June 22, 2012

"Having It All," or, "Women Were Better Off Before Feminism"

One of my classes last semester was about the sociology of family and relationships, and gender issues, as you can imagine, came up a lot. (Editorial note: I'll run out of Ireland stories eventually, I swear.) Every week we had a discussion tutorial, and as the semester went on we moved deeper into gender-roles territory and my ability to keep my mouth shut decreased exponentially. One day, we were talking about the expectations on women in the modern world: My classmates noted that stay-at-home moms are often seen as lazy, that women are expected to have jobs and keep house and care for their children, with these demands increased by the absence of things like affordable childcare and by the fact that women still perform most housework. (Interestingly, none of my classmates seemed to have a problem with this - they thought women who insisted their husbands do an equal share of things like cooking and cleaning were making a big deal out of nothing.) Finally, one woman said, "Really, feminism has failed; women were better off before, when they didn't have pressure to work and could stay in the home."

Putting aside the fact that the notion of women not working outside the home has always applied only to wealthier women, so her statement wasn't exactly historically accurate, I was hugely disheartened to hear her say that. To me, the unequal pressure women face is reason for MORE feminism, not less. But I don't think I articulated it very well in the discussion, and ended up leaving feeling embarrassed. Fortunately, Rebecca Traister at Salon identified the problem much more articulately: the notion of women "having it all" is not only kind of dumb, but harmful to feminism.

Here's my favorite bit:

We don’t lay the same booby traps for men. We don’t constantly quiz and evaluate and poke and prod and take their emotional temperature, asking if they feel fulfilled and happy, if they have everything they want, if their every youthful aspiration has been met sufficiently, if they feel that they’re measuring up at the office, in the kitchen, in bed. If we did, we might find out that they – especially younger ones, increasingly used to sharing workplaces and domestic and familial responsibilities with women – also feel stressed, guilty, anxiety-stricken, unfulfilled, questioning. But it’s not likely that we would then use their admissions of discontent to diagnose a larger male inability to balance effectively, or conclude that they are not realistically able to maintain the dominance they’ve enjoyed for millennia because having so much power is a) bad for them, b) unnatural or c) impossible. We’d probably just blame their dissatisfaction on feminism.
The idea that I should be able to have a career and a perfect house and perfect children and be entirely emotionally fulfilled in a world where the cards are still stacked against me because of my gender, never mind the fact that I don't think anyone gets to be 100% emotionally fulfilled all the time, is ridiculous. But that's how we talk about feminism. In fact, the article Traister was responding to, a piece titled Why Women Still Can't Have It All over at the Atlantic, spends an awful lot of time pointing out that the reason we can't "have it all" is because of economic and social structures. But it's packaged - with the headline, the picture, the accompanying video - as if my classmate was right, and this whole career thing is just too hard for women. And that just makes it all the harder to point out that the real problem isn't feminism failing, it's feminism not being done yet.


Tori Groene said...

It's very interesting to see the different perspectives. I have heard a few women to go as far as saying they're angry with the feminists because they are now expected to do great things when staying home is easier. "School sucks. I wouldn't have to do it if the feminists didn't ruin it for the rest of us. I could just marry a rich guy and be happy." The ways which men (and women) of a patriarchy will paint feminists are very interesting, often saddening, and sometimes infuriating.

Foxie said...

I think, 'feminism hasn't failed, it's just getting started' should be our next slogan.