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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Today's feminist: beyond 'bowling alone'

Sometimes, some folks leave comments here that are worthy of a post in and of themselves.

This one has haunted me since I read it:
Regarding the older vs. younger feminists: 40 years ago I was a housewife and mother who was active in the women's movement. Today my daughter is a tenured college professor and mom and is far too swamped with the myriad responsibilities of laundry, carpools, AND teaching AND committees AND driving to dance classes AND writing student evaluations AND publishing a book and presenting papers AND a significant medical issue with one of her children that--although she appreciates the activism of older women like me to open doors for her career, she has no mental spiritual or physical resources left over for joining any advocacy groups.
The Feminist Movement was reaching a crest just as I was becoming a young woman.

Even my very traditional mother and aunts encouraged me that I could have it all - a career and a family. Our daughters are well educated, successful professional women who are also dedicated to their families.

Those who are married with children are very involved in organizations that center around their children: boy scouts, brownies, sports leagues, etc.

To my knowledge, they are not members of organizations that promote the advocacy of women's issues. That's not to say that they are disinterested and would not join organizations like the National Organization of Women or League of Women's Voters. They certainly are not members of The Episcopal Women's Caucus, although they support my work in it.

Right now, their focus is on their children and their husbands. Which is as it should be. I am enthusiastically supportive of their choices.

However, wherever I go - in the church and in civic organizations - the lament is always, "Where are the young women? Where is the next generation of leaders?"

Which is usually followed by "What are we doing wrong?"

I'm thinking we need to unhook ourselves from the sense of failure and understand that this may well be the "natural order" of things.

I'm thinking that, when the kids have grown up and are on their own, these are the women who we'll see at The Caucus and members of N.O.W.

I'm thinking this is exactly what we struggled for - to leave all doors, all avenues open to women and allow them to make their own choices about determining the paths of their own lives.

I certainly didn't have the choices my daughters have and granddaughters will have. My path in life was set for me by cultural and religious expectations of "the role of women".

I do not regret for one millisecond the work and struggle it took to change that.

And yet . . .

Reading a comment like this haunts me. Questions arise.

ARE we doing something wrong? DID we get it wrong? Did we not consider the fact that the psychic default position for most women is to do too much? Do we have unrealistic expectations for our daughters?

What do you think?

Does 'having it all' mean you've got nothing left?


riskrapper said...

Good post.

I have to say that the same problem can be said for the anti-war movement.

I participate in a Wednesday night peace vigil in Teaneck with the Bergen County Peace and Justice Coalition. For the most part the vigilists (not to be confused with vigilantes) are in their 50's and 60's.

We too continuously ask where are the youths that must fight these abhorrent wars? Some believe that until we have a universal draft the youth will remain AWOL. But large standing armies are no longer needed to fight modern wars. As war becomes more dependent on technology its human dimension is sequestered except for the very few who experience it first hand on the ground.

Nationalistic fervor and the growing militarization of our society enthralls the people and obfuscates the ugly reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps a growing acceptance of women in the work place, and in places of authority contributes to a sense that women have achieved economic empowerment. This too may lead young women to believe that they are free and equal citizens with men whose fate falls or rises on their work, skill and diligence in a laissez faire market driven world. I think the ascendancy of Sarah Palin posed this very same question.

The reality though is very different. Underneath the glitzy facade of economic and political empowerment, women and children are most effected by imprisonment, homelessness, poverty and lack of basic services.

Young women feminists need to recognize that economic debasement suffered by the underclasses has a gender dimension. Women were leaders in the struggle for universal sufferance, child labor, workers rights, environmental, LGBT and minorities civil and reproductive rights movement.

Progressives advocate that feminests continue to articulate solutions to social problems from a gender specific perspective.

The fact that the young ones are not showing up may suggest that they don't believe in the message that progressives are sending. Thanks a bit disconcerting.

peace and prayers,


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Great observtions and parallels, RR. I, too, am concerned about the apathy (is that the right word?) among "young feminists". Hmm . . . is it apathy or complacency when it's your sense that the battles have been won and there's nothing to fight for?

IT said...

Elizabeth, I think there is some degree of complacency--the battles seem in the past. Then they get a little further, and realize there are the same issues, just expressed more subtly. And then they get worn out.

Does having it all mean there's nothing left?

Or the other version of this, you can have it all, just not at the same time.

