03 December 2005

Feminist Choices

I'm probably the last person in blogland to start writing about Linda Hershman's piece. Like Elswhere, I read the debate feeling kind of twitchy. Not that I don't get Phantom's critique, which included, among other wonderful paragraphs, this one:
I don't expect anyone to pat me on the head and assure me that it is somehow feminist of me to stay at home with the kids while my husband brings home the vegetarian bacon. I'm a housewife. More Erma Bombeck than Betty Friedan. Is that feminist? Of course not. But so the fuck what? What I'm saying here is why are women -- and only women -- expected to make and evaluate their choices based solely or mostly upon their fidelity to an -ism, even when that -ism is, um, of the greatest value?

And I'm on board with Laura, who notes, among other things,
Since when did feminism become the handmaiden for capitalism? The workplace is a place where the little flowers flourish? Hasn't anybody read some Marx? The workplace is a great place for some people who have managed to find work that completely fulfills them. It is extremely elitist to assume that everyone is made happy by their jobs. The barista at Starbucks today wasn't moved to great joy by pouring me a grande regular.
But then, I was also mostly agreeing with Bitch, who had a more positive view of the article (making a long--and much commented-on-post that includes points like
this is the single most irretrievably gendered division-of-labor issue for couples who want to be, or think they are, equals: the person whose job it is to monitor that equality is the person who has the least power. And in most cases, that's the woman.

So I've been puzzling over how much disagreement there really is in my corner of the blogosphere and where I fit in. Is it possible to point out the gendered trends in work/childcare choices without criticizing the people who are making choices? In many of the families I know, it is largely the responsibility of the women to handle the child care. There's enormous cultural pressure there--and it's pressure that we would do well to take off men (since I've seen some of my male friends essentially pushed away from hands-on caring of their children). That's not healthy all around.
Elizabeth noted that some things have changed. As I look around my circle of 30- and 40-something parent-friends, I do see a lot more sensitve new age guy dads, men who struggle with the balance of home and school, home and work, just as Politica and I do.

The discussion in Phantom's post--which I never contributed to since I couldn't quite figure out how to say what was tickling on my brain--got me thinking about what it means to make feminist choices. Was I making a feminist choice when I baked bread with Curious Girl on Thursday? or when I went to work on Friday? Phantom says that it's not a feminist choice to be a housewife--and Hirshman surely agrees, arguing that if only women are choosing housewifery then it's not really a choice. And OK. But is feminism reduced to only the choice to work or not work? There are so many more elements to our lives than work. For some of us--me included--our work is an important part of our identity. Ask me what I do and I'll tell you I'm a professor. But I make feminist choices at home, at school, at work, at play.

What troubled me in some of the comments on some of the many anti-Hershman posts I read was the notion that there's some Feminism that has missed the point of feminists like those contributing to the comments (for example, in the comments at Dawn's piece on the subject, there's a discussion about how "the NOWs of the world" are somehow trying to tell women what to do (I'm not mentioning this to pick on the commenters: Dawn wrote a smart post and it got thoughtful comments. I'm trying to identify a subtext in the comments and posts across the board, and that's just one little moment. I've gone back and forth about whether to be specific in raising this issue or not, since I don't want to attack anyone else, just think through my own intellectual discomfort with these discussions). Anyway, as I read things like this, I'm uncomfortable with the assumption that there is an institutional feminism, united, in telling women much of anything. We've had plenty of examples of individual feminists who indeed seem to be scolding any woman who's staying home with children, or not working in the corporate elite, but I don't want to jump and say that's feminism.

Maybe I have an overly romantic association with feminism. I grew up on Long Island, in a pretty traditional family, in a traditional town. When I'd gotten accepted to the Ivy League college I chose to attend, my mother told me that maybe I should think about staying home to go to school, since if I went to Ivy Campus I'd have student loans, and my future husband would have loans, and we'd both have loans to repay. It would be better, she thought, if I saved my future family the loan-repayment expense (exasperately, I said, well, let future hubby stay home; why shouldn't I get the education I want?). Feminism for me was a promise of a life that could be different from the one my family had--and while it's true, I'm a working mother, not at SAHM like my mother, that's not the key difference. I'm a feminist mother. I'm a travelling mother. I'm a mother who doesn't think that her daughter should restrict her choices in order to benefit a man who's not even in her life yet. I'm a mother who thinks the world needs to be different, that women are the social and political equal of men. And as I learned about feminism (or "women's lib" as many people called it), I felt optimism, that things could be different.

My best friend was the first girl in her town's little league and I was so proud. She had her picture, running bases, ponytails streaming behind her, on the front page of the sunday newsmagazine. That was feminism, too.

So I guess what's making me sad, reading these posts, is the criticism of a movement I held dear in a really personal way. I don't see feminism as organized enough to be the target of a sustained attack. (Linda Hershman, yes: bad sample, bad reasoning, hugely snippy tone in comments. Definitely worthy of rhetorical critique.) But Linda Hershman isn't feminism, and I don't think the folks disagreeing with her need to take on feminism.

Feminism opened up the world to me. And maybe it's blinding me now (even as I join with the Hershman-critiquers, and don't even get me started on Maureen Dowd....).


Anonymous said...

Yeah, but I don't see Linda Hirshcman as a feminist at all. I see her as really anti-woman, and especially anti-mother--and how does that fit into feminism?
I consider myself a feminist. And yet, I am a stay at home mom. Even when I worked, I did not work in the fast-track, I did not make tons of money, I did not work long hours. So in Hirschman's eyes, I am not a feminist at all--and in fact, because I was raised with priveledge, I am actually the enemy of feminism.
I think one of the best things I can do is raise my daughter and son to also be feminists--certainly this will do more to help the "cause" than my 40 hour/week halfway mindless job. (Though of course I could raise my kids to be feminists, and also work. And I will be going back to work, once they are in school.)

