Women on Women (And the War Continues)

My, my. It’s tough having a “pair” these days.

Of XXs, that is. Chromosomes. You know what I mean. To define a woman. The right kind of woman.

And isn’t this at the heart of the War on Women – whether it’s XYs or XXs dealing the blows?

Oh, you say to yourself, That’s not all it takes to be a woman.

True that.

And apparently, the ongoing womanly warfare is persisting, insisting we define who can claim the prize when it comes to being the better woman – she who works (for pay), she who mothers (in tiger fashion or gently attached at the bountiful breast), and she who approves (or disapproves) of choices of all sorts.

Cutting to the chase, a spate of articles has appeared on the scene, and they include an inflammatory piece in the Atlantic by Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel on how the 1% women are killing feminism, a well-reasoned article (also in the Atlantic) by Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter on why we can’t have it all, a follow-up to Professor Slaughter’s article on Motherlode in the New York Times, featuring a Q & A between KJ Dell’Antonia and Professor Slaughter – not to mention any number of commentaries, which will no doubt continue. 

Time for a little Fun with Feminism?  

And since X marks the spot – or in this case, XX – yes, I’m going to add my two cents, first to Ms. Wurtzel’s (odd) piece, and then to Professor Slaughter’s.

Feminism: Fact, Fantasy, or Free-for-All?

Ms. Wurtzel’s article, 1% Wives are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible, cuts straight to the bone.

The author sticks it to her reading audience immediately, with the following lament on what feminism has become – as she sees it. She writes:

Most of all, feminism is pretty much a nice girl who really, really wants so badly to be liked by everybody — ladies who lunch, men who hate women, all the morons who demand choice and don’t understand responsibility — that it has become the easy lay of social movements. I am going to smack the next idiot who tells me that raising her children full time — by which she really means going to Jivamukti classes and pedicure appointments while the nanny babysits — is her feminist choice. Who can possibly take feminism seriously when it allows everything, as long as women choose it? The whole point to begin with was that women were losing their minds pushing mops and strollers all day without a room or a salary of their own.

Let’s please be serious grown-ups: real feminists don’t depend on men. Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own.

Where do I begin with exactly how much is wrong with this picture, as Ms. Wurtzel has just laid it out? Born in 1967, I don’t think she was living the same experience of “feminism” that I was, born 10 years earlier.

And how long has she spent in the trenches of motherhood – of the stay-at-home variety – or the work-for-pay outside the home version, while juggling all balls in the air and hoping you don’t stumble?

To the extent that Ms. Wurtzel is addressing the 1% wives – those with an excess of wealth that essentially removes the drudgery of childcare from the picture – I will agree, these particular spouses (Ann Romney among them) don’t live the way the rest of us do. Then again, as Jennifer Ross at The Gloss points out, Ann Romney’s job (paid or otherwise) is about being Mitt Romney’s seemingly perfect spouse (and yes, mother to their five children, with all the assistance that money can buy).

But when Ms. Wurtzel writes that feminism cannot be taken seriously when it “allows everything,” and furthermore, “that women were losing their minds pushing mops and strollers all day without a room or a salary of their own,” she’s both right – and very wrong – while touching on a fundamental truth.

The heart of feminism is about choice, and I don’t believe Ms. Wurtzel (or anyone else, male or female) has a right to say “which” choices are acceptable and which are not. Beyond choice, the backbone of feminism is about economics.

And to the extent that Ms. Wurtzel’s article pursues that line, I couldn’t agree more.

Survival is a Matter of Money

Once upon a time, marriage was a social contract that “compensated” women for their domestic role by providing a roof, food on the table, and other amenities. Women stayed home, kept things running smoothly (ideally), raised children, smiled dutifully alongside their husbands, shared the marital bed, and accepted innumerable compromises because they had no economic independence.

Were women frustrated with this situation?

Some surely were – because they wanted something more in terms of their own interests, education, and ambitions; and others, for the very real constraints that kept them tethered to men whom they would otherwise leave.

Were women dealt impossible survival issues if husbands took off for greener pastures, or for that matter – died?

