Friday, February 15, 2008

Something Old. . . Or is it New?:(Or: Is what is bad for the hetero goose, good for the lesbian gander?)

In my Gender and Economics course this semester we are exploring the so-called "Opt-Out Revolution"

While the term (coined by Lisa Belkin of the New York Times Magazine in her 2003 article by the same name) is new, the debate is old.

The article got feminists of all ilk in an uproar about, well, lots of things, but mainly a) the notion of staying home with your kids and whether we can ascribe normative values (positive or negative) to women who make that choice (particularly highly educated women who were supposed to be the gals poised to take over the world, so to speak) and b) the notion of "choice feminism" more generally)

Should women stay at home with their kids? It goes back at least to when women started working in the first place (at least post-industrialization type of wage work. . . Women, particularly women of color, have always worked).

Such an academic discussion is coming right on time for me as I ponder this exact choice in my life at the moment. In a recent blog, I revealed my current struggle with the balance of work and life, and the possible (in)flexibility of my workplace in terms of having an opportunity to go part-time.

The Opt-Out article (and others that followed during that media blitz) essentially pointed to mainly anecdotal data of highly educated (and, they point out, educated by "elite" institutions) women who have made the choice to leave the labor market and be with their kids rather than pursue those high-powered 80 hour workweek careers that would have lead them to the upper echelons of the workplace, smashing all glass ceilings along the way.

The articles essentially say that these women are making the choice to leave the market because they realized that they don't have the ambition or desire to become CEO's --to put in the hours OR reap the rewards associated with it--particularly once they've had kids.

Some authors like Katha Pollitt point to the sexism of the premise of these articles -- that women, somehow, are turning down the rewards of the feminist movement, essentially saying that "women don't want what feminism has to offer". That, in fact, newspapers run articles like this on a regular cyclical basis, without any proof of what is actually happening, just to make women who chose to work feel guilty about it.

Follow up articles address the empirics behind the anecdotes and show that on an economy-wide basis, there is certainly no "revolution" in terms of women (and specifically the women who have the choice to stay home -- read women with rich spouses) choosing to stay home with their kids. While we might observe a small blip in the female labor force, it isn't due to kids (see Heather Boushey).

The most fascinating and thought provoking work has been done by women's studies professor Linda Hirshman ("Homeward Bound" in American Prospect, November 2005) who doesn't doubt the anecdotes but has a real problem with this sort of choice feminism. She argues that liberal feminists altered the path of the feminist movement in introducing "choice feminism" -- a dilution of Betty Friedan's movement that allows any choice made by a woman to be a "feminist choice." Essentially, it is saying that if a woman makes the choice, it must be okay (see a great entry by Echidne of the Snakes on Choice Feminism).

I had fallen for this line of thinking because it marries well with economics and libertarianism. "What's wrong with a woman choosing prostitution or becoming a stripper? It was her choice?" Or "What's the difference between a woman choosing graduate school or choosing to stay home with her kid or choosing to pay $600 on a pair of Manolo Blahniks, a pair of diamond earrings, or a gas-guzzling SUV??? They are all simply choices made by rational people (notice no gender assignment and all the baggage that goes with it) that enter into a transaction upon their free will, with perfect information about all of the costs and benefits (past, present and future) that have gone into making that transaction a reality."

But Hirshman's article is compelling.

She is judgmental about the choice of these elite women to stay at home. She does not think that a choice is a choice is a choice and nor does she think that all choices made by women are "feminist" ones.

She says:
Here’s the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family -- with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks -- is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, 'A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.'

On opting out, she thinks that it is both bad for them as individuals and bad fo
r society as a whole.

Why bad for society?
As for society, elites supply the labor for the decision-making classes -- the senators, the newspaper editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the policy-makers, and the policy wonks. If the ruling class is overwhelmingly male, the rulers will make mistakes that benefit males, whether from ignorance or from indifference. Media surveys reveal that if only one member of a television show’s creative staff is female, the percentage of women on-screen goes up from 36 percent to 42 percent. A world of 84-percent male lawyers and 84-percent female assistants is a different place than one with women in positions of social authority.

Why bad for individuals?
A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world. Measured against these time-tested standards, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives. At feminism’s dawning, two theorists compared gender ideology to a caste system. To borrow their insight, these daughters of the upper classes will be bearing most of the burden of the work always associated with the lowest caste: sweeping and cleaning bodily waste. Not two weeks after the Yalie flap, the Times ran a story of moms who were toilet training in infancy by vigilantly watching their babies for signs of excretion 24-7. They have voluntarily become untouchables.

