Monday, January 02, 2006

No One Benefits from the Rat Race

I am a behind the feminist curve today, having discovered this nasty bit of New year Brooks opining (the link is to the Tennesse Guerilla Women so you don't have to pay at the NYT) just now. I even considered not writing anything, since what Brooks wants is for a feminista like me to read this, getting spittin' mad, so he can trap me in some stay-at-home parenting bashing.

Because I cannot resist writing about the politics of gender differences and how social conservatives love to find justifications for keeping women home and men at work, I am wading into this pile of shit.

First check out what has already been written on this post over at Pandagon, and Echidne of the Snakes.

Brooks starts out rehearsing an argument from Linda Hirshman in order to set her up, he thinks, as a strawwoman argument against which to erect his praise of domesticity. From my standpoint, his piece is unapologetic piece of propaganda designed to further shove a wedge between stay-at-home moms and feminism. Brooks paints feminists as anti-motherhood, which is a popular lie spread by social conservatives who don't want women to compete with them in the public sphere, nor with whom do they want to share domestic duties equitably. By depicting feminists as dismissive of the work of childrearing, Brooks can paint himself as the champion of mothers and their awesome power to do the most important work on the planet.

I went to read Hirshman's piece, which inspired Brooks' column, over at the American Prospect Online. I was really struck by how reasonable these first few paragraphs are, which consider why so many women, after 30+ years of feminism, women are not the leaders and decision makers of the public sphere and saddled with most of the domestic duties. Consider this excerpt:

The real glass ceiling is at home.

Looking back, it seems obvious that the unreconstructed family was destined to re-emerge after the passage of feminism’s storm of social change. Following the original impulse to address everything in the lives of women, feminism turned its focus to cracking open the doors of the public power structure. This was no small task. At the beginning, there were male juries and male Ivy League schools, sex-segregated want ads, discriminatory employers, harassing colleagues. As a result of feminist efforts -- and larger economic trends -- the percentage of women, even of mothers in full- or part-time employment, rose robustly through the 1980s and early ’90s.

But then the pace slowed. The census numbers for all working mothers leveled off around 1990 and have fallen modestly since 1998. In interviews, women with enough money to quit work say they are “choosing” to opt out. Their words conceal a crucial reality: the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism. Add to this the good evidence that the upper-class workplace has become more demanding and then mix in the successful conservative cultural campaign to reinforce traditional gender roles and you’ve got a perfect recipe for feminism’s stall.

As I read on Hirshman's piece was full of a mix of interesting and frightening insights. She suggests that a liberal arts college curriculum is not a good preparation for a well-paying job. She extols the virtues of losing your "capitalism virginity" and suggests women find "starving artist" partners, who are more likely to share domestic duties. Her bottom line is to emphasize the importance of economic independence, if not economic superiority to your partner. Money=power=shaping institutions--including the family.

This is bold and no nonsense writing. The praise of capitalism and acquisition of power and money is something I am much more likely to hear uttered in Republican circles rather than the starving artist crowd I truck with. I am not particularly fond of the practical solutions put forward here to force change in the gender roles preserved by the traditional family.

Yet, if I am totally honest with myself, I have made a lot of choices that protect me from finding myself enmeshed in the traditional family. I have feared getting burned out by doing most of the work with little economic stability. I would never entrust my economic stability to a man, a fact which has made a few of my male friends and students call me bitter. I am too cynical about real life, which I think ends in divorces thereby leaving many women with young children in a precarious situation.

I would like to believe that we can envision different notions of families and marriage that do not put women into the impossible situation of work-like-a-dog-to-get-ahead or let your husband or partner work-like-a-dog-to-get-ahead so you can stay home full time raising your children well. Who wants this decision? And, the fact is that only the really wealthy sector of the population can afford to let one partner stay home to raise children. The middle and lower classes simply cannot allow one person to stay at home unless they are blessed with an extended family willing to contribute to the household.

Many women have made the utterly ethical decision to spend more time with their children, quit the rat race of the highly competitive workplace, and pass on the benefit of their intelligence to their children. In each particular case, I can understand the decision the mother has made and understand the value of the decision. The overall trend of these micro decisions is that women are still dependent on men economically and men still hold the political and social power in the public realm. The only way that institutions change, including the family, is for women to have as much power to make decisions as men do. I am sorry but no one is going to invite women to make a difference in the halls of power.

The little acknowledged downside that Brooks fails to discuss is how the traditional family cheats men out of the fruits of childrearing. Many fathers are working their tails off and unable to have a lot of quality time with their children. Male identity in a social conservative land is welded to work performance and success. How many men are rewarded in Brooks' world for cutting back their hours at the law firm to participate more fully in their children's lives?

The insanity of the public sphere drains anyone who is participating. Why else do we have a gazillion anti-anxiety, anti-depression, insomnia medications trying to keep us together to keep up with the brutal pace of our work lives. We will not fix this fact by continuing to shift the burden and responsibility of our future generations onto women. We need to seriously consider the world that insane profit-seeking and greed bequeaths to all of us. Cause, you know what, ain't nobody free from getting a part of themselves diminished by this rat race.