Women’s History Month

When I saw on the lovely Care’s site that March is Women’s History Month, I thought to myself, now that is something I can get behind. When I was first at college in the late 1980s, it was the feminist theories that were rejuvenating literary criticism and they arose out of twenty years of steady communal effort that women in the Western world had put into the gender debate. Reading Marilyn French’s novel, The Women’s Room, is a good way to become aware of the tremendous changes we’ve seen since the 1950s and how important and fruitful the changes have been. And the situation is still on the move; in 1999 when I joined my college as a fellow (the word we use for someone in a paid teaching position), I was one of only six women in a fellowship of one hundred and thirty. That ratio is gradually, gradually improving. But I despair when young female students declare that feminism is ‘finished’, that it has nothing to do with their lives or that it was something simply aggressive and undignified, a battle that never needed to be fought. I think this fails to understand how damaging, and how insidious, the old gender politics were. Back in the days when men expected authority, remained distant from their family, let work dominate their lives, and women were confined to the domestic realm and maternity, this was not a neat and sensible division of labour, but a kind of emotional apartheid, where both sexes were refused access to experiences that would have enlightened them.

Gender inequality arose through the belief that men and women are intrinsically different and thus suited to different social roles. In consequence, women were stuck with a fixed definition of themselves as nursemaid and helpmate, as slave and ornament, and if this identity straitjacket didn’t suit they were called hysterical or just plain crazy. When I was at college the big no-no was this kind of essentialist thinking, in which biology was destiny. Instead, we all subscribed to a constructivist point of view, whereby we understood that identity was culturally thrust upon each gender and that therefore mothers could bring children up to enjoy more fluid roles, that they could encourage girls to be energetic and proud of themselves, to climb mountains or run businesses. And so what do we have nowadays? We have a society that still reveres one set of values – strength, competitiveness, retaliation, more than another set of values – compassion, patience, gentleness, whilst still surreptitiously training women to hold those lesser values. We have a society in which women do run businesses, regularly, and do climb mountains, often, but in which they continue to feel more guilt and responsibility than men, continue to shoulder the bulk of the domestic burden, continue to beat themselves up for not being perfect and continue to hate their bodies because of extreme cultural pressures on personal appearance. Where society fails women most of all is in the area of childcare. The image of a mother remains a place of extreme idealization (and no economic recompense) and mothers who fail to meet standards are still derided rather than supported. The lack of affordable, available, quality childcare for mothers remains a terrible indictment of our so-called equal society. Particularly when coupled with a workplace that remains extremely masculine in its organization – competitive, emotionally empty, and inflexible. The culture of ‘being there’ at work still reigns supreme, despite tremendous advances in communication technology because it ensures that the majority of women with children will eventually be forced away from the top positions. And women still prefer to adapt quietly than to ask for equal rights; they will be marvelous and somehow manage to spend time with children, run a house, sympathise with their husband and most important of all, maintain a cheerful façade, because no one thinks a woman who whines is attractive, least of all the woman herself.

I think that a woman alone and independent can manage very well in modern society. But once she starts to accumulate dependents, a partner, and the real deal breaker, children, then inequality starts to slide in, because women still think, feel and respond differently to men, particularly where children or emotional issues are concerned, and these differences are still open to exploitation rather than celebration. One might think that such things weren’t really important; that what goes on in the life of the couple or the family is private, to be agreed upon by the people concerned who will figure it out in the end. Back in the nineteenth century, George Sand said that the equal marriage would provide a perfect model for the equal state, being based on mutual respect, trust, openness in communication and a solid validation of the different skills and perspectives each partner possessed. And I think she had it absolutely right. While we tolerate inequality between two people who love each other, then we can continue to find ways to tolerate a strata of impoverished society who shoulder the worst jobs, we can impose our will on children and demand they grow in our image rather than grow towards their own light, and otherness, difference, remains only ever a threat to protected ways of thought. Love remains the place where we permit the worst offences and yet where we might still find the courage for our most important development. If I had a wish for our society, it would be for a future  in which cooperation and ethics were held in the highest esteem, a society of convergence, in which different opinions and perspectives were brought together and judiciously handled, and where this relentless acquisitive materialism calmed down. I don’t think we’ll ever have such a harmonious world, but we can continue to talk about the microcosm of the family, understanding that equality means everyone wins, because everyone has the chance to become their best self.

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16 thoughts on “Women’s History Month

  1. Classic post, Litlove, and something I think about daily, since I am nine years into child-rearing and never expected to find myself a stay-at-home, work-from-home parent. I have an open-minded, fair and helpful husband, but the onus is on me to provide the nurturing and there are moments when I am very angry about that. The idea that equality in the state will never come about until there is equality in relationships is both a revelation to me and something I understand at an instinctive level. I feel sad that younger women think that feminism is no longer useful, because from my personal position, it seems that we still need a revolution.

