Is there anything wrong with choice feminism?

This post was inspired by a recent discussion at Historiann’s.  It’s a bit scattered and should probably be two posts…

There are a lot of different definitions of choice feminism floating around on the internet, but no wikipedia article to arbitrate.  So for the purposes of this post, I will define choice feminism as being consistent with the idea that women should be allowed to choose between having careers and being housewives or stay-at-home parents without guilt or judgment.  I am not defining it as a feminism that allows women to choose to defer to their husbands at all times for religious reasons (though some folks on the internet do include that definition).  I’m sticking to this labor market definition.

Note it is a middle-class debate, mostly upper-middle-class.  Folks making less money or who have less education make choices much more defined by salary, job options, and daycare costs– their constraints are more binding.  Of course, the guilt and the cultural ethos still spills over.  It’s easier to justify being in the labor force in order to pay a mortgage or rent in a safer neighborhood etc. if the cultural ethos is telling you you’re also striking a blow for feminism and being a strong role model for your children.  It’s more difficult if the cultural ethos is telling you you’re abandoning your kids (whom you’re supposed to be waiting on hand and foot 24/7) to strangers.  [Note:  You’re not.]

The idea is that 1970s feminism was more of the former.  We, the privileged, the smart, educated, determined, middle class owed it to all women to show our female power, to break glass ceilings, to open up opportunities for the next generation.  By not opting out, we were making it better for those who did not have a choice because we were changing culture, and we had the imprimatur to do it.  (Of course, I’m willing to bet that there’s some selective memory going on, and it was still much more acceptable to stay at home rather than break those barriers.  Also, I think we could have a whole ‘nother blog post about how it is no longer popular to claim that the privileged have any responsibility to society…)  Today, the argument goes, the pendulum has ticked the other way and this current generation gives equal merit to the choice to stay at home, and in doing so, they’re hurting current and future generations of women.

A logical conclusion from the above is that men and women should be working for pay in the labor market in high impact jobs even if their family income is enough that they do not need to in order to meet their monetary needs.  But… what if you’re the recipient of an inheritance?  What if you worked a few years at a high-paying job and saved diligently and are doing early retirement extreme?   What if your IPO from the company you slaved over for a few years made you a millionaire and now you want to relax?

Don’t most people wish they could keep their American salaries with French working hours?  Rom coms sell balance for both genders, not just women.  It’s dad whose work causes him to miss the championship baseball game, signaling to the audience the need for whatever transformation is going to occur in the next 80 min.

This cult idea of the perfect career is also damaging.   Am I doing the right thing for women because I work on the fringes of the powerful and have a child, or should I instead be working harder to be at a top 10 or top 20 school?  If I worked more hours, my chances of being able to do so would be higher.  But I sure as heck wouldn’t have time to blog.  What about women who leave post-docs to work for industry?  Or decide they don’t want another year of adjuncting?  Or maybe a masters degree is enough higher education… there’s more money to be made on wall street anyway.

What are these high powered careers that highly educated women are dropping out of or phasing down?:  lawyering, doctoring, academia… who says these are a measure of success?  They’re pedestrian … they’re stereotypes.  What less-privileged parents see as entree into the upper middle class, and maybe they are, but the upper middle class don’t see them as the only option for their children.  Note that they’re becoming female dominated.

I don’t know any happy lawyers, at least not ones with kids.  Well, that’s not quite true.  My aunt and uncle have had fulfilling careers (while raising two children), but you know what?  They work for the government.  They exchanged smaller salaries for 40-50 hr/week jobs.  (#2 says, my aunt is a happy lawyer.  My cousin is a very busy lawyer.  Both have kids and pets.)  I know women who should not be SAHM who left stressful jobs as lawyers to “stay at home with their kids”… but that’s not really why they left, no matter what they try to convince themselves.  They discovered on maternity leave that they hated their jobs.  Like the Historiann post said, their job was not compelling enough to return to.  Are they failing the sisterhood?  If not, are they causing problems for all women when they insist that the reason they left the labor force was because their children needed them and they just could not farm their little spoiled hellions out to strangers (sorry… that’s one specific example!), and not because their job sucked?

Add to that, strong women will sometimes be only nominally SAHM.  They will engage in entrepreneurship, philanthropy, activism.  Businesses that are hidden until they start bringing in large sums of money (like Kate Middleton’s mom!) or that are high powered work without pay.  Is that less important than becoming a senior partner at a law firm or a senior full professor at a top 10 school?  What is the brass ring?

One of my big problems with this debate is how gendered it is.  Coming from a personal finance perspective, one of the great goals in life is financial independence.  When women opt-out, it’s called being a housewife.  When men opt-out, they’re “financially independent”, or “exploring their muse”.  Even when said housewives are running businesses or charitable organizations and said men aren’t breaking even.  If men call it SAHDing rather than something more euphemistic, their labor market outcomes take a bigger hit than an equivalent woman’s.

Is it right that men and women have different cultural expectations?  That it’s more ok for a woman to leave the labor force, that it’s easier for a man to succeed at a career job?  No.  Those little choices Historiann’s post talks about are also dangerous.

So that’s a lot of blathering.  I’ll end with a few summing paragraphs.

Big tenet of choice feminism:  individual women should not be made to bear society’s guilt.  I should not be feeling guilty for not being a professor at Stanford on top of having to live in a small town in a red state.  I made these trade-offs.  Most of us could do more.  But most of us also don’t want the health problems associated with stress.  Most of us want time for hobbies, even if the hobby is watching TV.

