Separate Planes of Comparison

One of the other recurring themes in that Feministing thread I referenced in my last post was the point that housewives can’t be feminists. One commenter on this theme went so far as to say

If its about choice then I choose that women cant be housewives and feminists at the same time.

…at which point you sort of know you’re not really talking to someone who is actually going to listen, because of that whole “complete misrepresentation of what the choices in question might actually be, and who gets to make them on what topics (hint: you get to make them on your life, and not mine).

I lost the comment now, but at some point, someone else came in and said, essentially, “I can’t believe that you feminists are all ganging up on the woman who said that you can’t be a feminist and a housewife at the same time. Housewifery is a patriarchy supporting activity! Hello! Read The Feminine Mystique!”

Yeah. Okay. First of all, there is an obvious point that many feminists make, which is that we all make compromises with the patriarchy in order to function in this world, and we all choose which battles we’re just not up for fighting. That point is worth making, but it’s one that tends to get made in any conversation about beauty standards, from lipstick to leg hair, and it’s not the one I’m making here.

“Housewife” (or “Stay-at-home-Mom”) and “Feminist” are two entirely separate planes of comparison. Feminist is an ideological position. SAHM is an economic/professional choice. What one does on one plane does not inherently affect what one does on the other. I’m not saying feminism doesn’t involve living out beliefs in day-to-day life. I’m saying that regardless of what one chooses to do on plane one (economics), one has not committed to anything on plane two (ideology).

If they were connected, then we could assume that working outside the home would become an inherently feminist activity, and the women doing it automatically feminists. To give just one of the sexist quotes that flew around my workplace last week, a woman (mother of two girls, who has worked outside the home for their entire lives) said to a new male Supervisor in the department that he “needed a female to arrange his appointments for him, because men can’t keep track of these things”. I could write a long series of posts contrasting this kind of thing with the way our female Supervisor is treated, but the general idea is that this woman’s plane 1 decision to work outside the home clearly hasn’t made a dent in her plane 2 decision to perpetuate sexism.

Teaching is a patriarchy supporting activity and is one of the few roles that women were allowed 100 years ago–women should therefore refuse to become teachers, regardless of their own skills, desires, and opportunities in the field.

Medicine is a patriarchy supporting activity–doctors pathologize the female body, nurses perpetuate gender stereotypes–women should therefore refuse to enter either of these professions.

You see how this works, yes?

If you’re going to be a feminist, be a feminist in what you do. If you’re a feminist doctor, you can listen to and respect your female patients, you can practice a branch of medicine like ob/gyn in a way that supports women rather than trying to make choices for them, you can conduct research on how drugs previously only tested on men affect the bodies of women. If you’re a feminist low-level municipal civil servant, you can become aware of the way you treat your female boss and co-workers, you can listen for the opportunities to criticize their diatribes on the latest development in the Britney Spears case, you can question hiring/staffing practices and promotions that seem fishy. If you’re a feminist SAHM, you can find woman-friendly products to buy for your children, you can educate them outside of the traditional gender role box, you can develop a division of labour with your partner that does not entirely conform to standard expectations.

Oh, and I’ve read the book in question. It was a few years ago, I admit, but I don’t recall the page on which Friedan says “you housewives are oppressing women and you need to get out of the house and frickin’ stop that”.

I know I’m doing a lot of nitpicking feminism, but when this is the level of discussion that’s going on within the movement, I feel like tossing my hands in the air and going back to bed. And really, I’m a more optimistic person than that. Seriously. No, I’m not kidding.

Sigh.

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13 thoughts on “Separate Planes of Comparison

  1. Jay says:

    THANK you!

    I think part of the problem is misunderstanding (on the personal and to some extent cultural) level of what a “houswife” is. People still think of it as a woman who wears an apron, pearls, and high heels, and goes around cooking and cleaning and ironing with a baby on her hip and a smile on her face. Oh, and who is an obedient slave to her husband.

    Housewife (or SAHM or whatever) is a JOB, people. An unpaid and often unappreciated one. And labor aspects aside, it’s doesn’t say anything about your relationship…if the woman decides to work, that job (caring for the house/raising kids) is still going to need to be done; it will just be done by a paid employee rather than one of the couple.
    (Hmmm…is it seen as “oppressive” because it’s an unpaid role? That somehow you’re not a valid human being unless you’re earning a wage? That’s a thought…)

    Anyway, the fact that my wife stays at home with our kids doesn’t mean she’s some sort of June-Cleaver-Stepford-Wife bowing to the patriarchy. And I wouldn’t want her to be. That said, she claims to not be a feminist, but I think that’s just her own misunderstanding of what feminism is…I think she’s pretty down with the whole equality thing.

