Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A necessary, but insufficient, precondition

Let me say just one thing before I start this post:  there's not a snowball's chance in hell that I'm voting for McCain/Palin.  That said, I am, however, greatly disappointed in aspects of my party's reaction to the Republican VP selection.  

As I read Washington Post articles and other sources, I see reporting that indicates Democratic bloggers are having a free-for-all about whether a woman with five children is capable of handling an important job, and snide remarks about whether a mother of a special needs child should be on the campaign at all.  I'm not sure how those remarks are reconciled with the parental image of Joe Biden, who was sworn into the U.S. Senate at the bedside of his critically injured son.  Or with Joe Biden, who is the father of four living children, taking the train back and forth to Washington from Delaware each day, coming home most nights when his kids were young at 10 p.m. and leaving the house again at 7 p.m.  That's just touching base with your kids, not spending quality time with them every day.  And it just points up the hypocrisy of how even Democrats have a double standard when it comes to what constitutes parenthood for mothers and fathers.

My neighbor, a Democrat and a stay-at-home mother, pointed out to me today that she's been reading a book about motherhood and society that takes the position that women are not getting the opportunities that they should in the workforce and life, etc., but that women have a special relationship with their children that should be recognized.  We had a great conversation about it.

There are so many pressure points with women and work.  My neighbor felt fairly strongly that mothers are right in carefully balancing work and family and that most mothers don't really want full-time jobs along with their family.  She expressed concern, in a more carefully considered way than some of the misogynistic bloggers like those on the Daily Kos, that it would be difficult to meet the demands of an executive position with the demands of intense mothering.  And she also expressed surprise that I'd prefer a full-time job to balancing part-time and kids.  She may not quite grasp that I do have a full-time job between my part-time work-for-pay job and writing.  

My mother-in-law expressed some interesting concerns and points of view as well.  Her thinking has been that younger women do, in fact, choose full-time work or family, to some extent.  I know she will let me know if I have misrepresented her because she is not shy.  She also expressed concern that women of my generation chose to delay having children, and that that decision has impacted our work lives.  She also listened when I told her that many women of my generation think it should be normal to work, regardless of whether or not we have children.  And that many of us delayed having children out of a fear that if we did not solidify our career credentials before doing so, we'd be mommy-tracked or worse.

This is kind of the Wife of Bath election: what DO women want?  As it turns out, that seems to be nearly as complicated as asking the question, what do men want, and expecting some unified answer other than, well, sex, of course.  

What women want, or what we're conditioned to want, or what we think we want.  All of this, for mothers, is cross-cut with the sense that we're the last line of defense between our children and the perils of this world.  We're their advocates, whether the kids are typically developing or special needs.  And many of us are constantly in the societal cross-hairs of knowing, ourselves, from our own experience, that children need a lot more attention than the Father-Knows-Best American workplace will possibly give us, and the sinking feeling that unless we knuckle under to that work ethic, we'll be punished for our intransigence and consigned to work that smothers our sense of self.  

Which brings me to a book I bought this weekend, Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home by Pamela Stone, a professor of sociology at Hunter College.  Stone (no relation) questions the rhetoric of "choice" as it is related to women's decisions about workforce and motherhood, and does appear to connect the diction to abortion rhetoric.  Thus far, I've been skimming because I've been excited about starting to read this book, but this is one interesting and telling passage:  

Olivia's comments point to the disjuncture between the rhetoric of choice and the reality of constraint that shaped women's decisions to stay home.  These educated, high-achieving women face a double-bind, which is created by the pressure to both be the ideal mother (based on an intensive mothering model) and the ideal worker (based on the norms of their professions).  The result of this double bind is that their choices or options are indeed much more limited than they appear at first or than the women themselves appreciate.  In its most fundamental manifestation, the choice gap is the difference between the decisions or "choices" women could have made about their careers in the absence of caregiving, especially mothering, responsibilities, and the decisions they actually make to accommodate these responsibilities n light of the realities of their professions and those of their husbands.

Embedded in this statement is one of my chief concerns with what is stalling aspects of feminism: a need by some women (perhaps even myself) to prove their virtue.

Isn't this what was so disturbing about the way Democratic women were depicted at the Convention?  Paragons of female virtue?  And isn't this behind some of the cattiness about Palin, her pro-life stance, her pregnant daughter, her desire to continue to hold a job while parenting a special needs child?  And isn't it tiring to have the economic needs of women and our political future put in service to the needs of our male peers, who still feel some kind of frontier or victorian need to prove that, hell, yes, THEIR women are the most virtuous?  

Do I care if I measure up to Markos Moulitsas' antiquated versions of female virtue or those of his 20-something male compadres?  They're still arguing that teen-aged mothers, of necessity, "ruin" their lives by having a baby.  That's engaging in the female virtue argument.  I don't want these supposed "progressives" running my country either--if you're tartly and prudishly arguing that teen-aged mothers shouldn't have access to the means to complete a high school diploma or go to college because having a baby somehow obviates the ability (or the right) to obtain an education, you're sexist.   

So--to anyone out there listening, especially women and mothers, I'm arguing that we can't get caught up and sidetracked in the desire of the Democrats and the Republicans to try to prove whose chicks are the most virtuous.  It doesn't matter whose job is more important, whose the best mother, or whether part-time or full-time work is best for children.  What matters is equal pay for equal work, whether full-time or part-time.  Incentives for employers to structure part-time work that is meaningful matter.  Some sort of social security credit for caregiving matters.  The waste of female talent, education, and experience by perpetuating the stereotype that mothers are unreliable workers is unconscionable.  

The abortion debate also, in the end, boils down to issues of female virtue: who made the best choices?  Who planned their pregnancies carefully, instead of plunging ahead, and is, therefore, more deserving of reward?  Who terminated a life "frivolously" and deserves lasting condemnation?  The fact of legal abortion has meant the ability of women to even think about holding a job while raising a child.  But now we can.  Women are now single mothers with social stigma.  Women can terminate a pregnancy that is not at the right time.  

But we still can't make career progress as easily as men if we choose to have children.  We still can't always hold meaningful part-time work that advances our fondest hopes and dreams if we have children because sexism is still rampant in our society.  If we step off the career track to do what we think is right and raise our kids for a while as full-time parents, we give up social security income.  If we get divorced when the kids are older, that matters, and it matters that in many states divorce laws do not allocate women compensation for the years they've spent mothering while their husbands made career progress.  We are still economically vulnerable in a way that men are not.

So legal abortion is a necessary, but insufficient, precondition to equal economic opportunity for women.

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