Yes, on both fronts.

The bottom line is the bottom line. Money. Economic independence – or at least – survival. And as our families and other communities have weakened or disintegrated in the past 30+ years, without economic independence, women are… let’s just say it… in deep shit.

So when Ms. Wurtzel comes around to this statement – I agree, but conditionally. She writes:

… real feminists don’t depend on men. Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own.

Yes, no, and not exactly.

Independence may be the hallmark of adulthood, but none of us is entirely independent.

Interdependence and compromise are also the hallmarks of adulthood – for both sexes.

To wag a judgmental finger – particularly at “educated women” who do not exclusively and singlemindedly scale the corporate ladder, saying to hell with everything else – is divisive, unrealistic, and paints a woefully incomplete picture of Our Real 21st Century Nation.

Real Feminists? Say What?

“Real feminists” as Ms. Wurtzel calls them – are just as likely to fall victim to illness or accident, to corporate restructures which send them out into the Big Bad Unemployment Universe, not to mention – to give birth.

“Real feminists”  understand that women have babies and if the planet is to perpetuate the human species, we will continue to do so.

“Real feminists” and loving partners are not mutually exclusive.

“Real feminists” and engaged mothers are not mutually exclusive.

“Real feminists” frequently care for aging parents, whether or not they have children of their own.

And when Ms. Wurtzel makes this statement, that “motherhood” isn’t a job?

… something becomes a job when you are paid for it — and until then, it’s just a part of life.

I would say – wrong.

We may pay our teachers and our nurses, our bus drivers and our babysitters, our cooks and our housekeeping assistants, but the fact that millions of women perform all these duties daily does not eliminate the notion that they comprise a job – and a job that also involves extraordinary measures to do with moving our children through their developmental stages, and teaching them the life skills needed to succeed as healthy adults.

Is volunteering not a job? It’s an unpaid job.

I would say the same about mothering.

Women Warring on Women

Sadly, where we find ourselves today is in an increasingly (and visibly) misogynistic society in which men and women are angry and afraid because so much of our society, or what we believed it to be – appears to be crumbling: “the family” as we once imagined it; “jobs” as we once envisioned them; “the American Dream” as we bought into it.

We don’t need women warring on other women, damning their choices, or dismissing their parenting job because it isn’t “selective” according to Ms. Wurtzel.

And none of this changes the fact that the days of one income and a social contract between wife and husband are virtually gone. Some still benefit from this arrangement, and simply put – they’re lucky. On that score, I quite agree with the sentiments expressed in the article. Staying home to raise children (if that’s your choice) is a privilege.

But it may also be more fiscally responsible option – in lieu of affordable childcare, and lack of flexible job opportunities. In other words, not really a choice at all.

Moreover, gone are the days of any married woman (safely?) relying on her husband to provide – even if he makes a good income.

(A wise woman finds a way to carve out her own money for that proverbial rainy day; we have a 50% chance, more or less, that it will come.)

So, to the extent that Ms. Wurtzel associates feminism with economics – I’m there. And I mean – I’m there.

But to whip up more frenzy which, in my opinion, does nothing but obscure the highest priority issues for this nation – which are about the economy and health care? Ms. Wurtzel does women no favors – those she would label as Feminist and the “others” she so readily dismisses or chides.

My Sense, My Common Sense

I don’t know Elizabeth Wurtzel. She is a writer I respect, a woman who has fought her own battles, a woman who speaks her mind. My sense – and common sense – tell me that she recognizes that we haven’t made sufficient strides in the past generation. If anything, women have been treading water, and at times, it feels as though we’re sinking – fast.

If Ms. Wurtzel sees those women who have benefited from education and work experience that would enable them – us – to make a difference, the sort of difference that could help all women, I can only imagine her frustration. And that frustration exists when seeing careers cut short, female policy makers stuck in a perpetual set of conflicts and contradictions, and waves of legislation that seem to be taking us back to some dark age of Woman By Definition which has little to do with anyone’s choice – except perhaps some zealous legislators who – again, in my opinion – are distracting us from the most serious issues in this nation.

