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.