Archive for January, 2009

Feminism and the Domestic Sphere

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

I love home and family and good friends and good food and warmth and comfort and the leisure to enjoy them.  My greatest pleasure is not traveling to exotic lands or attending cultural events (although I enjoy both) – but sitting at a table surrounded by friends and family enjoying good food and good conversation.  And, as I grow older and children and friends scatter, to my sorrow, this is a pleasure which seems harder and harder to come by. But that is another topic for another day. In this essay, I want to focus on the fact that , as a woman who considers herself to be a feminist, it has always pained me that feminism appears to devalue the domestic sphere by assuming the patriarchal position that only paid work (done by males) has real value;  therefore, only by getting women out of the home and into traditionally male jobs can women achieve value.  This line of reasoning seems to reinforce the idea that women’s work is, indeed, worthless.  When most of us know by personal experience that women’s work enriches life immensely.

I have always valued the domestic sphere.  As a child, I loved coming home to a loving mother and a comfortable home. For a few years, I even had the pleasure of an extended family, with a great aunt and uncle who lived down the street. I practiced the piano at their house and shared my school experiences with them – and felt loved and cared for. Later, when our family fell on hard times and my mother went to work outside our home (much against her will), I hated coming home to a cold, empty house, still smelling of the breakfast we had all wolfed down on our way out the door to work and school.

Years later, when I was a mother, I treasured the few years I had at home with my children. But all too soon, economic pressures also forced me to go to work outside the home and enter the world of the frazzled mother, trying to find reliable, trustworthy childcare so I could concentrate on my work without worrying every minute about my children. But just being separated from my youngest, who at four still required a lot of lap time, was wrenching.

The creation of a comfortable haven which provides both physical and emotional security seems to me to be a very worthwhile  endeavor.  But our society and our economy are doing everything they can to ensure that a stable domestic environment is a luxury which few can afford.  And this is primarily the result of women being forced to work one and sometimes two jobs outside the home because none of the work they do inside the home is deemed to have any economic worth or cultural value.  And before you think I am on a right-wing, kirche, kuche, kinder rant, let me quickly say that I am not recommending that women should be imprisoned in the home, tending the home fires; I am not recommending “a return” to traditional roles. I am merely pointing out that in the loss of the domestic sphere – in the diminishing hours that anyone has available to spend at home – we have lost a lot.

Toward a Woman-Friendly Feminism, II

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

On one feminist blog I visit regularly,  a discussion of the inauguration has devolved into a criticism of Michelle Obama’s self-designation as “Mom-in-Chief” and has further disintegrated into an attack on stay-at-home moms – as if they are lazy do nothings.  I am soooooo tired of feminists who are so hostile to everything women are and everything women have traditionally done. Having had the great good fortune of mothering two little boys many years ago, and having done both men’s work and women’s work, I can truthfully say that the job of looking after infant humans is probably the most exhausting and demanding work I have ever done;  I can also say it was the most pleasurable and the most rewarding.

Providing  tender loving caring to children is probably the most important work any person will ever do. It is critical to the continuation of the species. It is critical to the development of socially responsible human beings. And, in most cases, it is better for both the mother and the child if the child’s mother  is available to look after her child. But she doesn’t have to do it in a traditional marriage; she doesn’t have to do it at home; and she doesn’t have to do it all the time.

If we had paid maternity leave of up to two years,  mother-friendly work places, and more flex time, we could create a world where  women would truly be free to choose to have — as well as not to have — children.  I am for a feminism which recognizes the problems facing the majority of women and which is devoted to helping us all. I am tired  of a feminism made up of and focused primarily on women who aspire to enter professions traditionally associated with men.

The feminist concept of choice should not be limited to the choice not to have children (although, admittedly, the ability to avoid unwanted pregnancies is a fundamental freedom for women), but should be expanded to improve and enrich the lives of all women, all the time,  even mothers .

Toward a Woman-Friendly Feminism

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

I read a lot of feminist blogs and comment occasionally; often there are differing opinions as to what feminism means and what sorts of positions feminists should take. So, as a result I have been feeling the need to define for myself, if for no one else, what being a feminist means to me.

To be a feminist means never to forget that I live in a patriarchal society. To live in a patriarchal society is to live in a society which assigns value based on gender, using the male sex as the standard. In patriarchal societies, men and men’s work are viewed as vastly more valuable than women and women’s work (think of the difference between the incomes of a hedge-fund manager and a stay-at-home mom).