Bad part:  any idea that if you don’t choose to stay at home there’s something wrong with you.  Many women stay at home because their jobs sucked, but they don’t want to admit that.  They’d rather pretend to be martyrs, sacrificing for the good of the family.  I like the financial independence perspective.   Your job is a way to get money.  Your vocation is whatever you want to do with your time.  There’s no shame in not working (unless you’re serious about the Protestant work ethic like my mom… she believes people have a moral obligation to contribute to society), so long as you pay your bills and feed and clothe your kids.

Bottom line:  Let choice feminism win the day.  No need to feel guilty for choosing not to work if you don’t have to and you understand the risks you may be taking.  You’re not failing anyone.  BUT only on the condition that parents who choose to stay at home admit that they’re doing it for themselves, and not for their kids.  Let’s take the martyrdom out of feminism and allow true choice.

Note the deliberately controversial post tag… and … Go!  Hit us with your thoughts.

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66 Responses to “Is there anything wrong with choice feminism?”

  1. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Yeah… should have broken that post up into two, methinks.

  2. becca Says:

    Would you accept “let choice feminism win the day. BUT only on the condition that parents who choose to work outside the home admit that they’re doing it for themselves, and not for their kids.”?

    I can see there is a bit of tendency for certain people to try to pull guilt trips on moms that work outside the home (it’s pretty embedded in the Traditional America kyriarchy), and I’m guessing your statement is a reaction to such. However, I think that a lot of us feel excessively defensive about the priorities we have, in choosing the professional over the personal and vice versa (and in that, I include myself and the nicoleandmaggie blog persona).

    This defensiveness leads to compensation in the form of rationalizations like these: “I need to be happy for my family’s sake” or “some people just aren’t cut out to be SAHMs!”
    The first is a blatant attempt to recast selfishness as martyrdom. Except that it can also be perfectly true (as well as being a useful post-hoc rationalization).
    While I think it should probably bee seen as perfectly acceptable to prioritize your own happiness, it’s also ok to feel good about your choice because of how it benefits others (although it’s generally healthy to remember you can’t always tell why you do something).

    The later is distinctly problematic. It is simply not OK for males to say “oh I could never stay home, I’m not cut out for that”. It’s not OK because it’s not true (the vast majority of humans could be perfectly good parents if for some reason outside of their control they *had* to stay at home or *had* to work outside the home). In addition, it’s not OK because “oh I’m bad at housework/childcare” is a traditional cop-out for not doing housework/childcare. But more than that, it’s not OK because it implies that housework/childcare are not good.

    The ultimate feminist societal-level solutions to the personal/private sphere questions must include valuing the work traditionally done by women. Having more men choose to be at home helps. But in exercising your personal choice by expressing distaste (even mildly) for work in the home, you are perpetuating a society that does not value it. That’s not good for feminism, and ultimately it’s not good for anybody- there are many small joys in work in the home and childcare.
    There’s no more need to glorify cleaning a toilet than there is toiling over budget spreadsheets in an office. And neither is the satisfaction of your first successful pie intrinsically less meaningful than first seeing yourself as an author on a paper. A group of people who only focus on one sphere of life is not a group that is getting maximal happiness.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, I know I’m working outside the home for me.

      What about folks are working outside the home at jobs they hate because they need money?

      Disclaimer: I know several SAHM who really should not be SAHM*, but they’re doing it anyway. I also know SAHM who aren’t harming their kids by being SAHM. ;)

      *Also a deliberately controversial post.

    • Rumpus Says:

      Of course we work outside the home for ourselves, but we’re also doing it for our families. We are not working outside of the home because we value ourselves more than our kids. I wouldn’t do my current job for free, but I wouldn’t stay at home for free either.

      I don’t understand why the cause of feminism is better off if housework is more valued, and especially not why “the ultimate feminist societal-level solutions must include…” Why is housework tied to women? Men and women in my family do housework together and at the same time. Housework has a value that is set by the free market. I don’t understand why it would hurt feminism if one were to hire the Merry Maids to clean my house each week, and refuse to do it one’s-self.

      I also don’t understand why it would not be ok for someone, male or female, to believe that they would not be able to stay at home. I love making pies, but I believe I would go crazy if I stayed at home (and didn’t startup a company). If I do not have regular meaningful interaction with adults on problem solving tasks I start to get very depressed.

      I do not think the ultimate solution is to value the “nouveau traditional” homecare/childcare work (or even to value the “traditionally traditional” homecare/childcare in which tents were one room and a village raised a mob of child). We should improve, innovate, and evolve. We should create new societal structures and business ventures that encourage children to grow and blossom without forcing anyone into situations they dislike. We should reimagine or resuscitate the education system so that kids develop a joy of learning and can make their own decisions. We should work for the things we believe in, and speak up against actions that are wrong. Sexism is wrong, and I think the solution is to move forward.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        What would happen to the cost of Merry Maids if women who weren’t crazy about scrubbing toilets were no longer expected to do it for free as part of their duties (just like society does not expect men to)? What would that do to the valuation of housework?

      • becca Says:

        Some thoughts:

        *On average, women wind up in different types of employment then men. There are two ways to account for the wage discrepancies that result:
        1) women do stupid work that isn’t worthwhile
        2) society is collectively incapable of recognizing the work women do as anything worthwhile.
        I’m sure you can guess which I think it is.

