Friday, August 29, 2008

The Happy Homemaker with a Briefcase

The last few days, I've been trying to absorb and collect my feelings about the pageant of maternal images presented to us through the Democratic Convention and the announcement of McCain's VP pick, Sarah Palin.  A couple of different national columnists (men) have noted some aspect of this trend: McCain and Biden's elderly mothers thanked for their dedication to their sons, for example, and the headliner positioning of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Dem's convention.  The only other woman I can think of on the Democratic side who has given an important address at the party's convention was Anne Richards.  

I admit to feeling a bit disappointed, even saddened, by Michelle and Hillary's speeches.  They were good, they were powerful, they set out to accomplish particular political objectives and achieved them.  But.  I just about gagged when Michelle Obama, a woman for whom I have a great deal of respect, had to talk about her joy at "achieving balance" with her family.  She talked about this in such a way that it seemed code for her forced happiness at sublimating her identity and giving up some of her ambition.  This was something, i.e., taking a back seat to her husband, that she didn't seem too happy about a few months ago.  Now the operatives that serve them have repackaged her as the Happy Homemaker with a briefcase.  

Similarly, Hillary is, in part, not her party's nominee for president because she let herself take a back seat to her husband's ambition too long.  She let them put a lid on her and her honesty and directness and anti-cookie baking statements (I was with a group of working moms not long ago who were psyched to discover that the school system was no longer going to allow home-baked products for school birthday parties--it was a victory), and let the political operatives repackage her into someone a bit more docile, a bit more stand-by-your-man.  

A friend said today that it wasn't fair to criticize them for making the necessary choices for political survival.  And there is a lot of pressure to submit that's difficult to buck.  But is it a choice to decide to suppress the self?  Or is it something you feel forced and pressured to do against your true desires and against your will to some extent?

On the Democratic side, a parade of maternal images scrolled by, most of them stereotypical.  Biden's elderly mother to whom he made a 19th century style tribute.  Michelle and Hillary doing what was expected of them as women.  

And then there was the matter of Biden's image.  He takes the train back and forth from his home in Delaware to DC and back every day, most nights arriving home by 10 pm and then turning around and leaving at 7 am.  The matter of Ted Kennedy and some other senators convincing him to be sworn in after the death of his wife and daughter and the critical injuries of his sons.  He was sworn in at his son's bedside.  If you think of Joe as Jane Biden, is getting home late and leaving early sufficient to raising small children?  Would Kennedy have talked Jane Biden into taking the oath?  Or would he have quietly looked for someone else, feeling that a woman's place was with her injured children?  I don't know that this story would be one the party would be so eager to promote if it were Jane Biden they'd taken as VP.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin.  After watching the Democratic women do as they were told all week, and express some happiness at the sublimation of themselves to others, it was pretty dramatic to see this GOP woman pushing forward with her career and raising a family at the same time.  She's got a five-year-old and isn't letting anyone tell her that she should be home devoting her life to the child.  And some members of the public have already suggested she's selfish for this.

But while the Democratic women seek to prove their female credentials by taking "time off" to rear their kids and talk about their personal fulfillment at sublimating their needs and desires to their family, GOP women seem to me to just be plunging ahead and combining motherhood and work and not taking any crap about it.  After listening to Michelle's and Hillary's compromises, my first impulse about Palin was to say, wow, strip away the policy and religious differences, and that's what I want for my daughter--not someone making her feel as though she's got to choose between having a child and having a career, but the ability to model herself after someone who doesn't make a choice, but simply goes for both.  

And I think the male commentators are all wet in terms of repeatedly insisting that the conventional wisdom holds: liberal women want pro-choice and won't flock to a pro-life woman.  I know a bunch of women who want to go beyond abortion, who are tired of the deadlock and the stalemate.  Palin models what a lot of women want in this country: to have a family and a career with advancement potential.  To have children and not have someone looking over your shoulder and trying to mommy track you or make assumptions about your commitment to your job or criticize you for having children to begin with.

A think there are a lot of women looking for a third way through this, who think that abortion rights are a necessary, but insufficient condition for equal rights.  Women who are willing to bypass abortion to get to the issues that matter, the issues that give them real economic freedom: childcare, social security credits for caregiving, equal pay for equal work, flexible work schedules, the erasure of mommy-tracking, adequate leave for caregiving.  