I think at some level, we have created an expectation of superwomen. yes, now they can get those jobs--but the jobs are still structured the way they were 50 years ago, for a man with a wife at home. So if you want to have the job, you have to be like that guy, AND be the wife at home at the same time. But hey, you wanted the job, right?

If I had had my family then, would never have gotten tenure. Now, I still feel guilty that I don't work weekends-- and my career is not where it would be if I did. And I struggle to fit everything in. Am I a failure for that? Should it be necessary to work 7 days a week full time to be A Success in the eyes of my peers? It requires that I re-evaluate my idea of success -- to learn that I am successful ENOUGH. (I still have a hard time with that).

There was an article a few years ago in the NY Times about high-achieving women who were stepping OFF the fast track to be stay-at-home moms. This was viewed with alarm and dismay by some, as though these women were rejecting the doors that had been opened. But rather, they were making a different value statement.

Oh, said some of the men. See, the women never really wanted these jobs. They can't hack them. And the women speed up to prove that they can.

We haven't really wrestled as a culture in the US with the fact that the jobs themselves need to change, as it is not good for women OR men to be run ragged and unable to do it all, and to have no time left for community. We work long, long hours in this country with our infernal work ethic, and our lack of social supports. I think we are worse for it.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I apologize in advance for the length of this comment, Elizabeth--I just started writing and couldn't stop. (But I don't have time to turn it into a full-fledged blog entry....)

ARE we doing something wrong? DID we get it wrong? Did we not consider the fact that the psychic default position for most women is to do too much?

We focused on legal equality for women--which wasn't a bad first step--but we haven't gone past that vision. We changed the laws, but we still haven't changed the structure of our culture.

We bought the idea that opening boardrooms, courtrooms, and operating theaters to women and electing them to office would make us equal. While I certainly am grateful for all the doors that my foremothers and sisters kicked in (I even kicked in a few myself!), I am left feeling that one of the big downsides to focusing on political and economic power is that it made the masculine idea of success (i.e., power and money) the bar by which we would measure ourselves.

By that bar, we fail. Women are still predominantly responsible for "The Second Shift"--childcare and homecare--but now the vast majority of us work outside the home. Unfortunately, we still get paid significantly less than men, no matter what variables you include.

We are supposedly equal under the law (though ask any woman who's been sexually assaulted or abused by her male partner how equal that is), but in our day-to-day lives we are still the servants. In fact, in some ways we are still slaves--the global economy is founded on the unpaid labor of women. Our contributions are absolutely vital, but they are not recognized or compensated.

We work all day for less pay than a man and still come home to a vastly unequal burden. We are disproportionately poor and disproportionately sick.

We need to change the social structures, not just the laws. But now most of us are just too damned tired to make the effort--or too demoralized watching people who were supposed to represent us trade away our rights for...what?

I'm in a cynical mood today--probably because I only got 2 hours of sleep last night and I have one sick kid at home today, another who has a band concert tonight, and I'm WAY behind on two different work projects. It will be a long day...and, like every other woman I know, I will slog through it because I have to.

But I dream of a time when we live in a humane society that doesn't demand we give every moment of our lives to earn our bread, and when the male half of the population pulls its weight at home. (And yes, I know that all of you gentleman reading here do half the housework and childcare... ;-) I even dream of a time when we will judge our "success" as human beings by the quality of our relationships, rather than by how much money we make---but I've always been an idealist. :-)

The truth is that the gains we have made are very fragile. We are always at risk of losing what little we have gained, and we have an immense amount of work left to do to make any significant progress.

And that is why your exhortation to women to come together is so important. Most of us are exhausted, and it is easy to lose sight of the larger picture when we are wrapped up in our own small worlds. In trying to do it all and have it all, we tend to forget that many hands make light work, and that sisterhood IS powerful. Thanks for the reminder.


Bill said...

Elizabeth said...
“ Hmm . . . is it apathy or complacency when it's your sense that the battles have been won and there's nothing to fight for?”

I believe it’s neither. To be apathetic you have to understand that there is a problem and choose not to take an interest; choose not to care. To be complacent implies that you are self-satisfied with the way things are.

I think the real problem is ignorance:
1st of the original problems
2nd of the long hard fight and sacrifices made by those who went before
3rd that it can happen again.

Mary Sue said...

This is the same attitude that complacently sits back and says, "Oh, yes, those 20/30/40/50somethings who are not at church, well, they're going to come running right back when they get married and have kids."