        *I really don’t think it’s at all meaningful to talk of a ‘free market’ in which so much labor is not part of the formal economy (as nicoleandmaggie pointed out re: cleaning).

        *From my vantage, even if we got men doing 50%+ of the housework, it wouldn’t mean much if the men doing so were actually boy slaves from Mexico. My feminism is part of a broader anti-kyriarchy view. Innovating our way out of drudgery is laudable (Go roomba go!), but it only goes so far. Ultimately, I see it a being a lot more feasible to avoid simply trading one oppression with another if we can all find ways to contribute to household tasks that we can find some pleasure in (and yes, doing the housework together can sometimes help).

        *to the degree there is a conflict between having “regular meaningful interaction with adults on problem solving tasks” and raising children and participating in maintaining a household, that is a distinct problem with the structure of modern society. In the best of all possible worlds, having kids would not be isolating.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        If the work is devalued BECAUSE women do it, not women do it because it is devalued, how would making scrubbing toilets be glamorous change the valuation of work that women do?

      • becca Says:

        “If the work is devalued BECAUSE women do it, not women do it because it is devalued, how would making scrubbing toilets be glamorous change the valuation of work that women do?”
        You are right it wouldn’t, in itself, fix a society biased against women.
        That said, the current societal lot of many (most?) people cleaning toilets isn’t deplorable only because they happen to be women.

  3. Cloud Says:

    I like meaty, long posts!

    I guess I’m a choice feminist, because I don’t think most of us owe anyone else anything other than a fair shake. I certainly don’t owe some inchoate “sisterhood” more than I owe myself and my kids. So if I decided that scaling back to part time and spending more time on traditionally female tasks or even becoming a SAHM was what made sense for me and my family, then that would be fine and no one should give me a guilt trip about letting down the sisterhood.

    But at the same time, I hate to see women limit their options because they are worried about their future ability to balance work and home, as I wrote in my comment on Historiann’s post. I figure you deal with the problems as you have them. You don’t know if you can have “it all” (however you define that) until you try. If you get there and doesn’t work, then fine- change it. But you don’t really know what having a family will be like until you have one, so don’t limit your options ahead of time. This pre-limiting mindset seems like something that it is valid to argue against, because it seems like a vestige of sexism. I’ve never heard a man worry about his future ability to balance work and home, although I do know some (including my own husband) who have made changes to their work life once their home life included more responsibilities (i.e., kids). And, even though my husband and I have made similar accommodations to balance our work and home lives, no one ever asks my husband how he does it. I get asked all the freakin’ time.

    So I guess I think that whatever decision you make to handle issues you are actually facing should probably not be argued against and certainly should not be judged. But making limiting decisions based on a culturally instilled fear of the difficulty of balancing work and home responsibilities should be challenged, not in a way that puts down women who choose to stay at home or work part time, but in a way that challenges the cultural assumption that this balance is inherently harder for women than men. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are some things that I have to do for my kids and my husband can’t do- breastfeeding being the biggest one, but also right now, dealing with the middle of the night wake ups. But my husband can certainly compensate for this by doing more of other things, like the dishes. And he does.

    Also, @Becca, when I say that I am not cut out to be a SAHM I mean that being a SAHM would not be the best choice to make me and my family most happy. I COULD do it, but it would make me pretty miserable and I am better suited to do what I do now. On the other hand, I know women for whom the opposite is true. They COULD keep working while their kids are young, but it would make them miserable. I hadn’t thought about the phrase in the way you do. I’ll have to think about it more carefully.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      ‘You don’t know if you can have “it all” (however you define that) until you try.”‘

      Foreshadowing: this is the subject of our next deliberately controversial post… currently scheduled for the end of July. (We’re trying to space them out. There’s a debatable scheduled for Tuesday though!)

  4. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    One of my post-docs who quit science right in the middle of her training to stay at home with her new baby was very explicit that her reason was that she enjoyed being at home with her new baby more than she enjoyed pursuing science.

    (I know *many* happy attorneys!)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m glad you know many happy attorneys! It’s good to know that they’re out there. Do they have their own practices? The miserable ones I know are all pulling huge salaries working a tonne of hours a week in big city firms. The guy who did our will seemed pretty low-key, but we didn’t have a chance to ask him about his personal happiness levels. It could also be that big city lawyers get happy once they hit the equivalent of full-professors. All the folks I know are in their 20s- early 40s.

      I like your post-doc! I know folks who decided they enjoyed making big bucks consulting or on Wall Street (no doubt contributing to the global collapse) more than academia. Their professors didn’t approve, but now they’re millionaires.

  5. Linda Says:

    What about that old adage “they call it work for a reason.” I can’t say I’m very “fulfilled” doing what I do, but I enjoy the lifestyle I can afford with this job now and saving for my future. I honestly think I’d be much happier if I could stay home and manage my household (grow food, cook food, preserve food, maintain the house, etc.), but then my household would have $0 income. I don’t have kids, either. How about thinking about this as what one prefers to do in general and not just with childcare in the mix?

  6. bogart Says:

    Erm. I do want to be able to (and do) say that I work because I want to. This isn’t strictly true, perhaps; we need an income, and I’m the preferred breadwinner in our household (my DH hasn’t worked outside the home since becoming eligible for his pension), but I could leave the workforce and he could rejoin it (though not full time with his former employer without losing the monthly pension check — for the duration of his employment with that employer, not forever), so the “want to” part is basically true (one of us needs to work, of the two of us, I want to work more, so …). I do believe working makes me a better mom in that being away from my kid allows me down time that revitalizes me and allows me to focus my energy on being there with him when I am with him, so in that sense it’s win-win, but I don’t work “because” it makes me a better mom.