And those are issues of employment, infrastructure, health care, education. Issues that thoughtful women – and men – are trying to understand and address.

So while I’m miffed at this Atlantic article (and admittedly, a bit baffled by its accusatory fervor), I can’t help but applaud the directness of saying that we have a problem here. A big problem. And it comes down to dollars and cents, and women being able to stand on their own.

Anne-Marie Slaughter on Having it All

I would be remiss if I didn’t address Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s intelligent and pointed cover story in the July-August issue of the Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

And we can’t.

Not because it’s impossible, as Professor Slaughter explains, but because we do not have the social systems in place to accommodate it.

Ms. Slaughter begins her article by referring to an evening mingling with State Department dignitaries, and yet she writes:

I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him.

And this, as she goes on to explain, with a supportive husband at home, and a growing sense that despite her feminist principles and attaining her professional objectives, she was coming to the conclusion that a “woman can’t have it all.”

As a mother, Ms. Slaughter was legitimately concerned about her teenager. (As the sole caretaking parent of two sons at the tail-end of the teenage adventure, and one of Ms. Wurtzel’s “educated women,” may I say that I understand the worry, the impossible conflict, and the realization that “having it all” is so much mythology?)

What woman with a family doesn’t feel like she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders? Ah, perhaps the 1% wives – and a few more – that Ms. Wurtzel addresses.

Women Judging Other Women

When Ms. Slaughter left her State Department job in Washington, D. C. and returned to teaching at Princeton, she was met by reactions that were, to say the least, judgmental. She writes of her reasons for returning to academia, including a desire to be with her family:

… and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

Mothers who pursue their careers – whatever that means – continue to take the brunt of societal blame for Everything That Is Wrong With Kids Today.

Mothers who struggle with as many paying jobs as they can find, to keep their households going, often fall through the cracks in our “positive attitude” culture, which insists that if you cannot succeed, it must be your own fault.

Where Ms. Wurtzel offers criticism, Professor Slaughter offers substance and recognition: we do not live in a country which provides structural support for families in terms of consistent policies, programs, and employment flexibility to take full advantage of the contributions that women could make, while still providing for their families – economically and emotionally.

And we do not have sufficient voice in the political process, or leadership roles.

But no matter what, for women, compromise remains part of the picture.

American Propensity for Fiction Over Fact

Professor Slaughter writes of a lecture she gave at Oxford, in which she spoke frankly about her decision to leave government service, at least for the duration of raising her sons. She seemed surprised at the (less judgmental) responses she received from an audience she describes as career-minded and in their mid-twenties:

… almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make.

Compromise.

There’s that slice of adulthood that was missing from Ms. Wurzel’s definition.

She goes on to say:

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.

She further acknowledges that millions of American women have problems which are far more pressing, and I applaud her for stating – straight out – the reality that so many of us live with.

And I will state my own belief which I have previously: a woman’s issues are human issues. They affect not only us (and our best interests), but our children, the men we love and who love us, and the health of a nation that too readily disregards necessary (female) skills, not to mention the health problems that are worsened by economic and familial stress.

Women in Leadership; Futures With Fewer Labels

Professor Slaughter writes:

I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.

Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances. Some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs. Many cope with a work life in which good day care is either unavailable or very expensive; school schedules do not match work schedules; and schools themselves are failing to educate their children. Many of these women are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have.

The best hope for improving the lot of all women… is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

To those words, I say hallelujah, and applaud coverage of complex issues without resorting to simplistic rhetoric. I echo Anne-Marie Slaughter’s sentiments that more women in leadership means “a society that works for everyone.”

I would urge you to read these two Atlantic articles in entirety, and then the Motherlode Q & A as well. In particular, Professor Slaughter’s words may have you nodding, as they did in my case. Let her moderate and informed position act as a practical guide for your own situation: to set realistic expectations, to understand the necessity of political action, to include in your definition of adulthood – perhaps as I include in mine – not only independence, but interdependence and compromise.

We are, none of us, in this alone.


© D. A. Wolf