Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Sorta political: This question isn't going away

My title is the journalist's favourite threat. What it really means is, "We are going to keep asking this question because we know it's hurting you." Thus the New York Times keeps finding ways to do stories about Mormonism.

But what happens when a question that journalists wish would just go away keeps coming back? For instance, "Can women have it all?" Even if you think it's a stupid question, and I sympathize if you do, the damn thing keeps coming back and that is significant.

To really grasp what is at issue you have to scale the question back. Because the people who ask it don't really mean "have it all". What they mean is that they want personal fulfillment in three areas. And everyone knows what they are. Here, for example, is Rebecca Traister responding to the Slaughter piece that most recently asked the question that won't go away:
After all, if feminism is supposed to provide women with complete fulfillment, and allow them to have it all, then anyone who’s less than fully pleased by her lot – who works long hours, struggles to pay bills, spends more hours over dirty dishes than her mate, who’s guilty about missing her kid’s play or her business partner’s PowerPoint, who feels tugged in ways that she perceives her husband does not – is not simply experiencing firsthand the ways in which sexism, the economic divide, the wage gap and patriarchal models for public and personal life persist. She’s not even simply experiencing the human condition of dissatisfaction and yearning.
 What I want to call your attention to is the thing Traister takes for granted. Because there are a whole lot of things that might make up personal fulfillment but Traister knows that the issue is really about three things. And you can see them in that paragraph: career, children, husband.

And could I remind you that there is an even easier argument to make here than the one Traister makes. Because feminism was never supposed to be about those things. Go back and read the manifestos that early second wave feminists wrote and you'll see that none of those three things mattered very much. Career? Second wave feminists were radicals. They wanted to remake the capitalist system. Children? They wanted to free women from the sense that having children was necessary for fulfillment. Husband? Another "need" the founders of feminism wanted to free women from.

That we got to where we are was the result of a compromise: feminists needed to win women over and women weren't listening to Shulamith Firestone talking about the "dialectic of sex" and the dangers of over populating the planet and the need to free women from childbearing. So some feminists switched tactics and started listening to women and found that the sacred triumvirate of career, children and husband was what women wanted. Only not necessarily in that order!

Thus it was that feminism started focusing on changing the office, the family and marriage.

So guys, sit back and relax: this isn't our problem. We didn't create it and we can't solve it. This is a debate that women are having with other women about what fulfillment for women is and what it should be.

Again, read the Traister piece carefully and you can see that she knows this. She wants the question to go away, so she mocks the women asking it but, in so doing, inadvertently makes it clear what the question is really about:
What does “having it all” even mean? Affordable childcare or a nanny who speaks Mandarin? Decent school lunches or organic string cheese? A windowed office or a higher minimum wage? Public transportation that reliably gets you to work or a driver who will whisk you from kindergarten dropoff in time for the board meeting? Does it mean never feeling stress or guilt? Does it mean feeling satisfied all the time?
Good questions. But if you stop mocking for a moment, it will quickly become obvious that overcoming stress and guilt so they can feel satisfied is the thing that concerns most women. To make it all go away, Traister is just pulling a cheap rhetorical trick here in inflating one side to the point it seems ridiculous. "How dare you complain the caviar is too salty while other women are working for minimum wage!" Meanwhile, the woman reading her piece is actually sitting at her desk in her cubicle eating a tasteless, and slightly damp, sandwich she picked up at the place downstairs and feeling guilty that she isn't working, guilty because her child is struggling at school and she can't help her, and worrying that her husband is dissatisfied with their sex life because she is so stressed out she can't do anything more than go through the motions.

And there is the problem for feminism: affordable childcare, school lunches, minimum wage and public transit are abstract issues for the college-educated, career women who are most likely to support feminism. But feeling secure and loved, having and raising children who can also succeed, and working at a job where they will feel they are doing something productive and useful and where they feel that their work is respected by others matters a whole lot.

And all Traister can do is try to distract them by, wait for it, making them feel guilty for daring to want what they want for themselves.
It is a trap, a setup for inevitable feminist short-fall. Irresponsibly conflating liberation with satisfaction, the “have it all” formulation sets an impossible bar for female success and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it’s feminism – as opposed to persistent gender inequity – that’s to blame.
It's irresponsible to conflate "liberation with satisfaction"? Really? Here is the question: could any sort of liberation that didn't bring satisfaction be worth it? Hey feminism, you told women that you could revolutionize their lives, do you really believe, even for a second, that they didn't take that to mean you'd enable them, as individuals, to lead more fulfilling lives?

PS: From the archives,
There is a hilarious video below of the Rolling Stones lipsynching and miming there way through a recording of Satisfaction. Watch it but listen to the lyrics carefully and ask yourself, is Mick describing a male experience or a female one? Whoops, doesn't make sense. It is obviously meant to be male but I mean is it convincingly male? Did men in 1965 worry how white their shirts could be? The ads at the time about white shirts were aimed at women not men. I think that whatever the surface meaning, the song really comes off more convincing as a description of a woman's experience. I think that is why only the Rolling Stones could have had a hit with this in 1965. A male singer whose sexuality was less ambiguous than Mick's would have come off sounding like a loser.

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