    And while I refer to him as a SAHH I don’t call DH a SAHD because we also make reasonably extensive (~30 hours/week) of other-provided childcare (where other is a blend of extended family and paid professionals).

    As for valuing homecare, honestly I’d like to see us devalue it much more … as some (female) author wrote around the turn of the millenium in one of those pop culture pieces about the sci-fi technology that hadn’t emerged, forget the flying cars, where is my house that cleans itself? Really, how has 2011 rolled around without a decent maidbot having been invented? Where’s my laundry folder? Self-scrubbing toilet? Anyone?

    • Cloud Says:

      Well, we did get the Roomba….

      And there were those “clean shower” sprays, which seem to have fallen out of favor as we all swung to worrying more about the environment.

      But yeah, if the Japanese are working on robots to care for the elderly (and they are), why isn’t anyone working on a maidbot? Or maybe someone is?

  7. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so?

    There’s a support group for that.

    It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.” – George Carlin

  8. Historiann Says:

    Sorry to miss the conversation yesterday–it was a travel day for me. Two thoughts on this post and conversation: first, a small point. Way upthread, nicoleandmaggie wrote:

    What would happen to the cost of Merry Maids if women who weren’t crazy about scrubbing toilets were no longer expected to do it for free as part of their duties (just like society does not expect men to)? What would that do to the valuation of housework?

    Awesome!!! Also, DO NOT hire Merry Maids. Hasn’t anyone here read Barbara Ehrenrich’s book from a decade ago, Nickle and Dimed? My sense was that those services were exploitative of essentially captive female labor, but the book laid it out how ill-paid and exploitative they really are. My advice is to hire an independent contractor to do the work, and pay her what she asks. That way one can support an independent small-buisiness owner and the local economy directly.

    Second point: While of course women are free to do whatever they like with their lives, and most middle-class and upper-middle class professional-types are following their own bliss as well as engaging in paid labor because they need to, I’m not sure why we need to call it “choice feminism.” Isn’t it just “choice?” What’s feminist about staying out or dropping out of the paid labor force and not insisting on equal pay for equal work, etc.?

    Cloud said it herself: “I certainly don’t owe some inchoate “sisterhood” more than I owe myself and my kids.” Really? That strikes me as a pretty blithe sense of entitlement. Some of us feel very strongly about our obligations to other women, as problematic and “inchoate” as the concept of sisterhood is. Maybe it’s corny, but I think that we need women to continue to see themselves as connected to other women locally and globally. I know damn well that the opportunities that I’ve had were very hard-won by previous generations of feminists, so I feel a strong obligation to my peers, my students, and girls and women in future generations to continue my work as a feminist.

    I’m not saying that it’s impossible to engage in feminist activism outside of paid employment–for example, founding or volunteering lots of time for a local women’s shelter, or even running a Girl Scout/Girl Guide troup organized around girls’ awareness of women globally and encouraging them to maximize their educational and professional opportunities. (Both of these things can also be done IN ADDITION to paid labor, BTW.)

    In short: I’ve always understood a feminist life to be an activist life, and by reducing one’s field of action to the domestic sphere and one’s own family, the opportunities for influencing others or making decisions that reflect feminist values are dramatically, severely reduced.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s an interesting point.

      Does the term “feminist” come with activist responsibilities? Is being in the labor market in a high powered job enough activism? Is insisting that one only do half of the housework that’s done enough activism?

      If the label “feminist” includes only a small subset of people, does that help or hinder? If it is largely inclusive, does that help or hinder?

      • Historiann Says:

        N.B.: there are plenty of women in high-powered jobs who are not feminists, and sometimes specifically and intentionally so. Having achieved a particular level of success doesn’t make one a feminist. The duty to activism is a constant, IMHO, whether one is in the paid labor force or not.

        But, the fact is that the feminist in the big job is in a position to make a difference for other women in ways that women who opt-out of power and influence and decision-making will never be.

      • Historiann Says:

        Of what value is being a feminist if one never acts on or speaks from one’s convictions? (If a feminist lives in a forest but no one ever hears her or sees her work, does it really matter that in her own mind she’s a feminist?)

        I’m a big-tent feminist–in 2008, I wrote several posts about Sarah Palin’s feminism, for example. But yeah: being a feminist means necessarily being an activist.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Would you take away someone’s feminist card if ze judged hirself to be feminist, had beliefs consistent with feminism, but you did not consider hir to be activist enough? What level of activism is necessary for hir to keep hir card? Raising hir children in those beliefs? Sharing them with friends and family? Colleagues? The girl scout troupe?

      • Historiann Says:

        I have no power to “take away someone’s feminist card,” but I can certainly question the importance of feminist values and ideas to people who engage in very little or no activism. What’s the point of thinking feminist thoughts privately if one doesn’t take them into a larger sphere of action and activism?

        As I said, one can be an activist outside of the paid labor force as well as in addition to it. I just question the feminist value of 1) agreeing to work for no money and 2) dramatically reducing one’s power and field of influence by eschewing paid employment.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        By telling someone that, “if you do not engage in these actions you are not a feminist,” isn’t that perpetuating a culture of removing feminist cards? Just the same as, “you’re not a good mother if you don’t stay at home” (or more often, “I just couldn’t be a good mother if I farmed my kids out to strangers”– same message) perpetuates a culture of denying working mothers their good mother card?