And, of course, the male pundits were out in full force suggesting that the only think that matters is abortion--that's what equal rights for women are all about.  Throughout this election process, men have consistently failed to understand the deep desires and repressed feelings of the female electorate.  They want to oversimplify our rights, our complicated relationship to abortion, and what we need to achieve economic parity with men.  

McCain gave on the experience issue because he's willing to gamble that the Democrats will get complacent about the complexities of the female electorate.  He wants the Dems to go on the attack on Palin about her inexperience.  If she were Sam Palin, the youthful governor of Alaska, how much do you think they'd be ripping her for inexperience?  A lot of women are going to take this as disrespect for what she has accomplished and for what they dream of accomplishing.  It's the media, once again, telling us who we are and what we think.  And McCain's smart--it's not about going after "disaffected" women, it's about re-doing the electoral math and redrawing the map--women represent a majority of likely voters.  Win just so many additional percentage points of the women's vote and you can win a few more states.  Obama needs to tack and say that he represents what women need for economic parity--and I'm heartened that his campaign has already chosen to focus more on equal pay than on abortion.

I won't vote for McCain/Palin because they're wrong on the policy issues as far as I'm concerned.  But Sarah Palin represents an insistent third way for women: a mother pursuing her own dreams and raising her family simultaneously.  The Dems need to stop putting a lid on their own female stars.


Phil Boiarski said...

I am always troubled that women are so quick to stereotype men. Perhaps you have had some bad experiences. I assure you there are men who have had bad experiences with women. I stayed at home and raised my first two children because my wife had the better job and we could better afford for me to be "Mr. Mom" than to hire a nanny. I cooked, cleaned, changed diapers, did the laundry, all of it and would never trade the time I had with my children for a minute of being a worker bee. Not once did I feel that I had the worst part of the deal. There is not one job as rewarding and gratifying as the job of nurturing a child. I have the greatest relationship with my kids because of our "history" and my son now does the cooking and more than his share of the chores. We need more women "stars" but buying into the cliche that a "career" is so wonderful, that working for "the man" in a nine-to-five suit is somehow better than playing on the floor with a two year old is sexist in itself. All this driven acquiring and consuming has put our earth into a real mess and I admit it, men have been the main culprits. Women behaving more like men is not the answer. All of us being more like women, more into the nurturing and the connecting that transcend gender, is wiser. Can you see my point? Can it be that "having it all" is not only impossibly difficult, it is going to leave us surrounded by things, burried in out acquisitions and consumed by the garbage we value.

jeneva said...

Hi Phil, thanks for leaving a comment. I do see your point, and I am glad that you have been one of those men who has done, at personal expense, perhaps, your share of child rearing. You may or may not have seen some of my earlier posts from the last several months that deal with aspects of these feminist issues, including abortion and questions about rights in the workplace.

I want to address, though, what appears to be a bit of stereotyping on your part--because I'm trying to sort out issues of women, motherhood and the workforce does not mean that I do not like men. I like men a lot, actually. Some of my best friends are men. But the economic playing field in this country is not yet level for women. You gave your female partner a partial chance at a level playing field by doing 50/50 childcare. But our culture is set up such that that is a reality for all couples. Men still out-earn women by a significant amount. Couples face difficulty allocating financial resources for childcare in many housing markets where buy-in prices to good public school districts have increased 4x and 5x over the last 6 six years.

This is an economic argument, and it brushes up against cultural assumptions as I consider how, as the mother of a disabled child, I've faced the cultural headwinds of having "chosen" to have children. The impact of those cultural issues is doubled for me: I need more job flexibility than others do, for example, so I can empathize with those who have very little. Right now, I have a job I can't identify here that is flexible, part-time, well-paid, and has good benefits, but there's little advancement potential--getting another job means risking all the things I need for my personal life.

Women should have the same bases for economic equality, given their educational background and career interests. Having children, as several studies, including an AAUWP (if I've got the acronym right) study showing that children enhanced the career mobility of male academics (and employers were supportive in their needs for time to care for children), while children impeded the career mobility of female academics. A close relative of mine was recently forced out of her job because she wanted it to be part-time so she could spend more time with her daughters. She was told that the office manager needed to be at the front desk the entire day--the small company couldn't, for example, hire a college student to be a receptionist for two hours at the end of the day. She was forced to resign or be fired and lose her benefits and severance.

In other posts, earlier this year, I argue that abortion is a necessary, but insufficient pre-condition for economic equality for women. You're a writer and a lit guy: Virginia Woolf says that women need 500 a year and a room of their own. That's not just an argument for writers, that's an argument for life.