The Central Failure of Feminism

POSTED ON Aug 13th 2013 BY LESLIE LOFTIS UNDER Feminism, Housekeeping, Online Debate, Social Media

A long story short, a male feminist professor of feminism, melted down on Twitter the other day. It seems he isn’t exactly the model feminist.* His confession catalyzed a long in coming discussion about the central failure of feminism. As practiced in the United States, feminism is about the problems of elite white women.

This feminist fracture lurks in every Mommy Wars comment thread in complaints about whether working outside the home is really a choice or about jobs that aren’t interesting and fulfilling. But it doesn’t get much top billing attention. I know of one article by Caitlin Flanagan that tried to spark discussion. (More on it below.) But it’s one of the reasons feminists scorn Flanagan. More recently a group of conservative women have tried to get the truth out about that bread winner moms story, that it didn’t convey good news for women of color. From Kay Hymowitz, Another Side of ‘Feminist Victory’: [emphasis mine]

You’d never guess from the triumphant headlines that almost two-thirds of those family breadwinners are single mothers.

That is, these mothers are not “the top earners,” as “The Week” put it; they are the only earners. Only 37 percent of the 40 percent of “breadwinning women” are married mothers who are making more than their husbands….

The Pew report describes a large economic and cultural disparity between breadwinning wives and single mothers that also defies the happy headlines. Single mothers are disproportionately black and Latino….

The growing marriage and disadvantage gap between educated and well-off women on the one hand, and less educated and financially challenged on the other is not news. Scholars and the occasional reporter have been warning of the trend for years.

But for the most part, the media, wedded to a narrative of untarnished feminist progress, prefers to ignore those women for whom sexual and economic freedom has not meant a husband who changes diapers and a law career.

“Employment and gender roles in the United States continue to shift away from the Leave It to Beaver model. Murphy Brown is winning,” the Atlantic cheered. It speaks volumes that the article’s vision of a single mother is a sit-com character who is a television news star.

Murphy Brown might be winning, but no one else is. In fact many of the changes to which Murphy Brown owes her success are the very same changes that create and tie down the struggling single mother. Just one example, practicing “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” isn’t much of a burden for the highly paid Murphy Browns. They can hire a nannies. For the not so highly paid, not having a partner is a real problem. (Note to self: must finish Razing the Village post. After school starts.)

Caitlin Flanagan had an excellent conclusion to her 2004 piece. I wrote about it at my old blog in 2011. But the topic makes establishment feminists uncomfortable. It doesn’t surprise me even a little that it took the crowd sourcing Twitter to get the topic some air.

My old post:

The China and the iPhone article I linked to in my Tiger Mothers post, has reminded me of a related point.  The bit about China having lots of low skill labor got me thinking that this Tiger Mother stuff was a luxury of families who didn’t have to worry about things like food or shelter.  If you are a poor Chinese family, you teach your child what to do to survive in China.  I see this often in the Mommy Wars, too.  These heated discussions about modern motherhood ignore, or even use, poor mothers.  Caitlin Flanagan made this point a few years back, but it bears rereading.

As Flanagan puts it, the feminist movement’s success is really about success of upper middle class plus women who had to turn to lower class women to do their “shit work” for them.  Read the whole thing, but she concludes:

It’s easy enough to dismiss the dilemma of the professional-class working mother as the whining of the elite. But people are entitled to their lives, and within the context of privilege there are certainly hard choices, disappointments, sorrows. Upper-middle-class working mothers may never have calm hearts regarding their choices about work and motherhood, but there are certain things they can all do. They can acknowledge that many of the gains of professional-class working women have been leveraged on the backs of poor women. They can legitimize those women’s work and compensate it fairly, which means—at the very least—paying Social Security taxes on it. They can demand that feminists abandon their current fixation on “work-life balance” and on “ending the mommy wars” and instead devote themselves entirely to the real and heartrending struggle of poor women and children in this country. And they can stop using the hardships of the poor as justification for their own choices. About this much, at least, there ought to be agreement.

[Alas, as #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen suggests, the agreement never materialized.]

This all sounds good to me, although I’d like to add another: it is time that we stop thinking of domestic work as “shit work.”  Granted, I don’t love cleaning toilets, but it is necessary work.  One should neither make a big deal out of it nor neglect it.  My concern is that when people think of some sorts of work as “shit work,” they often think of the people who have to do it as lesser.

Topics tend to run in streaks in my life, and today was no different.  On the scoot to school, Christopher Robin asked me something about leadership.  This led to a discussion about the battle scene in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. As they are running to join battle, King Peter is the point of his line, while the White Witch hangs back behind her line. The evil leaders always wait to see how the battle starts before they risk their own necks.

The connection?  A good leader never asks others to do something they would not do. Cheryl Mendelson made a similar point when discussing cleaning floors.  While describing the proper way to hand polish floors, she admonished the reader not to ask housekeepers to clean the floors on their hands and knees because it was demeaning.  I think it is only demeaning if you would never consider doing yourself.  Fact is, sometimes the floor needs hand, knees, and bucket cleaning.  (Swiffering Ain’t Sweeping. Heh.) Having a housekeeper do it because it needs to be done and you pay her to do the cleaning is one thing.  Having a housekeeper do it because you think you are too precious to do it, that is another.


