Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Feminism I can live with

My Mojo Mom book revisions are going well, though it's always a challenge to find uninterrupted time to write. It helps to get out of the house, which is full of other distractions and obligations (i. e. potential work) even if I am the only one home.

Writing the book is such a linear process. I am blogging today because I just had to sink my teeth into some juicy hyperlinks. I am writing about feminism this week, revisiting the fact that I would never have predicted the fault lines that developed between myself and the Second-Wave movement. But between motherhood and Obama/Clinton, the gulf is there.

In book form, I have to explain all this in more detail. But on the blog I can reasonably say that we do have to first remember and appreciate what feminism has already accomplished, and remember that those gains are currently threatened--and then jump into the hyperlink dimension to point you to recent writings by Katha Pollitt and Dahlia Lithwick. From the Supreme Court's rejection of Lily Ledbetter's pay discrimination case against Goodyear Tire, to the fact that our reproductive rights including contraception are under fire, we need to wake up and smell the backlash.

At the same time, many mothers including myself feel that feminism left us behind in favor of a focus on the paid workforce that invited us to work in the guise of male clones. This approach to feminism did not address the realities of motherhood and the unreceptive atmosphere created by many employers. I don't quite consider this a failure of feminism, but rather serious unfinished business that is left up to today's mothers to take on.

Which is why I was so excited to read Joan Williams' book Unbending Gender last week. I have been a fan of Williams' for quite a while, but had never read her book cover to cover. It's quite a challenging read, written with the detail and scrupulous referencing of a talented law professor. I wasn't sure if I'd get past the first few pages, but I soon felt engrossed in a description of feminism that truly spoke to me, Aha, here is feminism I could live with. As I dove into the book, there were pages where I started highlighting and didn't know where to stop.

Wiliams' model of reconstructive feminism values parents' contributions within the family, and realizes that paid child care is not the sole solution. Family caregiving must really count and be reflected in laws and social safety nets.

Williams exposes the Myth of the Ideal Worker as a privilege that employers think they are entitled to. The Ideal Worker standard discriminates against women, particularly mothers (from a Mothers and More Q&A with Williams):

A The term "ideal worker" is designed to focus people's attention on how we define our ideals at work. Good jobs typically assume an ideal worker who is willing and able to work for 40 years straight, taking no time off for childbearing or childrearing. This ideal is framed around men's bodies-for they need no time off for childbirth- and men's life patterns-for American women still do 80% of the childcare. Not surprisingly, many mothers find it difficult, if not impossible, to meet a standard designed around men's bodies, and around the assumption that workers are supported by a flow of childcare and other family work from their spouses that many men enjoy, but most women do not.

Two-thirds of mothers aged 25 to 45 do not perform as ideal workers even in the minimal sense of working full time all year. Ninety-three percent of mothers do not work substantial overtime during the key years of child (and career) development.

Williams' approach unites women who may have appeared to be on different sides of the Mommy Wars or the Opt-Out Revolution. She puts choice into context: women choose from the options available to them. If continuing their careers as before becomes a non-option, many women will "choose" to stay at home. But many of those women might choose employment if they were presented opportunities that were compatible with their family caregiving responsibilities. I think most of us could agree that truly expanding the range of authentically fair choices offered to mothers would be good for all families.

For alternative work to be genuinely family-friendly, it must be available to all workers (rather than a dead-end "Mommy Track"), paid proportional wages and benefits, and retain possibilities for advancement in proportion to work experience.

A focus on performance and productivity rather than time ties in with the new movement toward the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) model that I am so excited about.

Movement in this direction will end up helping men,too. One-third of male workers work 49 hours a week. How many couples would jump at the chance to have each parent work 30 hours instead?

Reading Joan Williams, I can see a glimpse of where we need to go in the future. It will take a lot of work to get there. In the meantime I'd like to mend the rift with older feminists. We have a wave of caregiving coming that will affect all generations, and we are going to need the Baby Boomers' force of will and political clout to get these changes made. I am hopeful that when they decide they want to take phased retirement, truly flexible careers will become the norm.

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Blogger Amy@UWM said...

Williams book sounds interesting. The "ideal worker" also sets people up to dedicate their lives to their work, assuming that working 50-70 hours a week is preferable. That sets up parents in general to fail. Sometimes I wonder if that's a generational assumption -- baby boomers being predisposed to being work-a-holics having been brought up by Depression-era parents. Gen-Xers value work/life balance much more.

I'm in the midst of reading "Why Work Sucks" and am excited about the ROWE movement too. Where do I sign up for this revolution?

9:22 PM  

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