Argh. I referred to this article the other day. It’s the one where she argues that women who have the ability to be CEO’s and so on should do so, because to chose to stay at home if you have the opportunity to do otherwise is to undermine feminism. You’re letting the men win, so to speak. My issues with this argument are many, but I want to start by saying, I see her point. In the context of our economy, if women continue to opt to be the ones who stay at home with the kids (often, as the handsome fella pointed out, because they are being paid less than their male counterparts), it is difficult to change the landscape of the workplace. It is difficult to have the argument that working conditions need to be adapted to accommodate working mothers. The conversation absolutely needs to happen, and minds need to be changed. Got that.
Where I disagree is in her assumption that CEO’s are the best you can be. I don’t mean that I think motherhood is the epitome of a woman’s life- I don’t believe that at all. Being a mother is important work but it’s not THE most important work, ever. But arguing that becoming a CEO is the best a woman can do is automatically accepting the capitalist context. I’ve been on about this all week. It is difficult to have conversations about equality when really you are having a conversation about economics, but aren’t acknowledging it. This woman is buying into the idea that the best place to be is at work- regardless whether you are a man or a woman or whatever, and that therefore there should be equality in the workplace. I argue that the whole concept of the workplace is flawed, and that it traps us all in lives of veritable slavery, and perpetuates inequalities to boot. Every time I get into an argument about how stay at home moms should be fairly compensated, I come back to the heart of it: this culture has a really fucked up way of valuing work. See: salary variance between CEOs and teachers. End argument.
Friedan and many feminist scholars before and after her have maintained that equality, security, and human dignity are impossible to achieve without earning one’s own money. Without economic independence… she cannot escape an intolerable relationship, and she cannot pursue an independent existence if she prefers to remain single. The feminist concerns that women are enabled to have self-determination and independence are, of course, entirely valid. However, when they are framed only in the context of participation and prevalence in the market economy, they are trapped by the confines of the Empire paradigm where personal economic power is the only security… A domestic partner can be intolerable and repressive, so too can be a job… if a wife, say, is reliant upon her husband’s paycheck, he, in turn, is dependent upon the vicissitudes, or even the whims, of his employer. They are both vulnerable if their life skills are limited to whatever they are able to do for a paycheck. They are more stable if the paycheck is only a small percentage of the livelihood, and life skills, increased self-reliance, community and family networks supply the rest.
- Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemakers
So what’s the answer to all this? I don’t really know. But here’s what I think: I think a society that values work that contributes to the well being of the community will immediately make long strides toward equality in the “workplace.” What does that mean? Well, there is “work” that needs to be done in any community- work of getting food, or growing it, and preparing it, and making the vessels to hold the food, and clothing, and shelter, and tools, oh and being healers and leaders and caregivers and all those social sort of positions. Those are all important things that have to get done. And when you do one of those jobs (believe me, I know from experience), there is a sense of satisfaction that is hard to meet by shuffling papers around a desk all day.
Now, if you live in a community where everyone has a “job” that is contributing to the overall well being of the community- why do they need to get paid at all? They’re doing valuable work, right? They’re contributing? And a healthy society will have excess to take care of those who are say, unable to contribute the same amount of others, because everyone would work to their ability and inclinations. Oh I know, this is all very idealistic, but I am simplifying. I’m writing a blog post, after all, not a damn dissertation.
Think about it this way. Before we hit the industrial revolution, and even for a while after that, this whole “housewife” notion was more or less non existent, except in the highest classes, and that was another issue entirely. For the majority of people, both partners contributed fairly equally. You could make arguments that there was inequality between man’s work and woman’s work, because there was- there was no reason for men to always be the default decision makers except for that whole patriarchy thing. But in terms of actual amount of work, and what they got out of it- well, if you were a farming family, each member had their tasks, and they did them. There weren’t all these arguments about whether or not stay at home moms were being fairly compensated. The family worked as a unit toward the overall success of the family. It wasn’t your money and my money- everyone was contributing, and whatever money came out of that went back into the family. In terms of nothing more than how much time and energy each person contributed, things were (broadly) fairly equal.
This discussion of fair compensation is largely a result of industrialization- of taking people out of the home, to go work for a salary. Well, then you have issues. The man goes and works in a factory all day and brings home a salary, the woman stays home and cares for the household, which meant at that time making a lot of the clothing, mending, making food from scratch, and a lot of other difficult tasks, in addition to the stuff we still have, like cleaning up and taking care of the kids. Still not a huge problem (aside from the obvious division on gender lines). Everyone contributing.
Then you get the housewife thing. After World War 2, there was such an influx of consumerism- of people being able to afford all those labor saving devices and so on. Suddenly your job as a woman was more or less to sit around all day doing nothing. Again, making sweeping generalizations and ignoring the people who still had to have two incomes to survive. Now you have a problem. The man goes to work and brings home a salary, and because she doesn’t have much of anything else to do, the woman’s job became to take care of the man- no longer as an equal partner, with important work of her own, but basically as an accessory. Of course we had feminism. And women got themselves into the workplace. And now you have no choice, because to afford to live you need two incomes.
But imagine another possibility: imagine both partners contribute to the success of the whole (the relationship, or family, or what have you). The handsome fella and I would both be thrilled to death to spend all of our time doing things that contributed to our success as a unit, be that producing all our own food, making our own tools, making clothes, maintaining our shelter, what have you. It’s only because we have to pay rent and taxes that we need “jobs”. Without those we’d both be equal: we’d each work according to our ability and inclination, and divide the tasks we don’t like so much equally. It’s what we’re trying to do now anyway, only the jobs get in the way, and we end up arguing about money.
So take it a step further, and imagine everyone works like this. You are equally contributing in your family based on your abilities and inclination. And in turn you are equally contributing to your community. Rent and taxes cease to be an issue- everyone has space, everyone is provided for, because you aren’t spending your time doing something completely pointless in exchange for money. You’re spending your time doing things that need to be done- taking care of the elders in your family, and making tools, or whatever it is that is your contribution. What are taxes for other than the things we could all do together if we weren’t so busy producing nonsense things?
Again, over simplification. But not insane. More and more and more I hear other people voicing the same thing, coming to the same realization. We’re all shackled to this machine, to use the cliche. And so long as we’re still all forced to strive for that intangible- the economy- still working not for the good of the community, but for money- these conversations about equality are going to go nowhere. Because at the end of the day, the highest value is placed on the work that supposedly contributes to the economy. To the CEO, not the teacher.
And that’s not good for anyone.
*** A lot of these ideas I’ve had rattling around in my head for years, and a lot of them were crystallized by reading Radical Homemakers, by Shannon Hayes. So I have to give her credit for that.