*Frankly, I don’t care that he’s a man, white—none of the labels matter. His behavior was deplorable. That any mainstream entity, in this case The Atlantic, Feministe, Jezebel, xoJane, and Pasadena City College, allowed him to be a face of feminism should crumple their credibility.


  1. Maggie Magdalene said:

    This all sounds good to me, although I’d like to add another: it is time that we stop thinking of domestic work as “shit work.”

    AMEN. I think, though, the economy *may,* at some point, cause all of America to start rethinking what is “shit work,” and simply consider work as work. Industry is not dead in this country, but what little hope it has will not last when the last of the apprentice electricians, pipefitters, and journeymen retire their toolbelts, and while young men and women go into debt to earn MBAs and law degrees, they might do well to reconsider. This country will need need skilled tradesmen (and women) far more.

  2. Maggie Magdalene said:

    Yes, again, I am generally off-topic, but I think this is an important point. It appears that this is valuable starting point of discussion about what has really been achieved with feminism and what needs to happen to make things different. Doing this in a rapidly changing work environment is going to require much more thought than the seemingly limitless possibilities of the 60s and 70s.

  3. Leslie Loftis said:

    You know I never mind tangents.

    The problems were different in the 60’s. They had to resist assumptions that we no longer face. Have I posted my replacing the means for the ends rif here yet? I’ve used it so many times in the past months, I can’t remember. Anyway, a recent version:

    Current feminism mistakes the means for the ends. Second Wavers wanted it to seem normal to have women in the office to help disprove the assumption that women shouldn’t work. They needed the novelty of women in the professions to wear off. Now that women at all levels of power is typical, they’ve morphed what was a means of achieving equality into the measure of equality. Sheryl Sandberg is just the latest example of a woman claiming that the revolution will not be finished until we have 50/50 parity in the boardroom. Somebody else recently claimed that the revolution is only finished when men are half of the stay at home dads.

    Why are we slaves to a ratio? How much does the quest for parity fuel the Mommy Wars? A little known truth, one that got hinted at in remarks about 8 mos pregnant Sandberg’s bold insistence on maternity parking, companies try to provide flex time and part time arrangements more often than the public would guess. Who kills the plans? Often, older feminists who worry that the policies create a “mommy track”. If companies offer flex time, more women will take it, and we will never achieve parity. And so, flex time and other family friendly arrangements get quashed. If you see debate about mandatory paternity leave–that’s why. They don’t want to offer flexible leave until they are certain that men will take half.

    Leaving aside how logical that is given that men don’t have any physical recovery or continuing biological demands post partum, back to the issue at hand, why hold reform hostage to a condition only relevant to certain mothers? Women in need can’t have flex time because we want to make sure the boss’s husband takes an equal amount of paternity leave? And feminists wonder why WOC are angry.

  4. Maggie Magdalene said:

    And, again, the debate over paternity leave is a white elite issue, as well. It assumes married, or, at the least, participating, fathers. It doesn’t matter for a single mother. What matters is the ability to work one’s schedule around her children.

  5. ari said:

    In which I rummage through the suitcase of unfolded factoids……the oldest son has started doing it, too, from science videos. Did you know the sun has a shell of liquid plasma holding its core of gaseous plasma together? me neither. A chunk of it blew off this summer.

    Anyway, from 1890 through 1960 more black women were working for cash money than native white women. I don’t know how this sorts out with immigrant white women, since I don’t remember reading any fond memoirs of immigrant mothers staying home and crocheting doilies. This is an important distinction, I think, since so very many feminist memoirs are written almost in a rage that their immigrant families got disrespected every which way by natives. I think they are being silly, since, hey, native damn yankees are good with killing off native southerners- their own cousins. Would you rather be dead or disrespected?

    As well, native black women were moving up from unskilled labor, to blue-collar factory labor, to supervisors. The book that profiles a few of them is ” Rosie the Riveter, Revisited.” If native white women were going to enter paid employment, they were coming in behind women who had working mothers, working aunts, and a network of social support already in place. The book on the social network???? is in any story about ” Bowling Alone” and I think it is mentioned in “Coming Apart.” The organizations didn’t sound like business organizations, exactly. They were benevolent associations, reading groups, church groups, sewing circles…

    There’s some study, somewhere, where the authors compare the social network of white men, and the social network of black men. Two ( or is it three?) more social connections translate into a million dollars more over the course of a career. Right now, black men aren’t connecting as much, even on things like Little League, or Sunday School. Those take, usually, living with your kid, or your wife. That’s a million dollar hit.

    Anyway- the black women had these, the white women, not so much. Immigrant leftist families- I’m mostly impressed at how empty of social connections they are. There is sort of an unwritten set of expectations that they don’t even seem to catch out of the air. I think it’s why IBM started writing manuals for the wives of IBM execs- so many were jumping up a social group, or were ‘not from around here.’ Like, Betty Friedan writes about her empty concentration camp life. Hokay, at her husband’s salary scale, she ought to have been working 45 hours per week, 15 hours per three volunteer organizations. Betty, in Mad Men, has one, which can’t be right- to get nominated into her haute housewife environmental group, she would have had to prove herself in a smaller group, already. Matt Weiner has a beeg blind-spot on what women were really doing.

