Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Equality vs. Equality

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."

16 comments:

chicago pop said...

Has the civil rights movement failed if it has not entirely reversed, in the last half century, the lingering effects of over 500 years of injustice and structural disadvantage? And all while racing to stay ahead of an economy that is constantly changing its demands on workers?

What these commentators should be doing is adjusting their lens from a persistent focus on middle-class North America to the rest of the world. Then, the fact that even a few men here in the USA don't mind changing a diaper or pushing a stroller will seem revolutionary, to say nothing of the fact that women have begun to access areas of society that were closed to them only a generation ago.

A glance across the ocean in any number of directions will show that in many ways feminism has yet to begin (and is therefore incomparably advanced in North America) and that gender inequality is the source of some of the gravest social, political, and environmental problems that afflict the global community. Femi-pessimists might then be less eager to write of feminism's gains here in the US.

Give a woman a small amount of capital in Bangladesh, and there's a chance that she may break her family's cycle of poverty where state-directed development never could. Give a woman in India a natural gas stove and she may stop cutting down vital forest habitat. Give a woman in South Africa a condom, and she may prevent her own sexual assassination and that of her children in what may be the greatest case of gender-based injustice in world history.

If these commentators feel that feminism has failed in North America, then they have lost a sense of perspective and are propagating a cynicism that leaves no hope whatsoever for rest of humanity.

Matt said...

I struggle with the use of the word "egalitarian", because in a real sense the concept is too ideal to consider a worthwhile goal. I will never be equal to my wife, because I am fundamentally different in the way that I think, and by extension any external measure. I'm surprised that it might be some sort of revelation that equality is relative, such that "one person's equality is often predicated on some other inequality." And you are so right to state that Bennetts version of "equality for two people is based on a larger vision of inequality between social classes."

By some external measures ours could be an egalitarian family, because she is an MD, I am an engineer with an advanced degree, both of us work full time, and we have 2 young children. She has just now finished residency, so for the past 8 years, mine was the primary income. During that time and now still, I did and continue to do the vast majority of cleaning, house maintenance, cooking, and caregiving to our kids. Is it still egalitarian, then? Such equality measures seem silly if I try to apply them to my life. The point is, I am happy, my wife and kids are happy and healthy, we make tradeoffs, we play to our strengths and we both understand the need to make dynamic sacrifices where we are weak.

We continue to move forward despite the lack of support (government, corporate, family, etc), because we want it this way. We certainly are not equal. Each family's location on the "equality spectrum" is going to be different. I'd sort of like to see the discussion shift to how we as a society will allow (not support) families to make their own beneficial tradeoffs, but not measure whether the result is balanced.

Jessica, Jackie and Ezra said...

I’ve been reluctant to chime in on this discussion about gender roles in parenting and gender equality therein, but perhaps my perspective may shed some light on the others.

We are a two mom family, yet one of us works outside the home full-time, and the other doesn’t. Neither plays dad or male, but the one who stays home also gave birth. I happen to be the ‘outside of the home’ worker because I had a job I enjoyed that would make us nearly enough money to live on as a family, and for the most part, it lets me leave the house at 6, while my partner and son are sleeping so that I can get home by 4 or 4:30, and it leaves me free to co-parent or become primary parent in the afternoons, weekends and all day every day from mid-June to mid-August. This is a pretty good deal, but I know that this is not an egalitarian situation. I know that while my job is difficult, my partner’s is more physically and emotionally taxing and demanding.

Much of our decision to have a full-time parent at home stemmed from our beliefs about parenting – that kids grow and learn better when their caregivers have a personal investment in their well-being and growth; that we believe in breastfeeding on-demand until our son decides to wean; that it made no sense to us to have a child and then not see him for 9-12 hours a day; that parenting is work – challenging and satisfying work, but respectable work nonetheless, and leaving it to someone earning $15 an hour whose attention must be split between multiple kids did not fit our ideals. It is difficult enough to give adequate attention to and meet the emotion, intellectual and physical needs of just one child, let alone a room full. My partner’s and my life might certainly be easier with two incomes and 8 or more hours to focus on work, but having a child meant recognizing that our decisions should no longer be simply about our own lives; rather, they are now about our family’s life. We rent an apartment; we don’t own a house. We have an embarrassment of debt. Our clothes are faded and worn. My partner and I could each use a haircut, manicure, pedicure and a regular trip to the gym. Yet we and our son are gloriously joyful.