This assignment of value is a result of cultural beliefs rather than a reflection of “real” social value. Unfortunately, less conscious members of patriarchal societies (both men and women) do not recognize the arbitrary nature of patriarchal values, but take it as a given — as the natural order of things — that men and men’s work are more valuable than women and women’s work (i.e., that hedge fund managers deserve to be paid billions, while stay-at-home moms deserve to be paid nothing). Members of patriarchal societies unquestioningly accept patriarchal values as “real” values because they have been programmed to believe that patriarchy itself is “reality.”

Note: When I use the terms “men’s work” and “women’s work,” I mean work traditionally associated with men or women – not work which should be done by men or women.

As a feminist, I no longer view patriarchy as “reality”. I take the post-modern position that cultures create their own realities ; therefore, I recognize patriarchy as a construct of culture rather than a fact of nature – and a very unjust one at that, especially as it pertains to women. Consequently, I do not feel that I must accept patriarchy’s value system as representative of a reality which, like it or not, I must put up with.

If we created patriarchy, we can uncreate it and construct a more just society. Recognizing that patriarchy systematically and arbitrarily devalues women while systematically overvaluing men, feminism’s primary task, as I see it, is to make more people conscious of the injustice of the patriarchal value system in order to right the wrongs which patriarchy systematically inflicts on women.

But patriarchal programming is so powerful and so insidious that even women who call themselves feminists have a difficult time fighting clear of it. For the feminist movement appears to have unconsciously bought into the idea that men’s work is more valuable than women’s. Working from this mistaken assumption, feminists believe that the only way women can achieve full social value is to be accepted as an equal in the male world, which means denying that there are any differences between men and women, totally ignoring the demands of domestic life which the majority of women have to deal with.

Instead of working to create a workplace which can accommodate the needs of most women who are attempting to juggle the roles of wife, mother, and breadwinner, the feminist movement has more or less joined the patriarchal bandwagon that requires women to become ersatz males – regardless of the realities of their lives as women. Feminists have bought into the patriarchal line which says, “Ladies, if you want to play in our world, you have to play by our rules. This is a feminist movement which has sought not to overthrow patriarchy but to join it. There is no feminist questioning of the overvaluing of work traditionally done by males. They just want to jump on the bandwagon so they, too, can reap the rewards from an unjust system.

In addition, there is no questioning of the devaluation of women’s work. Nowhere have I encountered in mainstream feminist rhetoric any serious argument for a boost in wages for day-care workers, or waitresses, or cooks, or cleaners. Most of these jobs today do not even pay a living wage. And a woman who chooses to stay at home with her chidren is frequently looked on as a traitor. In fact, I can find no group more contemptuous of women’s work in general and motherhood in particular than feminists themselves. The end result is that feminists are reinforcing the patriarchal value system.

I believe that feminists want to achieve a more just society, but I think they are going about it the wrong way. A feminism seeking a more just society would question the ridiculous amounts money in the form of salaries and bonuses men (and some women) receive for doing work the social value of which is extremely questionable. A feminism seeking a more just society would also question the ridiculously low pay – in many cases no pay – women receive for doing work which has enormous social value – such as childcare, eldercare and care of the sick.

Instead of trying to sell the idea that there are no differences between men and women (as if we were all disembodied genderless minds floating in space), feminists need to recognize that, regardless of whether or not there are innate differences in male and female brains, there are actual differences in male and female bodies and, consequently, the way men and women experience life – especially reproductive life. And in spite of the few far-out feminists who have such contempt for childbearing they envision a perfect world where women eschew motherhood altogether, most women are going to continue to have children, for the simple reason that motherhood is one of the greatest joys available to a human being – and it is an experience which is uniquely available to the female of the species – no matter how difficult patriarchy (and the feminist movement) tries to make it.

To really help women, feminists should stop trying to pressure women into becoming men; they should stop promulgating the myth that there are no differences between men and women, when it is clear to any fool that there are. Instead, they should recognize the differences and point out the inequities in the values assigned these differences. They should put their energies toward creating a work environment that accommodates itself to the exigencies of women’s lives, rather than joining forces with the male world in requiring that women accommodate the very real demands of their lives to the arbitrary demands of the workplace. They should work toward a more equitable society where work traditionally associated with women is paid at the very least a living wage – regardless of where it is done. They should work to better women’s lives, no matter whether a woman chooses the business/professional world or the domestic sphere. Bottom line, feminists should stop trying to turn women into men.