Recently I've been hearing a lot of comments from anti-feminists on how feminism has "failed" or from feminists about how men are just as bad today as they were when feminism was reborn four decades ago. Like a snake eating its own tail, these ideas start in different places but end up saying the same thing, mostly to each other: that egalitarian families don't and can't exist, primarily because of the innate perfidy of men and the natural weakness of women. Both positions are empirically wrong: by every measure, women have advanced in rights and economic power, men are taking on more housework and childcare, and the attitudes and behaviors of men and women are converging.
For example: Two weeks ago I was a guest on "The Agenda with Steve Paikin," a Canadian public affairs program. The topic was the "mommy wars," and the star guest was--no, not me--Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake, yet another over-hyped book that denigrates caregiving and promotes the "opt-out" myth. (This refers to the belief that more and more women are opting out of careers for a more traditional homemaker role, a false trend which has been totally debunked by economist Heather Boushey, as well as the sociologists Molly Monahan Lang and Barbara J. Risman. For an intelligent take on Bennetts' book as part of current trends in mommy book publishing, see Mothers Movement Online -- you'll have to scroll to the bottom of the editorial note for that issue.)
The "Agenda" panel started with a whimper when a Canadian conservative activist dismissed feminism as a failure. Her evidence was that women had not yet achieved perfect parity with men in housework and economic power, and therefore, she implied, we should all just get back to the good old-fashioned, all-natural sexual division of labor. This is like saying that a first-generation college student has "failed" if her sophomore year grade point average is only 3.1, and so she should drop out and go to work at McDonalds. Later Paikin told me that my family's childcare arrangement seemed pretty egalitarian to him, and he asked me if that impression was true. I hesitated before I answered, mostly because I was reluctant to pin a medal on my chest for something like this, which I felt like Paikin was asking me to do. But I also found myself locked in a split-second internal debate about the meaning of egalitarianism in a relationship between a man and a woman.
Families with stay-at-home dads are not, strictly speaking, egalitarian. Instead they are reverse traditional. One spouse has money and a career and all the benefits and burdens that come with that. The other is also working, but it is unpaid work that is scorned by our society--which leaves the spouse, male in these cases, profoundly vulnerable in the event of a sudden change in the family, such as divorce. The relationship is indeed asymmetrical when viewed in terms of money and power (an equation that leaves out love, trust, and other intangibles that drive work-family choices, but I'll leave that discussion for another time).
However, we think of these families as egalitarian because if enough men stepped out of the workforce to take of children, men and women as social groups would get that much closer to achieving economic, and possibly political, equality. So, from this viewpoint, inequality between two individuals might result in much greater equality between two social groups. Of course, this might, and probably would, have the long-term effect of equalizing the relationship between individual husbands and wives, because if more men are pausing their careers to take care of kids, then society might open up to seeing caregiving as a legitimate choice.
Leslie Bennetts--like Linda Hirshman, our favorite faux-feminist critic here at Daddy Dialectic--doesn't think it should work like that. She thinks that equality happens only when both spouses work: in this view, personal equality goes hand in hand with social equality. No one should be vulnerable--and when no one is vulnerable, society is equal. In her book, Bennetts provides example after example of women stranded by death, divorce, or the sudden unemployment of husbands, who found themselves shut out of the job market after years as homemakers.
Her case has a certain hardheaded appeal. I believe every single one of the stories Bennetts tells, and I think her basic warning to women is solid and important, though she undermines her case by strongly implying that stay-at-home parents are idiots. Both Bennetts and Hirshman are heavily invested in the notion that men will not share in childcare and housework because childcare and housework are boring and difficult, and therefore these are tasks best left to women who are not as educated and affluent as the ones profiled in their books. Their vision of equality for two people is based on a larger vision of inequality between social classes--which in our society is gendered and racialized. In other words, the people who end up taking care of their children are poor and working class women of color, often immigrants--and many of them are doing it under the table, with little in the way of job security and benefits.
These questions--plus caveats and doubts from my personal life--all raced through my mind in the second before I answered Paikin. (Onscreen, my internal debate sounded like this: "Um, er, ah, well...") Then a week after the Paikin show, I was interviewed by a reporter writing about work-family balance for men. She asked me to respond to an interview she did with a well-known national feminist leader who acknowledged that while men were spending more time with children and doing more housework than ever before, inequality persists even in seemingly egalitarian, dual-income couples because the "men were hogging all the good chores for themselves." Instead of cleaning toilets and changing diapers, the well-known feminist leader charged, men were doing pleasant things, like cooking gourmet meals and watching kids cavort on playgrounds.