Except even my Best Friend in the Whole Wide World, thirty years old and a Reader in his church, didn't have his wedding in a church two years ago, but in a really nice park.

Explain to me why, when I have all these demands on my time (and I'm a single woman, no partner, no kids, and only minor chronic health issues) I should join your Caucus or Movement or Organization. Do you understand I have a busy life and accomodate it? Do you communicate in the mediums I use (Twitter, Facebook, blogs?) Do you elevate yourself over the thousands upon thousands of other social-political groups that are out there trying to get our attention?

What do you do? And why should I spend some of my spoons* on it?

What the ever-loving HECK is the Consultation?! This has been driving me nuts for the last week, since you mentioned it, you assume that I know what it is.

My generation is not 'coming back', because a lot of us were never there to begin with. And we don't know you exist.

*The Spoon Theory (PDF)

Janet Detter Margul said...

You've hit it right on the head with this post. For several years running, I would aim to go once a week to the local college to recruit for NOW. I even got an unexpected boost when one of the profs stopped to get all the membership "how to join" information from me and said he was going to give extra credit to anyone who did join NOW. And yet I was basically unsuccessful at getting new members on campus.

Lots of girls stopped by to chat, to express amazement that an organization they learned about in history class still existed. But join? They simply did not see a clear and present need for activism. They felt that all the work was done, they appreciated what we'd done but didn't see a need to do anything else.

Total frustration. Speaking about NOW, we did make mistakes. Our activists in the '60s and '70s came, for the most part, from white suburbia. We're the ones who had the time, energy and resources to give to something not directly helping us survive. But we sure didn't do it all!!

NOW faces the same problems and issues you've pointed out today and yesterday, and we haven't found any answers yet either. You really touched one of the soft middles of my activism today. Thank you!

JimB said...

I think maybe movements simply have a life cycle. We fought for equal access for blacks and finally "won" when the civil rights laws were passed. We can point to black bishops, and even a president. And the "Civil Rights Movement" is now a chapter in our history books and a holiday in January. We have "solved" that problem.

Does anyone with half even a brain think things are now OK? So too for women.

Yes a woman can have a career that would have been closed to her 20 even 10 years ago. But hubby still expects her to cook, men in the workplace may still resent her and the psychology of the sociey still thinks she did pretty good "for a girl" even if not nearly as well as a male might.

I am covered by the civil rights laws a couple ways. It is unlawful to discriminate against my age group. But a State hiring authority was able to say I was not, "energetic" enough (means I have white hair.) I would be out of my mind to admit I am diabetic in an interview.

There are seminars out there on how to avoid the laws and determine that a young woman may want kids. Of course that is not what the "HR professionals" (now there is an oxymoron!) call them.

I think we pass a law or two, announce a change or two and then think we are done. That is what happens to movements.

"It is still a long hard and damn hard and bitter ride" Shel Silverstein in "He Nellie, Nellie".


Malcolm+ said...

(With the appropriate trepidation any man should feel weighing into an assessment of the state of modern feminism.)

It seems to me there are two dynamics at work.

One of the dynamics is that, to a great extent, the previous generation of feminists won. Of course, it wasn't a total victory and there are certainly significant issues yet to be addressed. But while a 20 year old in 1960 looked to a future of marriage (no divorce), children and dependence, a 20 year old in 2010 has a range of options. Indeed, the only option they may not have (the economy being what it is) is being a stay at home wife and mother in a culture where two incomes are necessary.

(The preceding paragraph obviously oversimplifies the state of things. Lots of women don't have the full range of choices. But the demographic subset of women most likely to look to advocacy as a vocation or avocation - ie, white, middle/upper class, educated - mostly do.)

The other dynamic is the degree to which our new approach to child-raising (ie, structured activities vice unstructured play) has combined with the demands of career and a still disproportional share of the housework to make life too hectic and harrying. Indeed, in a sense, younger women may now feel trapped in the post-feminist utopia their forebears could only imagine - and it turns out the grass isn't quite the shade of green the earlier feminists expected.

Both of these are probably somewhat true.

And, of course, the evolution of society may just be taking a breath before moving to the next set of struggles. After all, there was a generation or more between winning suffrage in the teens and 20s and the bbirth of the feminist movement in the 60s, as there was between the abolition of slavery in the 1860s and the civil rights movement of the 1050s and 60s.

Malinda said...