    (then again, she–and I for that matter–are still fuzzy on the whole gender-essentialism thing, so I’m not sure if either of us could be considered feminists…but that’s a whole ‘nother issue…)

  2. purtek says:

    You’re welcome. 🙂

    I think you’re right about the clichéd image you describe being a big part of the problem, but the bigger point, I think, is more in line with the note that SAHMs are not considered “valid human beings” because they’re not earning a wage. The mistake that I think some people are making is to try to counter that facet of the patriarchy exclusively by having more women earning a wage.

    Now, I am, of course, 100% in favour of removing limitations to women’s earning potential and having more women earning a wage, especially as the proportion of women living in poverty continues to be so high. But to me, if that’s the only strategy, than you’re accepting the system as it stands and attempting to succeed using the same old terms. I don’t see how that does anything but change which individuals are in possession of a disproportionate amount of the power, and even if it does mean that some of those individuals will be women, I don’t see how we’ve really created a more just world in this way.

    I think it’s both possible and necessary to redefine the value system, here. Not to mention the fact that placing the responsibility on the shoulders of the women who aren’t exactly in a power position in that equation is completely missing the point of feminism, if you ask me.

  3. Jay says:

    No, you’re right…you’re definitely on to something here. It’s like…some feminists want to overthrow the traditional “men’s roles” by entering those roles…but they’re still letting those roles exist and dominate, rather than affirming the other roles, the old roles.

    I think it’s it’s a misunderstanding of the problem with female-role-typing. Women can object to being forced into the SAHM role, but that doesn’t mean they object to it because that role is inherently less valuable; they just resent that it’s a GIVEN. Doing traditional female things like being a housewife, nurse, or teacher, or for that matter, things like knitting or child-rearing, are not bad things…it’s just bad that they’re automatically assigned to women. So when a woman does them voluntarily, the knee-jerk response is that she’s accepting that assignment.

  4. purtek says:

    Dude, you are *so* turning into a feminist, whether you use the term or not. And you know I mean that as the highest possible compliment, so I hope you’re not offended. 🙂

    Now, obviously, I don’t speak for all feminists any more than any of the commenters on that thread do (thankfully), but imo, you cover the whole problem with gender essentialism right here:

    they just resent that it’s a GIVEN.

    Some women are nurture types. Some women are not. Some women are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Same goes for men. Lather, rinse, repeat for nearly every feature that is commonly associated with one sex or the other. Being told that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t fit those roles sucks. But so does being told that there’s something wrong with you (ie. you’re bowing to the patriarchal machine) because you do.

  5. Jay says:

    Gaaah…I don’t like having to give up gender essentialism wholesale, that’s all. 🙂

    I can accept that anything I am capable of, a woman is capable of doing (and probably, in some cases, of doing it better than me). Likewise, I can accept that whatever I like (or like to do), there is a woman out there who probably likes it as much as me.

    What I have a harder time accepting is that general trends (more women than men are X, more men than women are Y) are entirely artificial constructs…that there are no inherent differences in male/female behavior, but only created ones. I just have a real hard time buying it.
    I’m perfectly willing to admit it might be true…I’m just not convinced yet. Nor am I ready to discard certain “rules of thumb” simply because they’re not 100% universally applicable.

  6. Jay says:

    Doh, had another thought:

    This “fixed role” method and the counter to it (if you fit a fixed role, you must be a patriarchal collaborationist) affects men as well. But while the fixed role aspect affects women more, the counter affects men more (maybe…at least as much).

    I’m not big on ballet dancing. It’s just not my thing. I’m capable of recognizing that some guys like ballet, and if they want to do it, more power to ’em. Further, I’ve read enough about it to know that guys (and ladies, for that matter) who do ballet are not wimps…ballet takes some serious muscle/athleticism.

    But I don’t like being informed that if I shy away from ballet, I must be “repressing myself”, or trying to be macho, or be afraid of being labelled gay. It’s the same thing I mentioned on my blog a few posts ago…too many people are too willing to assign THEIR motives to YOUR actions.

    It’s the same with women. If my wife likes to knit, it must be because she’s unwilling to throw off the patriarchal yoke…not because she just, y’know, likes to knit. And if I like owning a pistol, it must be because I secretly fear being emasculated…not because, y’know, I like to shoot.

  7. purtek says:

    What I have a harder time accepting is that general trends (more women than men are X, more men than women are Y) are entirely artificial constructs…that there are no inherent differences in male/female behavior, but only created ones.

