Thursday, March 15, 2007

Houdini Oneself Out of That Straight Jacket: Do it For Your Daughters

You really ought to go read SteveG's post today on Clinton's total failure to reject General Pace's warped worldview. (Pam at Pandagon makes clear the Obama dropped the ball too and only John Edwards got it right).

I am going to blog about something else: the straight-jacket of gender roles on career women who also happen to be mothers. I happened upon this article in the Boston Globe via Amanda. Kris Frieswick, the author of this piece, deserves applause for a no nonsense look at why women, who outearn their husbands, still do the majority of housework and child duties in marriages. Rather than toe the "opt-out" revolution line or other sexist arguments that women "choose" to earn less than men to devote more time with their children, Frieswick makes plain that what is at work is gender roles. That's right. It's not mother nature (the classic explanation of the patriarchy) that draws women out of the workforce and back into the home. Nope. It's deeply entrenched gender roles, passed down by one's parents and social institutions, that lead to an internalization of patriarchy.

This article is not about women who opt out. This article is about women who work long hours, earn more than their husbands, and still let their husbands crash on the couch watching ESPN after work, while they run the vacuum cleaner. My Dad was just telling me that he witnesses this in his new partner, who is the breadwinner and still has to pick up the children, make dinner, and handle all domestic duties, while her husband heads out to the movies.

Frieswick argues:

Some experts attribute this phenomenon to what they call "gender deviation neutralization." By "deviating" from established gender roles by outearning the husband, the wife believes she is emasculating him. Men largely define their maleness by rejecting femaleness, so he refuses to be further de-maled by doing housework. The wife, meanwhile, feels so guilty for emasculating her husband that she overcompensates by taking on even more of the traditional female roles to act more "feminine" so her husband will feel more "masculine." Et voila! We've got a female CEO cleaning her toilets at 2 a.m. because she feels too guilty to hire a housekeeper or demand that her husband do it.

Witness gender deviation neutralization theory in action. Marney (who asked that her last name not be used) is a sales operation manager in New Hampshire. She is the primary breadwinner in her family. Her husband, who earns half of what she does, handles the after-work child care for their young daughter because he gets home hours earlier than his wife. But when it comes to housework, she still does it all. She says she'd like him to contribute more, but "that's a conversation that hasn't happened because it's just understood because of how tired he is after a day at work and time with our daughter that he's just too tired to do the housework, so I do it." Isn't she tired, too, after a 12-hour day at work? "Yeah, but I still manage to get things done around the house."

But there's more to the story, and it explains why Marney's voice is taut, controlled, and flat, yet on the verge of tears as we speak. "My husband is from a family of stay-at-home moms with husband breadwinners," she says. "They don't understand what my life is like." She says her mother-in-law has "called me selfish to my face" for working so many hours, and the entire family is highly critical of the amount of child care her husband does, especially when she travels for work. I ask why they don't respect the fact she's the primary breadwinner. Turns out her husband's family has no idea she's the breadwinner because neither she nor her husband has told them. "I promised my husband we would never have that conversation with his family," she says. (Hence her request not to use her last name.) "I don't want to embarrass him. He doesn't want that information to get out."

Here's a woman willing to put her sanity in jeopardy to protect her husband's ego. She is convinced she is setting a good example for her daughter by working so hard and because her husband feeds her dinner every night. It doesn't occur to her that she's also teaching her daughter that protecting a man's ego is more important than defending her own right to pursue a satisfying career and, oh yeah, support the family. This is how gender roles get perpetuated.
I read and reread this passage. Brilliant! I want all my female and male students to pay attention to this phenomena. More importantly, I don't want my female students perpetuating these roles by modeling them for their daughters and sons. I am not saying this is easy stuff. An internalized gender role, perpetuated at all levels of society, is not easy to shrug off. I have always been somewhat taken by Peter Kramer's wacky (perhaps disturbing) argument that Prozac, taken as an enhancement drug, might be one way to help women rebel against this role. Therapy could work too. Whatever it takes.