Holy Guacamole - did you hit a nerve! Being born in 1960 I grew up with lots of advantages that I knew then and I know now to be best expressed as the "standing on the shoulders" of those who fought before me and for me. But I also know that my husband who is fairly evolved still looks to me to manage the house and bring in an income. And did he balk when I took a $20,000 pay cut to change jobs and work for the church. So, I think those of us who inherited the mantle did indeed get it all - and we have to be strong enough to interpret or reinterpret what that means.

Guess I wouldn't have written so much 'cept the word thingy is "viarg" kind of like viagra which is indeed a whole 'nother subject!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear All - Oh, how I wish I had had the time to respond to some of these brilliant observations and insights and feisty opinions. I don't know if I hit a nerve or this is just a topic that is just under the surface of our daily lives - for men and women.

I think guys have their own dilemmas and guys who know that are our best advocates. What's that old saying, "Men of quality are not afraid of equality"? Sexism is as damaging to the souls of men as it is to the souls of women.

I'm also remembering something Yoko Ono said about men.. . . something like . . . if she were a man and had to go through life with one of the body's most sensitive organs hanging on the outside, she might be aggressive and defensive, too.

If we can break down the walls and barriers of sexism then maybe men would be better able to share power and authority.

When one of us is the object of prejudice and oppression, we are all objects of prejudice and oppression. Some day, we'll learn that - and, hopefully, live it.

Just some random thoughts based on what y'all have written here.

Thanks so much. This is a great discussion - far from being over.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

I hear a lot of my own thoughts in some of these posts. One thing to consider is the paradigm for 1970's-style feminism, which I hear as "Be part of the tide that lifts all the boats." Many successful (even well-intentioned) women felt that their own success would lead to the success of other women. A significant number of successful and powerful women didn't even think that far. In the academic world and in the church circles that I travel in, I hold a lot of coats. As a lecturer I assist and defer to professors, and as a volunteer in Christian ed. and mission, I defer to wealthy parishioners and clergy.

More than once I have escorted visiting bishops to events within our diocese. It's been a stunning irony to sit or stand next to a VIP after some very moving "We are all brothers and sisters in Christ" worship event and have both male and female clergy elbow me aside to talk to the bishop or other foreign visitor. I mean, without even a hello. (Two visiting bishops later apologized to me when they saw it happen.) When I'm treated as a lesser being in those circumstances, for some bizarre reason I'm just not motivated to be part of a group that can't even see me.

Right now I give my time to a lot of things that are related to women's rights: literacy, child care, homelessness among women. I work long hours. I volunteer long hours. Over time, I've discerned that my time is best spent with people who will accept me as an equal partner. I'm kind of tired of holding coats, even for other women.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Mary C, for that powerful statement. You are so right about this you make me cringe - and feel ashamed for the ways in which we internalize and perpetuate our own sexism.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I think you hit the nail on the head. I appreciate what my mother and her mother did for me and the doors that have been opened. I have walked through some of the doors, come in the back door, and squeezed in cracks. When I was in law school 50% of my class consisted of women. Twenty years later however, it is still hard for women to make partner. I am tired of fighting. I fight and/or negotiate all day at my job. I come home to fix dinner, help the kids with two hours of homework (something my parents never experienced but necessary for even elementary children under No Child Left Behind), get the kids in the bath, read to them, say the prayers, and then after they are asleep complete the work I have brought home, go to bed way too late, get up at 5 a.m. to put a load of laundry in the washing machine, clean a bit, prepare lunches, drop the kids off at school, all by 7 a.m. and go to work. That is a good day which does not include choir practice for the kids, drama lessons, concerts, activities required of a home room Mother -I've yet to see a Home Room Dad.

So when during the day should I participate in activities for NOW, or the League of Women voters, or poltical parties? And if I participate in any of these activities, which I would like to, which child's activity should I sacrifice? Homework time? Concerts? Plays? Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day and now a few scientists are suggesting we may have less daylight time after the recent earthquake.

Ok, I have rambled enough. To sum it up, I believe my generation feels like we are the Rosa Parks in this society. We try to be brave and strong. We work hard to put a roof over our children's heads and food on the table. But we are tired. Our activism is in the boardrooms, the courtrooms,and on the playgrounds. We are no longer fighting the limited war that women faced in the 1960's and 1970's. Rather our war is all around us.

IT said...

Anonymous describes Elizabeth's final point:
Does having it all mean there's nothing left?

Such as it is, that would seem to be the case.