Urgent Evoke

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My Response to "The Paradox of Feminism"

It's true that as women have joined the workforce it's become the new 'norm' for middle-class families to have two incomes. (Working class women have always worked, as do the poor.) Elizabeth Warren has done some of the best research on the subject. You can hear one of her best lectures here: The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class.

On the other hand, the the women's movement gave a lot of women AND men the opportunity to do what they wanted to do and not just what society told them was their proper role as a man or woman. My mother was a bright, college-educated woman in her late 30's when the women's movement arrived. Before then it would have been unthinkable for her to go back to university and get her Ph.D.-- and most universities would have made it impossible. As an 11 year old, I watched her go from a near clinical depression to overflowing with happiness. I still think it's the best gift that any parent can give to a child-- to let them see what it looks like to be an adult doing what you love. To my father's great credit he supported her all the way. Unfortunately, that often wasn't the case.

Personally, I've always thought it was the rise in divorce that convinced many women to go back to work from the 70's on. I think any woman who's watched her mother struggle to find work after long years of being a housewife has probably vowed never to let herself be in that position.

There were still plenty of restrictions on women when I was growing up-- both formal and informal. On the formal side there were professions that women simply weren't allowed into-- astronauts (despite tests showing that we were actually better suited to space travel than men) and airline pilots are two I remember especially. Nearly all law schools had a strict quota for women-- generally 25%. And there were no school sports programs for girls.

On the informal side there were heavy social sanctions for girls who dreamed of doing anything except the standard 'womens' jobs-- nurse, teacher, secretary. Being good at math or science was enough to make you an outcast. The pressure may have been less than in my mother's day-- or perhaps I was just less gifted in the subjects than she was-- but I still felt the onus enough that I managed to develop a math block which I only overcame with difficulty later in my university career. Mainly because of this, only about 10% of doctors were women and the number of women scientists was probably even smaller. There were no women in high positions in any except a few family businesses, employers were reluctant to hire us because we might be going to get married or have children. Having never seen a woman in any other than a 'helper' role it was difficult to imagine ourselves doing anything else ourselves.

The restrictions were just as tough-- or maybe tougher, on men. It's never been easy for artists and writers or men who love something else non-traditional and badly paid -- but back then the societal pressure brought to bear on men who couldn't or wouldn't play the traditional 'bread-winner' role is hard for younger people to imagine. Just as we grew up being afraid that any sign of intelligence meant we were doomed to be an 'old maid' -- the worst possible fate for a woman-- they grew up in fear that any sign of weakness, hesitation, any less than perfect competency would mean rejection-- and not only by women, but by other men and employers, too.

I wonder if young women today would really prefer the rigid roles that we had then? Maybe they would. Many people seem to slip quite happily into whatever place their society prepares for them. But even though it leaves us with a sometimes bewildering array of choices, I know that many of us treasure it. And surely any parent of a 'different' child is relieved to find that society provides a place for that child to bloom.

Finally, while it's true that families where both the husbands and wives work have become the 'norm' there isn't any great stigma against doing otherwise. Most middle class professionals earn enough money that they could-- if they learned to live as modestly as my parents did-- afford to have one parent home with the children. Many do. And in many European countries it's quite normal for one or both parents to work part time while the kids are young. In the Czech Republic paid leave after childbirth extends to up to three years, Most other European countries have long maternal leaves. And in Scandinavia the early childhood education is so good that people put their children in nursery schools whether they work or not-- since the children who have been to them are found to have better social skills than those that stay home with a parent.

My conclusion is that, thanks in part to Feminism, if American women want to go back to the home, they can. That so many find it unthinkable to give up the two-car, mcmansion lifestyle in order to do so is more the fault of a consumer culture than women having been given the power to choose the profession that suits them best.

Views: 27

Comment by Cynawynn on April 13, 2010 at 7:38am
Very nicely put. I was a "woman who's watched her mother struggle to find work after long years of being a housewife" in the '70s. She ended up creating her own business, which she still has all these years later. She had dropped out of college when she had me, and was determined that was not going to happen to me.
I wh***heartedly agree that feminism has helped create a society where we have the choice to work or not to work. It does not mean we must work. My husband stayed home with our first child for the first two years, and when the job market changed and our second child was on the way we switched. It was important to us and we made it happen. There were a few raised eyebrows and house-husband jokes, but most people were frankly envious. Yet they were unwilling to forego the second car, etc. as you mentioned.
Comment by Chris Ke Sihai on April 13, 2010 at 11:43am
Great post, especially as it wasn't only about women. I think the great achievement of feminism has to been to drive home the message that nobody should be forced to play a particular role because of their chromosomes.

I'm a big fan of equal relationships, even where one partner earns more than the other. It's inevitable that someone makes more, unless you're both government servants of the same grade. Teachers, maybe? I met a lady lawyer a few years ago who described herself as 'a spinster' at age 32, due to men being intimidated by the fact she invariably earned more than they did.
Comment by Sarah Shaw Tatoun on April 14, 2010 at 10:22am
Thanks, Cynawynn-- your and your husband's experience is an example of the flexible roles that are possible now. I think my parents would have done something similar if the changes had happened when they were young. Instead, they broke ground for the older generation. After we were all grown and away from home, they had several years with a commuter marriage. Finally my father decided to give it up and become a house-husband. He said it was a great relief when he finally reached retirement age, though. Although he kept busy both with his old profession and starting a business, he never really knew what to say when people asked what he did.

Chris-- I agree completely. I hate the fact that the word 'feminism' has been so exclusively associated with women. Most of the real feminists I know think of it as a human liberation movement -- not from bras, but from the idea that we should be who other people want us to be instead of who we are.
Comment by Edwige Lelievre on April 14, 2010 at 11:54am
There have been a big improvement in gender equality since 1950 in Europe for both women and men. For instance, in 1967, my father decided not to go on military service and to do instead civic service (he went to Canado to teach biochemistry for 2 years). But he told me, than women at this times told him he was no man as he refuses to fight. I really think that now, a lot of women will prefer a non-violent man ;)

If you see your mother working as the director of the company, then you certainly won't be afraid of trying a scientist career. Not using half brains of the planete because they didn't belong to the correct gender was a big mistake (as well as letting go so many clever person because they don't have enough money to study).

But, we have still a lot of prejudices, and it is like an everyday fight to let them go away. I consider myself as a feminist, but sometimes our habits are really strong, here is an anecdote of my everyday life :
I am living with my boyfriend. One day, we invited some people at home, and the meal was not ready. So I asked my boyfriend to go serve them something to drink while I was finishing the meal. He told me (halfly laughing) that is was sexism and that he totally would rather cook ;) I then realize I asked him that because it is what people usually do, but in the end, I can as well serve our guest drinks and he is also able to cook :)

Still, what is not so wrong about "paradox of feminism" is that we have not taken only the possibility to work, but also bad habits like competing all the time, both men and women. This doesn't really helps the world.
Comment by Sarah Shaw Tatoun on April 14, 2010 at 12:13pm
Yes, Edwige-- I totally agree. It's not only the roles that need to change, but the structures that force people into a competition with one another even in cases where it is very obvious that this is the wrong way to go. On the other hand, I wouldn't like to see competition disappear. Some people thrive on it, and it's good for them. It brings out their best qualities and pushes them to be better yet. What I dream of is a truly 'mixed' society, where people can find their place in an environment that really suits them.

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