Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Sacrificial ewes

We can have it all, that's what the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s said right? Well no actually, they didn't, but that's the most common reference point used by those who criticise feminism now; that women were told they could have it all and now they're finding out that they can't.

The "all" in the statement is frequently considered shorthand for children and career.* Don't many men get to have a family and a career, without anyone even thinking that the world might operate otherwise?

People say sometimes that the reason women can't have it all, however all is being defined, is because when you have children, and/or a partner, you have to make sacrifices. I agree that you do have to make sacrifices when you have a family. You have to make choices, often difficult ones, and you do have to put the needs of others, often vulnerable little ones, before your own on a regular basis. But our society seems to be explicit about the sacrifices the ewes make, yet not talk about sacrifices for the rams.

There are men who do make sacrifices for the sake of their children, or their partner. There are expectations still that men should be the earner and support their partner and children financially, and with this sometimes there are sacrifices about which job they do (e.g. something that earns more or has security, as opposed to what they actually want to do), the hours they work (e.g. lots of overtime, two jobs to bring in enough money), and more. I know a father who lost his job because he wasn't working the ridiculous extra hours his boss required, primarily because he wanted, and needed, to be an active dad engaged in his child's life.

Those sacrifices are under the radar, and sadly seem to go largely unexamined. Why do we have an economic system that requires more than one income to run a household, and particularly to raise children? Given that our political and economic system is supposed to help us achieve what we want as individuals and as a group, perhaps we should be doing something about that?

But I digress, a little.

I wonder if the reason that we tell women they have to make sacrifices for their kids, but we are silent about what men forfeit, is because we still think that really women want to constantly spend time with their children and men are happy to go to sports with the little tykes on the weekends, ruffle their hair occasionally, and generally be distant figures invoked for disciplinary purposes and on Fathers' Day once a year. Does anyone, man or woman, fit either of those stereotypes, really?

The sad reality for many families is that it is the woman (and sometimes more than one) who is expected to give up more of their time to support the household group. Doing the unpaid domestic work, the school run, the cooking, the childcare, the cleaning, running the family finances and ensuring the bills are paid (or juggling things if they cannot be), all of this involves spending time on others that you might otherwise spend on yourself. And this work is still predominantly done by women in our society. How many readers have lived in a family setting where the weekends involve the adult males doing what they like to do, mostly, and the adult females doing what they need to do, by and large?

If we could balance these sacrifices, share them if you will, then not only would women have more time for their stuff, but men would be more engaged with their families and more empowered in the home. Sounds good to me.

With thanks to Alison for sparking my thinking on this post in a brunch-fuelled conversation recently.

*While for me "all" is in fact a much bigger concept, let's go with that for the purposes of this rant.


M said...

I have nothing to add except to say that I agree with so much of what you have said. Spot on.

katy said...

The only thing I would add is that I think it interesting how the concept of women working is treated like something that is new. I would argue that working class women (at least) have long been required to do work that would have taken them away from their children but it was up to older children to look after the smaller ones and this was certainly the experience among previous generations in my family. What has changed, perhaps, is not so much that women are working outside of the home more but rather the way in which childcare is structured.

Carol said...

I totally agree with Julie here.

As far as I recall, the notion of women being able to "have it all" arose more with the "girl power" thing in the 90s, or maybe late 80s. This was strongly influenced by the mainstream media.

It may also have been influenced by the media representation of feminism as a version of "liberal feminism". That has always been the version that got most favourable representation in the mainstream media. This is because it doesn't really challenge the system as it exists, but aims for gender equality within the existing system & values. i.e. one where careerism is valued over child care, housework and relationships within households.

The kind of things Julie is talking about were discussed at length within the London women's movement, and wider as far as I recall. There were calls to value childcare more, and to involve men more in it, and to put less emphasis on the need for working long hours for financial gain.

Society needs adequate childcare as part of preparing the next generation to participate positively in society as adults. However, child care & parenthood is undervalued work, that receives meagre financial support from society. On the otherhand everyone is increasingly expected to be participating extensively in paid work.

And it was in the late 80s, and 90s when consumerism accelerated so much that it became regarded as necessary for a household with children to have more than one full-time adult wage to support it.

But, IMO, this is just another way that the 2nd wave women's movement gets set up as a bunch of straw women, who are blamed for various ills in contemporary society and/or gender issues.

There are ways that I think 2nd wave feminists can be criticised e.g. for not paying enough attention to issues of diversity & inequalities between women & people generally, and not focusing enough on (what gets referred to these days as) intersectionality.

But "having it all" relates to the post 70s rise of individualism, IMO, and was never a theme of 2nd wave feminism.

Moz said...

The definition of "all" has changed a lot. Feminism has usually been about "having it all" whether that means the vote and property ownership, divorce and the DPB, emancipation, abortion, equal pay or any other demand. Both feminists and their opposition consistently paint their demands as wanting to have everything, or at least as wanting equality plus not losing what they have now.

I work with a couple of men who are only in paid work part time because they have family committments. One leaves extra early one day a so his wife can play basketball, rather than the usual 4pm. The other starts at 9:30 after droppping the kids at scholl then leaves at 5:30 on the dot because he has to be home to cook dinner. People do do it, but in both cases the income drop is savage because part time work in well paid occupations is very hard to come by. Well, part time work with any control over your working hours.

Carol said...

Well, Moz, I think it's stretching it a bit to imply that 2nd wave feminists were focused on having the "all" but according to a different definition of all.

"having it all'" carries a specific meaning which relates to an individual woman being able to HAVE a relationship, children and a career or substantial paid work.

The examples you refer to are about collective rights being available to all women. But, for 2nd wave feminists, this didn't necessarily mean each woman would claim "all" of the rights as something they should have. Rather it was seen as them being rights that each woman could choose from. It's not necessary to won property. I'm glad women now have equal rights to that ownership now, but I've never had a desire to own any - don't have any to this day.

And the means to making those rights available was often discussed as being a possibility if men and women worked more collaboratively, rather than aiming to achieve or gain stuff totally through their own efforts.