We have seen parents who each work part time and take turns being with their children, and while this might make practical sense, it leaves very little time for them to be a family. The child rarely sees both parents together, and this seems an unusual parenting strategy. The kids don’t see a relationship modeled. The individual parents don’t have the opportunity to develop a unified belief system about how they raise and interact with the kids. In this situation, parenting is more about childcare than it is about parenting.

Indeed, as Jeremy and all others have mentioned, we have an economic system set up that encourages childcare over parenting, child and family development. As a public high school teacher, I see the results of this very skewed focus. Um… needs improvement…

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I want to thank you three for sharing your insights and stories, and pushing this discussion to another level.

Amy said...

Great post! I attempted to leave a comment on the day you posted, but cyberspace ate it up somehow. Anyway, in reading through the 4 comments above mine here, I felt a stab through my heart seeing these words used to describe two parents working part-time: 'We have seen parents who each work part time and take turns being with their children, and while this might make practical sense, it leaves very little time for them to be a family. The child rarely sees both parents together, and this seems an unusual parenting strategy. The kids don’t see a relationship modeled. The individual parents don’t have the opportunity to develop a unified belief system about how they raise and interact with the kids. In this situation, parenting is more about childcare than it is about parenting.'

I don't doubt that the writer's words are true for her. But I can't help wondering why they are so very, very opposite from my experience. My husband and I both choose to work part-time for the express reason that it gives us so much more togetherness and family time. We've downsized our needs for more money and more stuff, in favor of a more balanced life and more time. We see each other the same or more than if we both worked full-time or if one of us stayed at home full-time. Our kids get to see the parenting of two modeled for them in equal shares, and plenty of two-parents-at-once modeling as well. And for the very reason that we share childraising equally, we HAVE to create a unified philosophy for how we raise them. I don't want to debate or undermine the worries of your reader, since I respect that her choices, but I want to correct the idea that two part-time workers fragment the family - they more often draw it closer. Perhaps she is thinking more of tag-team parenting, in which parents work opposite shifts?

-Amy (www.equallysharedparenting.com)

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Thanks, Amy. You know, you're not the first person to mention that they had problems posting comments that day; it seems that my host was having problems.

Jessica (whose comment you are commenting on) and I know each other in real life, and my family might be one of the families she's thinking of -- and yes, for awhile we did tag-team on opposite shifts. It actually didn't occur to us to hire a sitter and work at the same time, largely because we didn't think that arrangement was right for our son at that time. (Now, he's more autonomous and goes to preschool; this was only an issue when he was an infant.) It turned out to be a very stressful structure for us; we were constantly running around and juggling priorities, and my wife and I hardly saw each other, and so our relationship frayed. It's been much easier when one of us is working a sane, flexible schedule and the other mostly stays home.

But the big picture here is that family structures today are diverse -- as this dialogue illustrates. People are experimenting with different mixes, without regard to gender roles. An experiment will fail for one family but succeed for another, based on many factors: what's important to the parents, the child's personality, the kind of work they do, whether they have family in the area to help, and so on. I think we as a society have to get to a place where we are comfortable with that, and tolerant of different, flexible structures: traditional, reverse traditional, extended, divorced and remarried, equally shared, and so on.

Lately I've been really interested in how gay and lesbian families structure their roles. I see them as a potential model for straight families, because they are making their decisions independent of gender roles, based on things like who makes more money, who has better prospects, who prefers to take care of the kids, and so on. We straight people might have a lot to learn from them about equality and sharing.

Margaret Carter said...

J. D. Robb's series of futuristic mysteries, set in about 2059-2060, includes the concept of "professional parent." One parent can choose to receive a stipend from the state to stay home with the children, and this is a recognized, respectable career choice. (It's implied that the salary isn't huge, but the principle of acknowledging the care of one's own children and household as "real work" is upheld.)

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Margaret: I love that. Why not? Conservatives call it welfare. The conservative concern is that state-supported childrearing would lead to dependency and perpetual breeding for the sake of breeding. And yet what the story you describe raises the question: what if childrearing were dignified and redefined as a career, deserving of respect? What if professional parents were encouraged to leverage skills into other areas of the economy and the economy accepted them?

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