  2. Well said. I think one of the problems is that biology is destiny is a story, which can be told in very different ways. Our society tells it one way, one among many possibilities, but it’s taken as a given even when there is an attempt to cast a better light on both “biologies”. There is no reason why our workplace structure has to be the way it is. That’s just historically contingent. But it puts people in the position of choosing to have one partner work hard and one stay at home rather than the much more flexible possibilities that could operate just as well. The young women who disdain “feminism” in their very disdain justify the importance of feminism. Who disdains civil rights and other similar movements for greater equality and freedom? The very fact that feminism is somehow a bad word is insidious.

  3. Perhaps the young ladies of today should be put back into the strait-jackets of the past for a year or two. Treat them as property for a while as their Great Grandmothers were. Or perhaps they should be taught that no matter how despicable we consider the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and Afganistan, Western women were treated just as badly in the no-so-long-ago past. What a waste of people. Both men and women! (sorry for the rant – it annoys me to see this happening even in my own family)

  4. I agree that it’s sad young women so often think we don’t need feminism anymore, and make such strong efforts to distance themselves from the term “feminist.” How can we possibly be “over” gender inequality when the inequality has been so deeply ingrained in our culture for so long?

  5. Like Charlotte I think about this issue all the time. And like Lilian I find feminism’s descent into the pejorative both alarming and insidious. I sometimes experience waves of terror at the thought of becoming a mother, because I see the ways in which my relationship with my husband could (and probably will) change, and how what is already an unequal burden in the home could become something far more damaging to my personal well-being. I was tense on Friday night because my nana is returning from her month of respite this week, and I am dreading it, and when I tried talking to Llew about it, he wasn’t interested, didn’t want to know, and asked me what the hell my problem was because he couldn’t see the big deal. I told him I thought we were experiencing a fundamental failure to empathise, and it frightens me, truly frightens me, how quickly it soured the evening, and how distant it made me feel from the person I’m closest to. I listened to his account of his bad day at work, asked open questions, facilitated his need to talk about it, but in contrast, he just felt I was complaining, and my pressures were not only diminished but actually discounted. Invalidated. I can see that this happens with mothers who are at home with the children, and have the full burden of care, and aren’t supported by men who don’t see the big deal… I think it’s a potentially toxic breakdown, and it really gives me pause.

  6. Thanks for such a marvelous post Litlove. It feels in many ways as though the gains of the feminist movement are slipping as so many young women want to distance themselves from the label of feminist which has sadly become a stigma. When and how did that happen?

    The work is not done. I did a Women’s History Month display for the law library on women in the law and found some very sobering statistics. Even though the number of men and women graduating from law school is equal, men are many more times likely to become partners in law firms and women are more likely to work only part time once they begin having children. My own boss at the library was a successful employment lawyer and loved her job but when she had her second child she felt she needed to be the one who did most of the child rearing. Now she is a librarian and likes it, but her ideal job is working as an attorney and listening to her talk she misses it greatly.

  7. I went to an all girls high school, and then an all women’s college, so I didn’t experience much gender inequality in those really important years – the years in which we “find” ourselves. I just naturally assumed that, as a woman, I could go anywhere and be anyone. Marriage didn’t alter that belief. However, I made the choice to stay home with my children once they started arriving, and did not work outside the home for over a decade. The shock came when I went back to work. My husband, who I always thought was like minded on the issue of women’s careers, turned out to be very unsupportive as I struggled to flesh out a career for myself. With very little help from him on the homefront, I still did all the housework. I still had to shop for and plan all the meals, and was the parent who showed up for all the baseball and soccer games, ballet lessons, and scouting events. I did those things because I loved doing them and have never regretted on minute of Mom-dom. Nevertheless, it was an eye-opener for me, and the knee-jerk expectation that I was “supposed” to stay at home was not very healthy for the marriage. I hope that the present generation of young men and young women can build a better mousetrap.

  8. Wonderful post, Litlove, you’ve captured the essence of the continuing struggle. I thought things had really changed until I moved to Switzerland, where although almost 80% of all women work, almost 100% of those that do can only work part time and depend on their mothers and mothers-in-law for child care since any formal childcare system is virtually non-existent. It’s a mess that won’t get any easier much sooner.

  9. Great post. Bringing it home here, I think one of the things that really grates me about our current socio-political climate in SA is that those traditionally feminine values you mention are discounted while the loud-talking, “successful” men are the role-models. Shady politicians are heroes while it is actually the mothers of this country (and those in mothering roles) who hold things together.

