends a lot on what the field is, and it's doubtless easier in some fields than others.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I think the world would be a far better and friendlier place if we could eliminate this phrase, "I don't want to pay someone else to raise my children" from our lexicon. (As everyone knows, I am sure, working mothers *also* raise their children.)

Here's us on the WOHM/SAHM finances what to consider question: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/the-wohsah-decision-finances/

And yes, female-dominated fields tend to be easier to go in and out of rather than having a steep career trajectory. It's hard to say if that's because they're female-dominated or if they're female-dominated because of that. I tend to think the former rather than the latter because there are plenty of counter-examples for the latter.