Near the end of the entry, you’ll find a link to, and brief commentary on, a truly appalling essay, “The Return of Patriarchy.” However, I’d like to start today’s entry with an interesting article from the New York Times, courtesy of my friend Wendy Call, on the stalled movement of women into the workforce: "Most of us thought we would work and have kids, at least that was what we were brought up thinking we would do -- no problem," says one of the mothers interviewed. "But really we were kind of duped. None of us realized how hard it is." The article continues:
[A study of] time-use surveys done by the Census Bureau and others, has concluded that contrary to popular belief, the broad movement of women into the paid labor force did not come at the expense of their children. Not only did fathers spend more time with children, but working mothers, she found, spent an average of 12 hours a week on child care in 2003, an hour more than stay-at-home mothers did in 1975.
Instead, mothers with children at home found the time for outside work by taking it from other parts of their day. They also worked more overall. [The study] found that employed mothers, on average, worked at home and on the job a total of 15 hours more a week and slept 3.6 fewer hours than those who were not employed...
The research suggests that women may have already hit a wall in the amount of work they can pack into a week. From 1965 to 1995, [the study] found, the average time mothers spent doing paid work jumped to almost 26 hours a week from nine hours. Time spent on housework fell commensurately, from 32 hours to 19.
Then the trend stalled. From 1995 to 2003, mothers, on average, spent about the same amount of time on household chores, but their work outside the home fell by almost four hours a week.
"Looking toward the future," said Francine Blau, a professor of economics at Cornell University, "one can question how much further increases in women's participation can be had without more reallocation of household work."
A good question. "This is having broad repercussions for the economy," the article concludes, ominously. "Today, about 75 percent of women 25 to 54 years old are either working or actively seeking a job, up from around 40 percent in the late 1950s. That expansion helped fuel economic growth for decades."
Economic growth, huh? Let's restate the numbers: since the Seventies, women are spending more time with their kids and more time at work, but they're sleeping 3.6 fewer hours a week while still taking time from "other parts of their day." Men probably have it slightly easier, but this, in a nutshell, explains why contemporary parenthood has become such a pressure-cooker.
In such conditions, what's the best way to live? Working even less would be a start, which is exactly what’s happened in Europe. But the European Union is no utopia for women: depending on the country, there might be even less gender parity in housework and childcare, and a recent International Newsweek article suggests that by providing support for women to stay home, Europe’s generous maternity leave programs are killing their career prospects. Is this just imperialistic American propaganda? Maybe, maybe not; but why should that situation surprise anybody? If basic needs are secured and society gives us options, most people, male and female, will choose to spend more time with their families, or in pursuing creative interests – both of which make society a better, happier place, even if they don’t contribute much to making the rich richer. It seems to me that the solution is not to junk Europe’s welfare system, as some suggest, but to change the culture and public policy so that more men can take more advantage of parental leave. At present, in both Europe and America, it's simply not OK for most men to go back into the workforce after five years of full or part-time parenting and explain the gap in their resume by saying, "I took a few years off to take care of my daughter." It's hard enough for women, but for men, taking that time can mean death to their careers, and they know it. So, it’s not enough to provide parental leave to dads; you also have to make it safe to take advantage of leave.
What if the culture changed – or perhaps I should say, what if we changed the culture? – so that men were expected to take on more childcare, and public policy supported that expectation? Many men would jump at the opportunity, and many women – those who want to – might jump back into careers. Then maybe you’d see fewer men in decision-making positions, but more women, and everybody might work less. It is, as the hacks say, a win-win…isn’t it? Unfortunately, no – it means less social power for men and more for women, and that makes it a political fight.
For an example, see “The Return of Patriarchy” by Phillip Longman in the current issue of Foreign Policy. “Across the globe,” Longman argues, “people are choosing to have fewer children or none at all. Governments are desperate to halt the trend, but their influence seems to stop at the bedroom door. Are some societies destined to become extinct? Hardly. It’s more likely that conservatives will inherit the Earth. Like it or not, a growing proportion of the next generation will be born into families who believe that father knows best.” (This gnarly gem came to me courtesy of Claire Light , who saw it first on Dar Kush.) Longman surveys trends such as falling birthrates, increasing divorce, women in the workforce, and a societal aversion to war (in developed societies, he writes, “the quality of human capital may be high, but it has literally become too rare to put at risk” through warfare; he thinks that this is a bad thing) – and then concludes that since these developments almost always lead to the collapse of civilization as he knows and loves it, then a patriarchal reaction simply must set in and smite the girly men and feminists who are its enemies. I read the article carefully, I’m sad to say – that’s time I’ll never get back. Well, I agree that a patriarchal reaction is setting in against some very positive trends, but I don’t think its triumph is preordained by history. Sorry, Phillip, I’m not seeing any real evidence here; only wishful thinking on your part. If you want to see a more comprehensive critique of Longman’s screed, visit Joshua Holland’s blog on AlterNet. You’ll also find a sharp critique from my son Liko, pictured at the top of this blog entry.