Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Feminism and Work: Where Things Went Wrong

The 1950s ideal was a nuclear family where the father worked, the mother stayed home to take care of the kids, and everything looked like Leave it to Beaver. Many people still hold onto that ideal and there may even be people who live it and love it.

For others that ideal was anything but idyllic. Women who craved intellectual pursuits felt stunted. Those who worked, out of desire or necessity, were relegated to the least interesting jobs at half the pay. Women were dependent on men and sometimes financially trapped in abusive situations.

But women's lack of opportunities for employment, financial freedom, intellectual stimulation, and positions of prestige were not the only problem with that system. And in their zeal to correct the injustices that women were experiencing, many feminists do not appear to have taken the time to examine the bigger picture.

The system was flawed in fundamental ways for men as well. Men were expected to be providers. They were valued for their purchasing power alone. They were, and often still are, treated like automatons with no ability to fulfill emotional needs.

Having worked for many years for divorce attorneys, I saw first hand how these societal roles played out in the worst situations. Yes, I saw women who gave twenty years of their lives to husband and family and then got dumped for a younger woman. And I saw deadbeat dads who refused to pay child support and flitted around the world living like kings while their ex wives waited tables to pay the rent.

I also saw cases where men were assumed to be of little value in child rearing and where the wife received preferential treatment in deciding where the kids would live. And I saw many wives keep children away from their fathers out of spite.

But the problem was more fundamental than how people were stunted by the gender rolls they were playing. What women should have been doing is questioning the hierarchy that we are all serving. They should have been questioning the assumption that only paid work is deserving of admiration. They should have been questioning how much of ourselves we are giving to our employers and how much is left over for ourselves.

A middle class family could once support itself on the wages of one decently paid man. Now most families have two wage earners and struggle. That isn't news to anyone. Rarely, however, do I hear that issue couched in terms of how many family hours we are giving to someone else. If a family used to give 40 hours a week to the company and is now giving 80, 100, or more, we went terribly wrong somewhere.

In fairness, we should have split that working week with men. We could have had some of that intellectual stimulation and income, and they could have become more a part of the emotional lives of their children and the civic lives of their communities. Even more importantly, we would not be relying on poor women to clean the homes and take care of the children of the more privileged.

The people who have benefited the most from the gender wars are our employers. They have been able to get more and more out of us and we have received less and less in return. It's time we stopped battling each other and started working together to bring that family work contribution back down to forty hours.

Then men and women can go back to fighting over who is going to do the dishes.

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2 comments:

Sarah Woosley said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Feminism has been an important part of obtaining equal rights largely in a legal sense. But, in the social sense the gender roles have become more difficult to define, and families have become harder to maintain. There is certainly an imbalance.

Melanie said...

We get it. Now we just have to convince about 300 million more people. That's only 150 million each.