  10. This is a truly wonderful and thought provoking post. I personally experienced why we need feminism when I applied to medical school back in the mid 70s. There was a quota system for women and minorities, and med schools were filling those quotas by finding minority women so they could ultimately have more white men in their classes. I’m not sure how this has changed in the past 30 years, but it sucked back then to be rejected “because of my attitude”. Whatever that meant.

    However, I think at this point that we perhaps need to start focusing on “humanism” rather than just feminism. The fact is, while women are still expected to hold the house together and rear the children while they have a career, it is absolutely “Not Okay” for a man to choose to be the care giver. People automatically look at him as suspect, possibly a pedophile or even gay. Even with the preponderance of male celebrity chefs to watch on TV, it is still considered odd for a man to be the major cook in a household. Boys are still not taught how to do housework, care for their laundry, do child rearing. A young man who wants a part time after school job and applies as a baby-sitter is viewed as suspect. The list goes on and on.

    I see a big problem in our society caused by children being reared by people who are not their parents or immediate family, where the major caregiving tool is the television or video games. These children are learning to relate to a box, not to humans. Their development is impaired. Even though there are numerous studies that show this to be true, people still plop their kid down in front of the box and tell themselves that because they are watching “baby einstein” and not commercial tv it is okay.

    And the acquisitive materialism is a real problem. How much is enough? Do we really need a 5000 square foot house to live in when there are two people in the home? Do we really need a tv in every room? Can our eye really distinguish between 10 megapixels and 6 on the HDTV? Do we really need a subwoofer that our neighbor two blocks away can hear when we watch movies in our home entertainment system? Do we really need a new vehicle every 2 years? Do we really need so many clothes and shoes that we require a walk-in closet to store them? Exactly how many pairs of shoes does one human need at a time, anyway? Paying for all this stuff is what is pushing people towards needing two incomes to make ends meet.

    I don’t have easy answers, but these are questions that need to be addressed by every person who lives. And the first thing that has to happen is that we need equal pay for equal work. And we need to start educating our boys to see themselves as different than just a bread winner/warrior/hunter.

  11. If you ask my granddaughter, aged five, what she will be, she will tell you that she will be a “fire chief,” or a “railway engineer,” or a “ferry captain.” Fire captain is at the head of the list: she has a fire hat, a fire coat, and fire boots.

    She is learning how to handle money. She gets an allowance of $3 a week and has a special bank (which you can find for sale on the web) where she puts a dollar in the spending slot, a dollar in the saving slot, and a dollar in the sharing slot.

    She just used some of her spending money. Evidently, she will be the first fire chief with a pink pony riding beside her as her fire engine races down the street, siren screaming.

    She is also a child in a science fiction family. She has two mommies and two daddies. Her birth mother, known as “Mommy” is my daughter’s partner. My daughter, known as “Mama” is her other mother. One daddy is the sperm donor, whom she knows though he lives in a distant city, and the other daddy is the sperm donor’s partner.

    While everyone here is theorizing about new paradigms, they are growing in my family. Be very afraid or very reassured as your tastes dictate.

  12. Dear Charlotte – I understand exactly where you are coming from. I often look at my career and wonder whether, if my husband had been less horrified by the idea of staying home to care for children and I had felt less determined to be with my son as much as possible, things would have been very different? My job was very tied to one place, his was very flexible, and yet we ended up in traditional roles. We work it out and he is a wonderful father but I don’t think either of us really felt like we had choices. I agree with you completely – there’s still a lot to be thought out.

    Lilian – I loved your biology is destiny post and would have left a comment if my computer hadn’t crashed at that point. I do feel the workplace has much to answer for, as its ideology has changed so very little. And it’s distressing that feminism has gained a sort of ugly, aggressive, pejorative meaning when its interest is in improving life for both sexes. You are quite right to compare it to civil rights.

    Archie – rant away! I agree that there is a historical blindness at work that could usefully be addressed. I rather like your idea of young women having to put those old straitjackets on – nothing like some strenuous role play to be introduced to a new perspective!

    Dorothy – that is a very good point. You’re so right that such attitudes are deeply ingrained and so don’t change fast. I read somewhere that it takes one generation to talk about change, and then the next one might be able to introduce change, but I think it may be slower than that.

    Doctordi – you’re by no means alone in feeling that. I remember one time when I was pregnant and my husband went out in the evening and came home much later than I was expecting him. I was really cross because I’d been worried about him (this was prior to the days of mobile phones for all) and I remember feeling so alarmed for what parenthood would do to us when he couldn’t understand how I felt about this seemingly small thing. It took us several years to sort out the gender blind spot. What I should have done, and didn’t do, was hand the baby over to him and just go out. Then he would have learned, but I protected him and resented that. I think Llew should go and pick your nana up and drive her back on his own. I recall from your post that you were the one managing the situation then – it would be a learning experience for him to be the carer, and then he might have more insight.

