Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The problems of home life

The Parent Trap By JUDITH WARNER The New York Times: February 8, 2006
Although it often seems anecdotally to be true that domestic tasks and power are pretty evenly divided in families where both parents are working full time, the statistics argue quite differently. The fact is, no matter how time- or sleep-deprived they are, working women today do upwards of 70 percent of household chores for their families. The gender caste system is still alive and well in most of our households.
After all, no one really wants to do the scrubbing and folding and chauffeuring and mopping and shopping and dry-cleaner runs. (I'm leaving child-minding out of this; in a happily balanced life, it doesn't feel like a chore.) Once the money for outsourcing runs dry, it's the lower-status member of the household who does these things. It is the lower-status member of the household who is called a "nag" when she repeatedly tries to get other members of the household to share in doing them.
This is just one indication that the feminist "revolution" that was supposed to profoundly reshape women's lives remains incomplete. Another is the fact that there are no meaningful national policies to make satisfying work and satisfying family life anything but mutually exclusive for most men and women.
Ms. Friedan herself anticipated this issue, in the final pages of "The Feminine Mystique," when she called for changing "the rules of the game" of society at large. In 1970, she came back to this thought, arguing that if we did "not only end explicit discrimination but build new institutions," then the women's movement would prove to be "all talk." Thirty-six years later, with women having flooded the professions and explicit gender discrimination outlawed, the institutions of our society simply have not changed to embrace and accommodate the new realities of women's lives.
The problems of home life seem to me now to be an all but hopeless conundrum. Yet the enduring failure of our social institutions to realize the larger promises of the women's movement is something we can address, straightforwardly and comparatively easily. We owe to Betty Friedan, to our daughters and to ourselves.
Ms. Friedan said last year, "We are a backward nation when it comes to things like childcare and parental leave." That's just the beginning. We need universal preschool, more and better afterschool programs, and policies to promote part-time work options that don't force parents to forgo benefits, fair pay and career prospects. We desperately need leadership on these issues. Without it, our national commitment to family values is truly "all talk."Judith Warner, who has been writing the "Domestic Disturbances" blog for the last month on TimesSelect, is the author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety."

Monday, February 06, 2006

The torch just passes on to you and me

Books change lives. Remember that Ayn Rand-quoting misanthrope you used to know in school? Or that Sartre-reading existentialist who kept raving about how meaningless life was? But how many books can you think of that changed not just a few lives but the whole world? Books that questioned an entire generation’s attitude to life and their place in society, books that transformed the world as we knew it to be.
Rousseau’s The Social Contract heavily influenced the protagonists of the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, two events which changed the course of history. Marx’s Das Kapital reverberates in various parts of the world even today. Einstein’s essays on Relativity changed the way we looked at the physical universe. And more recently, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (along with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex) changed the fabric of Western society and inspired women’s movements on the other side of the globe. I read The Feminine Mystique when I was 19 and I was completely captivated by what she called “the problem with no name”. She wrote:
"The problem that has no name — which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities — is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease."
Her emphasis might have been on middle-class, suburban American women but there was no doubt in my mind that it applied to women everywhere. I grew up in a place where gender inequality is very much institutionalized and rarely questioned. In classrooms and playgrounds, when you are not “allowed” to do certain things or play certain games, when you need to be more “protected” from the world, when you are “pushed” towards certain professions, when you learn to carry safety pins and chilli powder in your purses, in movies where the women are a “commodity”, at work when you have to work twice as hard and still don’t make the cut, and most of all, at home where your worth is measured by your ability to cook and clean, to bear and bring up children. That I was brought up in a “liberated” household is hardly the point; the biases of the society always wield an unconscious influence in every home, admit it or not. And every single time that happened to me or to anyone I know, I would remember Friedan:
“Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents. They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights -- the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for.”
And today, as I read the news of Friedan’s death, its very humbling to remember that the many things that I take for granted here in the country that has been my home for the past five years – equal rights, equal pay, legal abortion, maternity leave to name a few – were the fruits of the feminist movement that this woman kick-started in the 1960s. To those who argue that Friedan’s feminism is not inclusive (as she does not seem to include the poor, the blacks or the lesbians), I would say that lets not take the woman or her ideas out of her time and place.
  • So has the battle been won?
  • At least in this part of the world?
  • Can we all go back home victorious and wait for the food to appear on the table?
  • Not so fast. Just switch on the television set, or read one of those “lifestyle” pieces (remember Maureen Dowd’s book?) that seem to appear with astonishing regularity in the NY Times? Or just look around you. How many of your co-workers slipped into suburban obscurity over the past few years?
  • Can we really deny that in this country, we are still “taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents?”
  • Can we really claim that we as a society don’t measure a woman’s worth by the man she ends up with?

And until a day arrives when we can make that claim, here or in any other part of the world, Betty Friedan’s work is not finished. The torch just passes on to you and me. Update: Do read R~’s tribute to Friedan at Locana. posted by Veena @ 3:59 PM 0 comments