Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day: Choose to Fight

Over on Any Other Woman, to celebrate International Women's Day, they are talking about choices.  Which is an interesting topic, because for the most part, while I like the feminist rhetoric that feminism is about choices, I think, especially in this economy, choices are a bit of a myth.

For the past year, I have been under or unemployed.  For six months before that, I was unemployed.  In my first year out of law school, I made very little money.  Like, would be well under the poverty line if I wasn't married little.  As a feminist raised by feminists to be self-sufficient and self-supporting, in fact, raised with an expectation that I would be the higher wage earner in my relationship, I have found this incredibly, indescribably challenging.  As a feminist raised to place a high premium on my career, on building myself before building a family, I suddenly found myself staring at a range of "choices", none of which were actually choices.

The fact that I was being supported by my husband was really difficult for me.  Even though I didn't want to, I found myself "choosing" to be the person who cooked and ran errands and got things done for our household.  It wasn't because I was the woman, it was because it was what made sense.  It wasn't because my husband was asking me to, it was because I felt guilty that I wasn't bringing any income into the family.  I was doing what needed to get done, because I am a grownup and a fundamentally practical person, but it wasn't my choice to do those things.

I made "choices" like choosing my husband over my career.  I could have perhaps pursued a job somewhere else, like Alaska, but because there was no guarantee that if we moved for my job, I could support both of us, or my husband could find a job, I really didn't "choose" to stay here.  I like it here and I'm admitted here, but this wasn't a "choice" I made for my family.  This was the way things are for my family.

Even now, as I have started a permanent, salaried, full-time job this week, I'm still struggling with the "choice" rhetoric.  If my husband works long hours and I "choose" to make dinner when I get home, I'm not actually making a choice to make dinner.  I need to eat, so I make dinner.  It is ready for him when he gets home, because our meals aren't single serving.  Usually he does the dishes, which is nice, but nights when he comes home close to 9pm, I will often "choose" to do the dishes myself because I have to.  In this economy in particular, neither of us is making a choice here.

I know that in the future, I will make sacrifices so that we can start a family and I will dress them up as choices.  I know that sometimes I will put my relationship or my family ahead of my career and sometimes it will be a choice and sometimes it will be what is practical and reasonable and I will pretend it is a choice.  Sometimes I will do these things and they will be what I want or they will be what works out for the best, but that doesn't make them a choice.

Ultimately, what I'm saying is that I think there is a larger cultural narrative here than feminism is fighting for choice.  I think feminism-as-choice rhetoric is allowing us to justify why we are not fighting harder.  Instead of having the tough conversations about income disparity, who should work flexible hours and who should do the housework, or whether housework or caretaking should be related to income disparity, we are saying, "women who choose to stay home with their children should expect their careers to take a hit" and "the partner who chooses to eat healthy, wholesome meals should be in charge of preparing them" and "the partner who wants the house to be neat and tidy should be in charge of keeping it that way."  We don't fight for affordable childcare because it is easier to "choose" to stay home with our children, if the cost of childcare exceeds our salaries and we would kind of like to do it anyway, or somebody tells us it is better for the child.  We don't fight for safer food processes and better agricultural practices because we tell ourselves that we can just choose to grow or prepare real food, which takes a considerable time and effort.  

Do you think that feminism is about choice?  Or does the rhetoric bother you as well?  What practical things have you done for yourself or your family that you dressed up as choice?  What changes do we need to be fighting for so that we have genuine, real choices available to us?


  1. This is a really excellent point and something I have definitely thought about. Many two-income families reach the point where they need to decide what to do about childcare, and end up concluding one parent should stay home because it makes most economic sense. In a female-male household, the vast majority of the time that parent will be the woman, because on average women's salaries are still lower than men's for the same work. It makes sense for the family, it's most practical, it's as you say just "the way things are" - but it's definitely misleading to decontextualize it and say it was just a "choice."

    I think feminism is equality of opportunity. Without equality of opportunity there are no real choices. That would entail equal pay for equal work; social supports for childcare and women's healthcare that allow women to participate meaningfully in all aspects of public life while still being the sex that bears the biological burdens of reproduction; changes in the workplace away from a model which expects extremely long work hours which would be impossible without the support of a non-wage-earning partner; and cultural change away from narratives that make women feel guilty for "wanting to have it all" (both meaningful work and time with other words, what men have always expected to have).

    ...Among other things. :)

  2. I think that the reason people don't fight the status quo is that they're too busy just getting on with life. We've created a society and culture that fills our time so much that we struggle to have time to fight for what we want in a big way. I wonder if the great moments in feminism, such as suffrage, would have even happened without women who had husbands who brought home the bacon, and servants to take care of the household.

    1. Susan B. Anthony never married or had children, so there's that. But yes, you are correct - many of the greatest fighters for equality have had flexible schedules and help - and I think the fact that the leaders of so many movements are men is no doubt because they had wives. I think there is a reason why students have been at the forefront of many generations of change, and there is a reason why the reformers throughout history have been people of great privilege. If people are too busy to fight, that's one thing, but to dress it up as a choice isn't the right answer.

  3. Feminism in a relationship between a man and a woman means having an truly equal role in all decisions. this means you have to be real partners. Many things, such as employment opportunities are a mixture of choice and chance. But a true partnership realizes that all income comes from the efforts of both parties. Making dinner or raising children can be just as important to the partnership as making money.
    The role of choice is that the partnership makes the choices about employment, within the chances provided by the economy. The society offered me a lower paying but stable job that allowed me to be the key "home maker" . My spouse had the opportunity to make a lot more money in a risky and time consuming career. But we made these decisions as partners. It's all "Our" income. We support us. That is real feminism in action