        I think there’s two things here: 1. Directives towards people who wish to be “good feminists,” or specifically what you think you personally should do as a feminist. 2. Whether or not people whose behaviors and beliefs are consistent with feminism but their sphere of activism is not as large as some threshold (which has not been defined) should be allowed to call themselves feminists. And if they’re not, what does that do for the goal of feminism as a whole? (Could it lead to: “If I’m not feminist enough, maybe I should reject feminism. The little eddies I was making in terms of equality in my sphere of influence outside the workforce, but still powerful, will now go the other direction.”?)

      • Cloud Says:

        Another thing to think about is the fact that there have been times in my career path that just the act of persevering in that path could be seen as “activist”.

        I didn’t drop out of science when my college boyfriend told me he though I got a scholarship only because I was a girl. (I did dump him, though.)

        I didn’t drop out of science when I was harassed in my undergrad lab and my adviser did nothing about it. I sucked it up and made sure I could get a good recommendation from him so that I could go on to grad school.

        I didn’t drop out when I was told (repeatedly) that I am biologically inferior in my chosen field to the men.

        I didn’t drop out when visitors to the offices of my first company mistook me for the secretary and asked me to make coffee.

        I don’t drop out now when vendors who want to sell my department goods and services assume I must be the secretary and ask to speak to the decision maker (who is me).

        I don’t drop out now when many people- including other women!- tell me that it is “impossible” to combine my career with motherhood.

        I could go on. But really, my point is just that I feel like I’m fighting enough battles in my life. I don’t think I need to fight other women’s battles for them, too, in order to be a feminist.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        “I didn’t drop out when I was told (repeatedly) that I am biologically inferior in my chosen field to the men.”

        I get this a lot too. Damn Larry Summers and his disbelief that psychologists could ever have done any research worth reading before making uneducated statements. I might be at a better school if I hadn’t felt the need to educate all the asshats who told me that at interviews. Though going with the only school that didn’t probably means I’m in a better work environment anyway.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If the local cleaning service that my colleagues use has both male and female employees, does that mean they’re not exploitative? (I suppose unless they’re immigrant or ex-convicts.) Their thing is that they’re super expensive but will clean the entire house thoroughly in one hour.

      • Historiann Says:

        I think the sex of the employees is secondary to their work conditions and compensation. If this service is super-expensive, is it because that’s going directly to the cost of labor, or is that feathering the nest of the owner?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The idea is that is the work conditions and compensation are not good, men, who have other labor market opportunities, won’t work there.

    • Cloud Says:

      Sorry, Historiann, but all I think I owe other women is a fair shake. When I hired a cleaning service, I made sure they paid fairly and provided benefits- I owed that to the people who would be cleaning my house because that is only fair. I owe it to society to advocate for access to good education for all, because that is only fair. But I don’t owe it to anyone to make myself unhappy to advance some cause, feminist or not, by making suboptimal choices in my own life

      That said, I’m living a life that should be seen as fairly feminist. I work in a position of reasonable power in a field that is heavily male dominated. I am paid roughly what my male colleagues are (I had a friend in HR give me the salary survey data at one point). My husband and I split housework and child care as evenly as we can, and we’re both committed to raising our daughters to believe that they can do anything they turn their mind to, irrespective of society’s norms.

      But if I wanted to toss my career aside and become a SAHM because that would make me happier or better suit my family (for instance, if a child was sick and needed a parent to stay home), then I would do it. Because I owe myself and my family first and foremost. And I expect pretty much everyone else to do the same.

      If that is entitled, then so be it.

      Frankly, the judgmental attitude toward other people’s lives is one of the least attractive thing about the activist left, and is a big reason why I don’t frequent many feminist blogs despite the fact that I consider myself a feminist and I generally enjoy reading blogs. I reject the intrusion of the activist right into people’s personal lives. It is not their business who I sleep with or what I do with my body. I equally reject the intrusion of the activist left, even if I am more likely to agree with their goals. It is not their business what I do for a living or how I arrange my household.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        One of the ways that the patriarchy is so powerful is through its subconscious nudges, not just through its overt sexism. Overt sexism is much easier to take a stand against.

        Could that be the same for what Cloud is terming the “activist left”? Should her non-activist quiet feminism not be called feminism?

        And are the spheres of influence of people in the labor force really smaller than those who have the financial wherewithal to opt out of the labor force? When one of us answers a poll on a mother’s forum that her DH does half the housework, is that not sending a signal to women who are unhappily trapped in more traditional roles? Or when a mother says that her children do so much better when they get their father’s childcare in addition to her own? (Or is focusing on the children’s well-being inappropriate?)

        Does real cultural change need both? Top down and ground up?

        These are hard issues, and a deliberately controversial post!

      • Cloud Says:

        In thinking about this, I guess the one area in which I might accept I owe other women something is in mentoring young women who are coming up behind me in my field, as cosmic payback for the help I received on my way up. But mentoring is so strongly in my best interest anyway (both in terms of building my network to help me find my next job next time I’m laid off and in terms of identifying good junior people for me to hire) that I can’t honestly tell you whether or not any sense that I “owe” someone to mentor them factors into my decision to do it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That brings up a common argument in academia. What if the burden of mentoring (and service) falls heavily on women? Women on the work-life-balance committee. Women on the women’s faculty network. Women as female mentors. Women on every committee representing the voice of all women. That’s women not getting as much research done because they’re busy being activists. Who is a better feminist, the woman who says no and leaps to the top of her field or the woman who says yes and has small impacts in the lives of people who follow her, at the expense of her own work? To get the feminist card, do you have to self-sacrifice? How is that different from being an unhappy SAHM, but with a different audience to sacrifice for? When is a person allowed to be selfish? Men are allowed to be selfish all the time, and that lack of guilt is freeing.