    Black men had already been “helped” by Progressives. The National Recovery Act, under Roosevelt, was written so that federal contracts required union labor. The south is a non- union region, for one. For two, unions were generally built by immigrants–who would not let black men join the union. It’s a fight between black natives, and southern and eastern european immigrants. It’s not really about Americans from the Mayflower.

    Roosevelt modeled himself on Wilson, a flaming racist progressive. Wilson had barred black men from working for the federal government.

    What this meant, is that for this century, black men owned their own businesses, or farms, or they were tenant farmers, or they were in the military. They were enterprising, hard-working, thrifty, religious, almost austere. Very suitable husbands and fathers, any way you look at it. They were intermarrying all over the complexion scale at the same rate as immigrants. The big concern prior to Wilson was that their kids were ” passing” off as not-black. For comparable rates today, I’d look at military families. In the enlisted- the kids are mostly mixed race. Officers tend to marry black with black, because there is an established elite of families. It’s not that they can’t marry mixed- it’s that it’s beneath them. They are a native aristocracy, basically, like the Junkers, or the noble families in England, descended from knights. Same sort of thing- military service to their country leads to natural leadership, just not likely political leadership. Notice how all the elected politicians are from such crummy families- they aren’t elite- they’re looked down on as grifting scum, by the black military families.

    Johnson, progressive part three, set up Great Society programs. These are the programs that got black women out of the marketplace, and black men out of the marriage market. White women could then gripe about a lack of women in the workplace, and get hired. There had been women- women who had worked their way up from the shop-floor, women who took classes at night- women who could weld, buck rivets, read blue-prints, work 12 hour shifts- and not take shit from a college-educated girl worrying about breaking her nails on a typewriter key. That’s who got erased from history. Rose the Riveter, dark complected edition.

    So, leftier femininists have pretty much always been hostile to the lives and careers of black women. Since there’s an essay by a carpenter saying that his worst clients are leftist men, I’m not really surprised. It’s an all-around wretched philosophy of life.

  6. Leslie Loftis said:

    I’m writing over lunch while running errands, i.e. I’m out and about and typing on my iPad which is a pain for updating a post. So until I can get home, check out related links:
    On Murphy Brown’s Daughters:
    On Dusting off a Soapbox:

  7. ari said:

    looked up Mr Schwyzer. Good grief. What a warped little man.

    and, people took him seriously? Who? Did they not have their “in real life” scanners on?

    I read a link to one of his little essays on condom use. In the last paragraph he has this story about how his 17 year old self knocked up his 17 year old girlfriend by going in bare. Marshmallow Experiment, anyone? Statistically, white kids in high school who expect to go on to college or the military- and I do mean college in any form, including vo-tech, community, certificate programs- anything at all- do not have sex while in high school. 75% of kids age 15-17 have not had sex. Valedictorians, athletes, etc etc etc do not, repeat, do not have sex. They’re too busy and focused. So he’s admitting he and his girlfriend are in the low-time horizon orientation 25%. That’s not really something to be proud of.

    When you are looking at someone eating the marshmallow before 15 minutes, you aren’t looking at most people. You just aren’t. I’m saying this as the child of a 17 year old mother. Who- married the father of her baby, and had another kid. That part is cool, but she’s not a model of how to run a life. She really does not get what a total nightmare she is, in private relations. I love her, but still-

    Second, how did this 17 year old decide to go get an abortion? He’s dating cross- racially? White women, statistically, have the lowest abortion rate. Not by some wiggle factor of 2%. More like, minorities can make a good case for a slow genocide.

    Women who choose to bear the child and then adopt the child, tend to be the women with the most stable family backgrounds. They tend to go on and get decent educations, build lives, have steady jobs, have some sort of growth in their spiritual lives- you know, women you want to know when they’re sixty. Even if they are— “van dykes.” Really- there’s a profile of this radical lesbian- she adopted out a kid- and she keeps being a “natural leader” of the movement. It’s not just preacher’s daughter’s hiding the evidence. It’s every woman who makes a difficult ethical choice the right way.

    So, this go-nowhere intellectually ( some primates exhibit foresight and planning, to quote my very funny friends) somewhat retarded guy knocks up a low-end girl- she gets an abortion- and then he keeps going on? What sort of guy believes the grey-scale posters at the family planning clinic?

    The answer to being a low-class idiotic teenager is to use condoms while married? Huh? Is that a successful married couple’s mating strategy? Really? Do any of the people reading him actually know any married people? Do they know of any married couples that use condoms? Regularly? Reliably? I know married couples. They joke their kids’ names will be ‘margarita’ and ‘the batteries are dead on the remote.’ They aren’t joking “the condom broke.”

    Doesn’t he get insulin-shock seizures from drinking too much koolaid every day?

  8. Maggie Magdalene said:

    Minorities can and do make a good case for slow genocide. But, I assume they’re being written off as radicals.

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