    Stefanie – isn’t it sad? The backlash against feminism in the 90s was stronger than we thought, or maybe just more influential. Which is a terrible shame. I do feel for your colleague – law is another of those professions (like academia) where work takes up your life and there is no flexibility. It seems so hard that women have still to make this impossible choice. I wish I could see your library display!

    Grad – I read your story with great interest. I know just what you mean – I wouldn’t give back a moment of my son’s life (well, maybe a few of those illnesses could go…) and I loved looking after him and watching him grow and he has made me into a better person than I would ever have been without him. When my son was about 7 I decided my husband was going to take a more active role in parenting, and he has benefitted enormously from that. It was good for him, he grew, too. And he learned to have a more balanced perspective about work; it wasn’t the be all and end all. But those earlier years were not much fun for either of us. What I do need to do is have a serious talk with my son one day, when he is old enough to understand it, so that I can pass him on to a young woman with higher hopes that they’ll tackle these things better, and earlier.

    Verbivore – how interesting to hear that about Switzerland. I had no idea. Here in the UK the problem is in the income bracket below professional women. There’s a critical point beyond which paying for childcare quickly eats up the entirety of a woman’s salary. It’s the case for huge numbers of part-time workers and so many of those lesser-paid jobs, nurses, teachers, cleaners and so on. It is a huge problem.

    Pete – that’s a good point, and I agree. The problem, or at least part of it, is still about the qualities that a culture validates. I think that mothers are over-idealised because capitalism is so rampantly promoting opposing values. There has to be a balance, somehow, and it’s women as ever who are paying for it.

    healingmagichands – what an interesting and rich comment – so much to think about there! I am horrified at the thought of gender quotas (although reading The Women’s Room does indicate the extent of injustice and it was alarming) and I agree that there is still a stigma attached to young men entering traditionally nurturing professions. The whole childcare situation is tremendously difficult and needs reorganisation from top to bottom, and I am with you completely as far as materialism goes. You’d think after the bank crash that it might be questioned, well, I guess it’s early days and maybe it will be a little bit. But I’m not convinced. I do agree with you that the answer lies in humanism, in understanding that the genders need reinterpreting, that the solution is one that will benefit men and women alike, and that a greater flexibility in gender roles can only be good for everyone.

    Modestypress – wow – that is quite some family for your granddaughter. But she sounds wonderful, or maybe I should say, and she sounds wonderful. Families need the right qualities, and it doesn’t matter who brings them to the mix, I don’t think. After all, a fire chief with a pink pony is absolutely what the world needs right now.

  13. It’s such a tough issue, and one that is, in my opinion, shockingly underdiscussed between couples who plan to have children.

    Recently I was explaining to my writers’ group why I enjoy writing historical fiction; my current piece is about gender roles and sexual politics in 1880s England. I was saying that I can use it as a platform to make observations about the way life is today, and anyone who doesn’t like it can pretend that I’m writing about the past. The group protested that surely, things had improved for women over the last 130 years. I’m not so sure. The typical 1880s male expected his wife to be ornamental, virtuous, good company, and a good mother to his children. The typical 2009 male expects his wife to be ornamental, sexually accomplished, educated, ambitious, responsible, a good financial risk, a good cook, a good housekeeper, a substitute for his own mother, and also a good mother to his children.

    I’m not sure we’ve made a hell of a lot of progress. Women are no longer regarded as chattel, but they’re still enslaved.

  14. What a good post. I have printed out your post and comments so that I can read it again more thoroughly with my coffee. I want my daughter to read this when she has finished her finals in a few months time. I was born in 1950 and when I tell her of my difficulties growing up in a male dominant society she finds it hard to understand how difficult it was for women of my generation. She tends to think all the difficulties where in the Victorian Era: which goes to show how hard it’s been for my generation to shake off the shackles of those times. Or have we?

  15. David – that’s brilliant and oh so true. I do hope so much you’ll get your fiction published because I can only think it must be wonderful.

    Jennifer – thank you so much! I would love to be a fly on the wall when you have that discussion with your daughter. I should talk more to my female students to try to get a handle on what they do think. Certainly, it seems that forty or fifty years ago is an unimaginable stretch of time. It’s scary to think how close we are to quite severe forms of discrimination.

  16. I’m always surprised to hear women speak disdainfully of feminism. Do they not understand it? It’s strange how things have worked out, but it really all does come down to having children. Why is the most important job there could be (relatively speaking that is) relegated to the worst position in society? I suppose entire books have been written on that one, eh? Something got messed up along the way–the fact that women bear the babies should make them the most powerful, but somehow we got the short end of the stick. Maybe that’s a far too simplistic view, though.

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