        I know an academic who has written papers on a similar issue regarding race: Do black college graduates have the obligation to become teachers so that they give back to the less privileged? Or can they become hedge fund managers etc.

      • Cloud Says:

        I definitely spend more time mentoring non-direct reports than many of my male colleagues do, but I don’t think the situation is as bad for me as it is in academia. Mentoring for me involves taking people out to lunch and talking about their career plans more than it involves sitting on formal committees.

        I actually think the world needs both types of feminists- the ones who are really angered by the injustices and will go out and fight loudly for change and the ones who prefer to find our ways around the roadblocks and quietly work our ways to positions of power where we can just enact some changes. I haven’t been able to do much yet, but I can make sure female candidates in my department get a fair hearing. And I once greatly improved the lives of the pumping mothers in my company by decreeing that yes, we SHOULD put a computer in the lactation room.

        I can see why the more activist types might be frustrated with me and wish I’d raise my voice more. But I’m not at a place in my life right now where I can do that. My family needs my income and my time- too much activism would jeopardize both.

        Also, I think there is some value in just being the counter-example that demonstrates that yes, you can have a good career and a family. And you can even be happy while you do it. In the end, that might win more young women over to the idea of trying to have it all than any guilt trip about what they owe the sisterhood.

      • hush Says:

        @Cloud – “Being the counter-example” = Yes!

        There are some people who are pegged as obvious activists, as in natural Shit Disturbers (a term I’m stealing from the late Julia Phillips, 70’s-era Hollywood producer/feminist), but in my experience, Shit Disturbers rarely ever rise to positions with P&L responsibility in Corporate America (and that’s probably by choice). The world needs Shit Disturbers and people with decorum/ass-kissing tendencies, too. Both ends of the spectrum and all the people in between can certainly be considered “activists” – some are just more obvious than others.

  9. Material culture, feminist activism, and the future of feminism : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Says:

    […] go over to nicoleandmaggie’s blog, Grumpy Rumblings of the Untenured, where they ask, “Is there anything wrong with ‘choice feminism?’”  (I think you all can guess what my answer is to that question, but what do the rest of you […]

  10. hush Says:

    “Folks making less money or who have less education make choices much more defined by salary, job options, and daycare costs– their constraints are more binding.”

    Right. But I’ve also seen folks making MORE money and having MORE education also find themselves uber-defined by salary, job options, and even childcare constraints than they perhaps initially thought they would be given all of the lemming-ish choice-maximizing options they’ve been making since junior high. (Go to the best school! Take the highest-paying, most-prestigious job!) I’m thinking of some hedge fund peeps I know who can’t seem to leave the game. I’m thinking of some academicians who have overcommitted their lives and feel they’re in too deep now to try something else. Or at least that’s how they see it. Their misperceptions bind them.

    I dunno. To each their own? If we say we really support “choice,” then we’ve also got to support (or at least not irrationally tear down) folks who make certain choices we wouldn’t make because we’re too cool for school, or we’re closet One True Way-thinkers about certain issues but haven’t figured it out yet.

    • becca Says:

      “I’ve also seen folks making MORE money and having MORE education also find themselves uber-defined by salary, job options, and even childcare constraints”
      YES! THIS! And that gets you back to “The Yuppie Nuremberg defense” for perpetuating the structural problems (credit: Thank You for Smoking)

      Making the dollar-dollar billz working for heartless giant corporations does not set women free from oppression… it just trades one oppression for another.

      Still, if if you’ve gotta work for the man to eat, it sucks a lot more to have to work longer hours simply because you are Jane Doe and not Joe Danglybits.
      *scampers off to listen to Not a Pretty Girl…*

  11. econjustice Says:

    Feminism is a philosophy. As such, it has definable tenets. We can disagree as to what those are, of course, but my main problem with “choice feminism” is that all it seems to boil down to is “if a woman does it, it’s feminist, and no one else gets to say anything about it.” There’s no rigor in the definition — when everything is “feminist,” then nothing is “feminist.”

    At the beginning of this article, a distinction was made between women who stay at home because they “choose” to, and women who stay at home because they believe in deferring to their husbands. What makes that not “feminist” under the idea of “choice feminism?” They chose it, right? And if we argue that they didn’t “choose” it because of false consciousness, then why it is also not false consciousness for the women who are most able to threaten the male-dominated power structure (educated, upper-class women) to choose simply to stay at home in the separate sphere?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Although that is one of the multiple definitions of “choice feminism” on the internet, that’s not the definition we’re using here. The definition being used here is that “choice feminism as being consistent with the idea that women should be allowed to choose between having careers and being housewives or stay-at-home parents without guilt or judgment. ” It is not the idea that whatever a woman chooses is fine because a woman chooses it.

      I would venture to say that if a woman or man decides to stay home rather than have a high powered job, that would be consistent with choice feminism under this definition. Some would argue that traditional feminism would be fine with a feminist man staying home but not a feminist woman staying home, even though the feminist man might have even more power to affect change in the labor market because of the patriarchical biases in favor of men.