Hell, maybe they are. I asked the reporter if the feminist leader had any empirical evidence to back this opinion up. The reporter said, probably not. Later I actually researched this; I didn't find any studies indicating that the men who were taking on more housework and childcare were also taking away chores that their wives might deem more desirable. (In fact, this is an area that needs more research: most studies cover the quantity of domestic labor and how it’s divided; few tackle qualitative questions about how the housework is subjectively experienced.)
Here we see another layer in the question of equality: even when structural equality is achieved between two people, perhaps inequality can persist in the content of the relationship. Husband and wife are making the same amount of money and doing the same amount of housework, but husband thinks he is having more fun and so does wife. (For the record, I think these couples need therapy, not a social movement.)
In each of the examples I've just provided, we can see that one person's equality is often predicated on some other inequality. In different ways, each also raises basic questions about what constitutes individual equality in a society that is based on social and economic inequality. In a winner-take-all society like ours, it's not hard to see why so many people, feminists and anti-feminists alike, have so much trouble believing that egalitarian families are possible and desirable, or that egalitarianism might be compatible with caregiving.
Certainly, we know that couples who do try to build egalitarian relationships face serious cultural and economic obstacles, including criticism from relatives, the absence of parental leave, lack of quality daycare, and so on. But despite this, we know that egalitarian families exist. They really do. Their existence has been documented by social scientists like Barbara Risman and Scott Coltrane. I see them in the research I'm doing and I see them in my own daily life. Yesterday morning I was at a kid's birthday party. At one point there were three dads in a room changing three diapers, with one mom assisting. It was no big deal; it was perfectly normal. But from everything I've ever read or heard, prior to 1968 this would have been a very rare sight indeed.
Far from failing, feminism's impact has been enormously far-reaching; it might well be one of the most successful social movements in American history. But its successes are sometimes hard to define; the new reality is sometimes at variance with the old-time utopian dreams of thinkers and activists. I have discovered that in the real world, egalitarian relationships do not follow one simple-minded ideological model. Sometimes men and women take turns at home and at work, and so their level of equality must be measured over time. Others split it all fifty-fifty. Many parents decide that one of them must stay home--and sometimes the jobs just aren't available--but still do their best to ensure that the stay-at-home parent retains some degree of economic and emotional power parity.
But that equality will always be curtailed when the rules of the game are rigged against caregivers. What combination of policies and attitudes would allow parents of both genders to stay home with children without risking a fall into the margins of our society? We need to culturally validate caregiving as a life choice for both men and women; build social security, legal protections, and training and educational opportunities for caregivers who are returning to work; provide more parental leave, flextime, quality childcare, and guaranteed wage replacement for both men and women of all social classes, not just the affluent; and build infrastructure that the rest of the industrialized world takes for granted, such as national health care, that provide for the basic well-being of all families.
This is where I think progressive leaders and writers like Bennetts should be putting their formidable energies. Women who make choices that white, affluent feminists deem bad are not the ones who created or are maintaining male domination. The same goes for men who take on more housework and childcare, who are making themselves part of the solution. These two groups should not be blamed, attacked, or erased--especially by people who claim that they want to build a more egalitarian society.
I've come to feel very strongly that we have entered a stage when it is critical for both men and women to see positive examples of egalitarian families in action. They need to hear about successes and they need to help each other to create new expectations. Given that our society provides so little support for egalitarian families, it is nothing short of astonishing that so many couples have come so far. They deserve credit and encouragement, not suspicion and insults.
Next time someone asks me a question like the one Paikin posed, here's what I'm going to say: "My family is as egalitarian as we can make it--and social science tells us that my family is not unique. Parents all over North America are building alternatives to the traditional family, which was based on male privilege, but those alternatives are as diverse as the families themselves. However, these families are largely invisible and their arrangements are not supported by public or workplace policy. We need to change attitudes and policies to support the expansion of egalitarian families, because that's the only ideal that makes any sense in a world where 80 percent of mothers work."