This subject is complicated, and I think I've taken up too much room here already!

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes! Thank you for addresssing this! I grew up the feminist daughter of a Ms.-reading mother, and I've always felt like feminism is BIG: it's about much more than the work-or-stay-home choice that both Hirshman and many commenters are reducing it to.

Anonymous said...

Well, to be clear, I'm not saying that *I'm* not a feminist, or that I don't feel common cause with feminism. But I do indeed believe that it was not a feminist choice to stay home and be supported by my husband. In the same way that I consider myself an environmentalist but don't believe it's an environmentalist choice when I drive to the mall and buy more bits of plastic. My post is not meant to be a criticism of feminism (though I do indeed glory in harshing on Hirshman's definition of feminism) -- it's a criticism of those who think lives can be judged based solely on their fidelity to an -ism.

I'm sorry that we've been making you uncomfortable. To be brutally honest, though, I think you may have it a bit easier making peace with the movement than those of us whose lives involve sleeping with the enemy. We get so flippin' tired of being told the various ways in which we've sold out the sisterhood, you know?

susan said...

It's not really that I've been uncomfortable, Phantom (at least not in the feeling-unwelcomed-with-my-thoughts sort of uncomfortable), just sort of troubled by the fact that I couldn't put my finger on what it was I thought was missing in the discussion (and it was clear from your post that you consider yourself a feminist). Maybe it is easier for lesbians to make peace with feminism (Elswhere and anyone else, feel free to chime in on this one!). I certainly don't think that we need a litmus test for being feminists (and if we do, it's certainly not the choice to work or not work that would make any sense). Having written that, though I don't see feminism as a monolith that I need to make peace with, but rather a philosophy or a core assumption that is pretty fundamental to how I make my way through the world. It's relevant to many of the choices I make, but not all (ditto with environmentalism). I guess i see feminism as an ideology or philosophy that I get to choose how to make real in my life.

So while I'm happy to join in the critiques of Hersmhan and Warner and anyone else who wants to tell women how we all should be living, I don't see a Feminism that is somehow screwing up analysis. And I don't know that I agree with Amy that Hershman's not a feminist--if Hershman says she is, then so be it. (Not that I think her actions are particularly advancing the cause in a healthy way...but then, much as I really don't get the Log Cabin Republicans I don't think I need to say they're not gay rights advocates in order to disagree with them).

This is a good discussion.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Susan. I also was having trouble putting my finger on what was bothering me about the discussion, and your mention of "Is it possible to point out the gendered trends in work/childcare choices without criticizing the people who are making choices?" is one of the things that bugs me.

Can I be honest in saying that yes, I do in fact resent my male senior colleague AND his wife for enabling him to stay at the office 24/7 and thus forcing me to stay at work 24/7 without offending anyone? It isn't that I care what she chooses to do with her life, but where her choice infringes on mine, then yes I guess I do blame her. Is that fair? No, but I am trying to be honest here.

Feminism has also always been so central to my ideals and my thoughts. I've made decisions with feminism in mind, and sometimes chosen to do something that I might not have chosen if I hadn't been concerned with furthering the "cause".

Anyway, I don't want to eat up your comment space, but this was a great post. Thanks for raising yet another viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I've tried to write a few responeses and they have all been way too long, so I'll try to sum it up quickly.
If feminism is supposed to be about equality, then why is it that most of the time it feels like and sounds like supremacy? Is gender supremacy somehow more acceptable than race supremacy or religious supremacy? Most of the feminists that I meet seem to be fighting so much against men that they have forgotten to fight FOR women.
What's wrong with a woman's decision to raise her children and make sure that they are the best people that they can possibly be? Is that somehow less important than being a lawyer, or a doctor, or a priest? I think the problem is that, yes, somehow it is viewed as being less important. In my mind, what could be more important? "Oh, you quit your job to be a mom?" "Yes, I wanted to make sure that my part of the next generation doesn't make the same mistakes that mine did, if possible." How is that to be looked down on?
The problem is that neither side sees the others' point of view. And it's difficult for for each of us to see each other's point of view sometimes. (In case you haven't guessed, I'm a male. Will you keep reading?) That's because we are different. Equal but different. Just as black and white people are equal but different. To say otherwise would be foolish. All you have to do is look. You have breasts, I have a penis. Your skin is black, mine is white. I can see that we are different. I can also understand that we are equal.
There is a reason why "Fight Club" and other of Chuck Palahnuik's works have been so popular, especially among males. There is a lot of us who are tired of being blamed for everything. We're always stupid, we're always wrong, it's always our fault.
I guess I made this response into a bit of rant. But I guess my point is that people like Linda Hershman do not bring people together. It seperates us. To listen to her you would think that there is some vast conspiracy among males where we, not only intentionally, but maliciously subjugate women. I can assure you that this is not the case.
I can personally assure you that we are just as clueless about the workings of the universe as you are.
And I know that I am posting this anonymously, only because I don't know how this whole blogging thing really works. If anyone would like to respond to me my email address is:
Sorry this was still really long.

Anonymous said...

feminism sucks. women are oblivious to their own feminine power. it doesnt have anything to do with overt authority. its a sexual power. and thats all they need. to ask for more is to throw the natural balance out of wack. women are naturally evil and they need to be controlled so they dont become monsters. notice how women always want more and more and more of everything? they have no discipline and no responsibility. feminism and its effects are what is destroying our country today. ever watch lifetime? notice how every show is a story vilifying men and making women out to be saints and victims? you see how even when they have equality they still behave in a sadistic and vengeful manner? men dont. men treat women with respect. women are always looking to emasculate a man even when they dont need to. so in summary, feminism sucks. its evil. dont be a monster.