  12. scantee Says:

    My issue with choice feminism is the assumption that we’ve already made it, in a sense, that these choices are free of the constraints that concerned second wave feminists. But were not free, not free at all. Those constraints are very much alive. Why do all these women dislike their jobs as attorneys? Is it because women are more likely than men to enjoy homemaking than law? Or, is it that the environment and the pay-off they receive from it, emotional and financial, isn’t as great? I tend to think that’s it the latter that there is still much work to be done in improving the work world for women.

    That doesn’t mean that I think that women should stay in jobs if they’re miserable. Every feminist woman makes concessions to the patriarchy and if we didn’t then we wouldn’t need feminism in the first place. I am perfectly willing to believe that a lot of women-even high-powered ones!- survey the the rewards they receive from the work world, find them lacking in comparison to home, and decide to leave. I even believe that a lot of them are genuinely more happy with that arrangement. That does not mean that they couldn’t have been happy working outside the home if the environments were more conducive to their lives outside of work.

    I highly value home work but I think it’s a mistake to view it as women’s work. There is nothing special about cleaning, child caring, and managing a home that is a special talent for women so why do we persist in defining it as “women’s work”? It’s not and it shouldn’t be women’s work so let’s stop calling it that. We as a society either value that work or we don’t (hint: we don’t) and romanticizing it as a “choice” that well-off women make free of social pressure does nothing to raise it’s standing.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Part of the reason the women lawyers (and former lawyers) I know are unhappy is because the high powered law office set-up is still heavily sexist. They do have to work harder than men in the same position to get to the same place, and the men in the same position also have housewives taking care of everything at home rather than working spouses, just like in academia. One junior lawyer I know who is miserable and flirts with leaving has not left precisely because she has a senior (unmarried childless female) mentor willing to go to bat for her. She has, however, dropped down to part-time (which in this case, is 40 hours/week) because the stress has been too much for her.

      • econjustice Says:

        Will the law culture change if women all opt out? Or will the law culture change if women opt in, push hard to make it to the top, and then change it, for themselves and others? Ask Sandra Day O’Connor, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

        For the record, I’m an attorney running my own solo practice, with the help of two part-time assistants. I’m not married, I have kids, and I’m the boss, so I have to show up for work every day to manage the office and make money. I don’t have the well-off husband to fall back on. I don’t get to ruminate about whether my job is fulfilling enough for me to want to do it. I have more in common with the Merry Maids, frankly.

        I’ve found that in my field, though women make up half of the law graduates, they don’t make up half of the practicing attorneys. I attend many a meeting in which I’m the only woman. I’m the only mother at my kids’ school who drops them off wearing a suit instead of sweatpants. I’m proud to set an example for my son and daughter of a professional woman in action, because there still aren’t that many of us, and we seem to be getting fewer.

  13. scantee Says:

    It’s too bad that these discussions always end up focusing on women in high-powered careers. Most women don’t work in careers like that I think it’s a mistake to focus solely on the lawyers, doctors, and academicians among us. Women see that and think, “well, I’m not in a high powered profession so this doesn’t apply to me, it doesn’t matter if I drop out.” But it does and we need to fight to keep those women in the workforce just as much as high powered women in corporate world.

    When Dad Joe Schmoe is “just” a teacher or a middle manager do people say, “why do you bother keeping your job, it’s not fulfilling and you don’t make enough to pay child care”? No. We say, “look at Joe dedicating himself to his career and supporting his family!” It should be the same for women. It’s especially important for women with less education because they’re 1) more likely to be SAHMs and 2) more severely affected in case of divorce, job loss, or death of a partner.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Perhaps the choice/ability to pursue schooling or to gain entree into a high powered career (rather than one with both long hours and low pay) is also tied up in all of this?

    • Cloud Says:

      I think that the less money the woman makes the more likely the decision is going to come down to the cost of quality child care.

      One of the reasons I don’t feel guilty about leaving my children in day care is that I know they are getting excellent care. It would be a lot harder to do it if I thought that the care provided was not up to my standards.

      Also, I really can’t fault someone for deciding to stop working when their salary doesn’t cover child care and therefore the “extra” cost of her working starts to impact things like mortgage and food payments. I’d prioritize buying food now over preserving my retirement savings, etc., too.

      So if we want to see more women in lower paid professions stay in the work force, probably the number one thing we could do is advocate for more subsidized quality child care.

  14. DaisyDeadhead Says:

    There is no such thing as “financial independence” within ruthless capitalism that plans to completely destroy the social safety net. No. Such. Thing.

    I hate to see women buying into something that most men have already realized is a lie to keep us working our asses off for pie in the sky…

    And what econjustice said.

  15. MutantSupermodel Says:

    All of these terms, categories, boxes, labels… they confuse me. Funny enough, all I can think of is a post I read somewhere someday about how screwed up MEN are because of what society pushes as successful men and how horrible it is. I’d like to think women are smarter than that and avoid the crap that comes with successful manhood. Who cares what they call it? I find it funny how people kill themselves for something without really understanding why they’re doing so.
    I guess it’s kind of good society’s torn on what a successful woman is. I think we’re more off the hook in that sense than men are. Guilt is an individual problem and I think mostly female because of how we’re wired. Sure, society probably doesn’t help but really it’s just other women not helping. Because we’re catty like that. Reow!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I dunno, my poor DH seems to have more maternal guilt than I do. “Am I spending enough time with DC?” He says I sound like my mother when I pragmatically tell him that he’s probably spending too much, and that independence is a good thing!