    If it makes you feel any better, I don’t *necessarily* buy this either. I’ve been thinking about a post for ages now, and maybe I’ll finally write it after this, but the general point is: sure, maybe some of the differences are innate. We’ll never be able to *tell*, because there is no such thing as a gender-construction-free vacuum in which to judge, but I’ll certainly concede the possibility.

    What we do know is that some women–and some men, as you point out–fit the conventional stereotypes assigned to their genders in certain ways, while not in others. Good. Fine. Don’t do ballet. But also, don’t make fun of the guy who does as “feminine” or talk about how something must have gone “weird” in his wiring because it doesn’t conform to your assumptions about the way the male brain works–that would be superimposing your brain on his actions (I’m not saying you do this, and I assume the opposite is true, I’m just using the example of gender-based pressure for illustrative purposes).

    I’d very much like to stop having the conversation where the fact that I like to cook–and especially enjoy cooking for guests, since having someone else appreciate my cooking is half the fun–is somehow related to a) being female or b) being a feminist. Maybe it is based on some deep-seated nurturing urge rising up in me and forcing its way past my hard feminist exterior. Maybe that’s also why I have a cat. Fuck if I know. Eat the brownies I baked and shut up.

    To bring back the kinder, gentler Purtek, I’ll have to go read that blog entry. I haven’t been over there in *ages*, and I’m going to be laid up in bed sick for a couple of days, so I should take the time to check things out…I know I’ve missed a lot. Also, it sounds interesting.

  8. Jay says:

    “I’d very much like to stop having the conversation where the fact that I like to cook–and especially enjoy cooking for guests, since having someone else appreciate my cooking is half the fun–is somehow related to a) being female or b) being a feminist.”

    See, this I am totally okay with. Regardless of whether 99% of women like to cook or 10% of women like to cook, whenever the matter at hand is one single person and their enjoyment of cooking, the only reason they like to cook is just that…because they like to cook.

    I guess it’s just the “correlation doesn’t equal causation” thing again. If 99% of men like to cook, and you’re a man, I’m going to assume (and will consider it a fair assumption) that you like to cook. But you don’t like to cook because you’re a man, and if you don’t happen to like to cook, it doesn’t make you any less of a man.
    (I originally had “woman” in there, but decided to change it. It works the same regardless of whatever gender you want to use, and whatever activity you want to put in place of “cooking”)

    Is that fair?

  9. purtek says:

    Totally fair. Now, of course, I still believe there *is* pressure to conform to traditional gender roles. This means that, for myself, I’m inclined to question whether I behave the way I do out of some sense of obligation or because it is genuinely the way I *am* more so when what I do falls in line with stereotypes than when it doesn’t (though this isn’t always a good methodology)…but we can work up to that. 🙂

  10. Jay says:

    Oh, no denial of the pressure…and I guess I can’t deny the fact that giving in to that pressure just because you happen to enjoy what you’re being pressured into can still be a problem. But I don’t know if I see any way around that one.

  11. :headdesk:

    “No, see, this is -me-. That’s -you.- You; me. You; me. Shall I draw you a diagram?…”

    I mean, never even mind the gender stuff: let’s just start with–well, as you said. Once you’ve gotten to the point of people being -that- dumb, you might as well just hang it up and play “Melancholy Baby,” lounge version.

  12. BetaCandy says:

    Re: the post. Like in a gender equal world, we wouldn’t have both SAH moms and dads? And great point you make about jobs supporting the patriarchy, too – everything does at this point. All you can do is be a feminist while going through your heavily patriarchy-flavored activities.

    Re: the comment thread. Jay, I think it’s possible there are a few innate differences. I just seriously doubt it’s any of the ones we’re hearing. For example, in my experience, men are SO much more romantic and women are so much more practical. I’ve known a lot more men than women who rush headlong into stupid romances and terrible business plans, exercising no common sense. As a kid, I assumed that because women are designed to get pregnant and then spend their entire adult lives pregnant or nursing, we had evolved levels of caution and cold practicality that weren’t necessary for men, who were never burdened with offspring and could often rely on physical strength to get them out of stupid situations they created.

    But then I grew up hearing that women are irrational silly things, and men are sensible. I’m still waiting to meet these legions of sensible men. I mean, I’ve met plenty, but by and large the fools I know who rush in where angels fear to tread are men. *shrug*

  13. purtek says:

    belledame: diagrams might help. English hasn’t.

    Beta: Exactly. In a gender-equal world, we would still have to have *somebody* raising children, and it’s likely that some people (men and women both) would choose to make that their full-time vocation. I swear though, some commenters were *this* close to basically saying that having babies is a patriarchy supporting activity (and really, isn’t it? Oh, forget it)

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