So yeah. This stuck in my craw a bit. There is no doubt that the roots of my introspection probably have more to do with approaching a (ahem) certain age. I am definitely experiencing a sense of self doubt and uncertainty that can't be assuaged by simply purchasing an antique convertible (but still). Am I willing to give up a tenured position and the years of work, study and preparation that got me there to avoid the commute and be at home with Big for the next year and, after that to be at home for Big and Seven with home-made snacks after school?

Is Hirshman right? Did feminism fail to alter the gender division of labor in the household? She claims that: Great as liberal feminism was, once it retreated to choice the movement had no language to use on the gendered ideology of the family. Feminists could not say, 'Housekeeping and child-rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting and not socially validated. Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power, and honor.'

Okay okay. I get it. Women shouldn't be expected to shoulder the minutiae and repetitious, dirty details of the household. And when women "choose" that, we can't take that choice at face-value. That choice comes with a bunch of eco-socio-politico baggage and invisible constraints -- social norms, institutional rules, gender roles -- that penalize women who don't make that choice (feel guilty sending your kid to day care anyone?) and reward women who do (can). This choice isn't the same as all other choices (but my choices above were picked especially to show that NO choices are as simple as the ones presented in economics textbooks. Even the ones where the author tries to be 'hip' in his examples like 'should I choose another slice of pizza or another glass of beer?').

"But. . . " said that little devil over my shoulder who is dreading the commute back to my mediocre state school and who recognizes the so-called irrational tug of my heart strings with the thought of leaving Big and Seven on a more regular basis, "Is it really so exploitative if my spouse is a woman, not a man?" What if my sacrifice allows another woman to, say, become president of a law firm? Or allows another woman to 'have it all' -career AND kids? What if I DO feel that working on a part-time basis would feel more sane? And what if we can afford it?

Does this change the analysis?

Is what is bad for the hetero goose good for the lesbian gander? Or does it not matter. If it smells like a duck, is it a duck?

I was discussing this with a fellow stay-at-homo who is also chafing up against the constraints of housewifedom and all of its repetitious, dirty, low-caste chores. She reminded me of the work that gender theorists have done on the notion that gender is a behavior, how we act, how we perform. In that sense, it doesn't matter what sex we are (or what sex to whom we are married -- or, better said, for whose sex we clean toilets) it is what we DO. So if Linda Hirshman married Judy Butler, let's just say she'd keep her academic job and Judy'd have to hire out some help or clean her own toilets, or just let them be filthy, or, at last resort, pitch in.

I think that one key to all of this would be to explore stay-at-home-dads. How do they view their roles? What social costs do they face as they buck social norms? What are the fallouts to their marriages?

Also, I can't help but think that an overlooked part of this argument is the notion of the masculine workforce. So, rather than considering balancing kids, home, and a forty-hour workweek, these 'elite' women are looking to balance kids, home and an 80 hour workweek with unlimited responsibilities. Can feminism continue to make headway through "work-life" policies that breakdown this most masculinist of institutions?


Anonymous said...

Thoughtful, no answer, not sure of your opinion, I am thinking.
-ndp - swampy

Anonymous said...

This is an observation about the specificity of your situation, but embedded in it is an observation about how this whole debate is enormously complex:

I'm wondering how the questions/dilemma might be different for you depending on the quality of the job you must consider returning to: what if the school you had left was Macalester--a Macalester-level school but still with the 2 1/2 hour commute? In other words: isn't the issue for many women (or workers in general) not only about work vs. child-rearing, but about a specific JOB vs. rearing one's specific children?

giddings said...

Hi Anon--
Yes, I suppose what you're saying is true and I think that that is why Belkin's article seemed so compelling at the time. Those Harvard and Princeton educated women giving it up to stay at home, completely?

I also recognize that my issue has more to do with the commute than the kids. If I was tenured at Mac, I wouldn't be thinking about quitting, regardless of Big or Seven (although I'm sure I'd have a similar glut in publications).

Furthermore, yeah, I do think it has a lot to do with to what job you return, and for most women with any significant time spent out of the labor market (i.e. a year or more completely detached) the return (or "onramp") is quite difficult.

I was thinking of my own six word biography (see this week's New Yorker): School, Ph.D., job, tenure, baby, barista.