  16. HM Says:

    I am an academic contemplating leaving to spend more time with my toddler and am very, very conflicted because of the guilt of ‘not appreciating the privilege’ of being able to do something that women could not do a 100 years ago. My problem is that I am not sure what the right answer is for me i.e. the guilt. On the one hand I think spending time right now with my child is very, very valuable and on the other hand is this guilt about not appreciating the strides we’ve made as women. My mother was an academic who worked fulltime after I was born and I got to spend very little time with her before she died of cancer when I was very young. So that plays a role too in my waffling on this…ugh, I wish I didnt feel this guilty! And, yes – I am not crazy about my job but I think the desire to spend more quality time with my child overpowers the dislike in my decision of wanting to leave. I do think that we ought to have the choice…and therefore hate that I let the guilt get to me.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Here’s my a-feminist advice to you. Read Your Money or Your Life by Dominguez and Robin. Discuss it with your partner. Then make an escape plan so that you can find compelling work that you do value doing what you want to do in a calculated risk framework. Academia is just a job– one that comes with a lot of freedom, but it’s just a job.

      And drop the guilt. Your child will be fine and you will make strides in whatever you choose to do, whether that is academia or something else.

      • HM Says:

        Thanks for the advice! Interestingly – that is exactly the path I am on – mostly because my partner thinks this way. He keeps reminding me to not put my value and self-worth on one particular job (i.e. academia) and encourages me to think of alternatives that would allow me to do valuable work and spend time with my kid and be happier all at the same time. I just get into funks occasionally because of the strong socialization in academia on ‘deserting’ and how that leaving isnt being grateful for the opportunity we’ve been given…and, no, after 10 years teaching and researching, I dont think the job is a god’s gift but I hate how a lot of people think it is! I am also an year away from easy tenure…which is actually making me make the decision faster because I really dont want to go through the process and feel beholden to the job.

      • Cloud Says:

        Do you know anyone working in a field outside academia that would be a likely place for you to land? You could ask to meet them for lunch to ask questions about their life.

        I left academia and am very happy with my career and life- but right after my grad degree, so that is very different.

        Or- can you figure out how to put boundaries up such that you do get the time you want with your toddler? From the outside looking in, it seems to me that one of the unique challenges of academia is that no one helps you set the boundaries between work and home life, so that your work life can easily consume everything.

      • HM Says:

        Yeah, I live in an area where the potential for other kinds of employment are pretty decent – I havent actively started looking because I am still going through this process of coming to terms with saying goodbye.

  17. HM Says:

    I guess that came out wrong. Its not only because my partner thinks that way but it has helped tremendously that he is my cheerleader and doesnt let me stay in the guilt funks I get into…it is harder without a supportive inner core group and that is why I am thankful that my partner thinks the way he does because there are enough people who think I am being frivolous for wanting to walk away from a ‘secure’ job…

  18. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Thank you everybody, for participating in this deliberately controversial post.

    There’s been a lot to think about!

  19. First Gen American Says:

    Wow. I’m late to the game here and didn’t even get to read through all the debate.

    I think the evolution of this will be choice “couple-ism” or “Family-ism”. I personally don’t know anyone with children that has 2 high powered, high stress careers. Either one spouse stays home or has a job with a lot of flexibility. This is true for men and women. The other option is to have 2 medium stress jobs and share the stress and the working workload.

    Due to some of the committees I’m on, similar to the academia ones you site, I know a lot of executive women. Many of them have spouses who are “self employed.” There definitely is a double standard because most people perceive this as a high powered couple, when in fact, usually the bulk of the house and kid management gets done by the “Self Employed” male. I think most stay at home dads label themselves as Self Employed whether they are making money at their business or not. If a stay at home mom labels herself as self employed it’s often perceived more as a hobby vs an occupation. There is definitely a double standard there.

  20. oilandgarlic Says:

    I think my issue with the “choice” of staying home is that middle and upper middle class women are turning back as if there is no longer any need to ‘fight’ for rights. There is still much work to do in terms of changing the workplace (which I think can be done), such as mandatory paid maternity leave, lower cost subsidized child care, etc.. that would make it possible for women and men to work while caring for children. I know many who “opted out” because of high child care costs but would they have opted out if affordable quality child care was available? Maybe, maybe not. I also felt the pull of staying home because my maternity leave was so short; but I don’t think I would have felt as much guilt if maternity leave was longer (and I believe maternity leave should coincide with breastfeeding needs –i.e. up to one year). In other words, I think we are making a false choice based on current, tough either/or propositions (either you breastfeed at home or try to pump/breastfeed while working at a job with no privacy / either you stay home or you pay an arm and leg for childcare, etc.. ) that will damage future generations.

  21. Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom Says:

    Hmm. When I worked in TX and cared more about this stuff, I think even the women thought I was a “damn feminist Yankee”. Things have changed so much over the years up here in Canada that it’s not something I think we have to be as concerned about – not unconcerned, but it’s not such a pressing issue as it was 25+ years ago when I started working. That glass ceiling is a-cracking.
    It also occurred to me that I am now a SAHSM. Cool.

  22. Does living frugally mean you should settle for a smaller salary? « Grumpy rumblings of the half-tenured Says:

    […] has on other people who don’t want to be doormats and so on (we’re ambivalent about choice feminism here at Grumpy Rumblings)… But we’d like to remind you that money buys goods and […]


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