Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The debate between feminism and family: does one even exist?

 Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in her article in The Atlantic of her "conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible." She says that all her life "I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in." She talks about how the women she addressed at a conference "assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make".
     In her article, she describes the level of grind her work-week required, making it clear that it was difficult, if not impossible, for her to spend any time at home with her kids. If that wasn't enough to pop my bubble, this paragraph of her article does it all: "I am hardly alone in this realization. Michèle Flournoy stepped down after three years as undersecretary of defense for policy, the third-highest job in the department, to spend more time at home with her three children, two of whom are teenagers. Karen Hughes left her position as the counselor to President George W. Bush after a year and a half in Washington to go home to Texas for the sake of her family. Mary Matalin, who spent two years as an assistant to Bush and the counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney before stepping down to spend more time with her daughters, wrote: “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.”"
       Her article, however, displays a misjudgement of what the word "feminism" means, as Lindy West (here) on Jezebel and Rebecca Traister (here) on Salon brilliantly note, and an assumption as to what non-working mothers learnt from their workaholic, career-oriented counterparts. She says that "We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: “What’s the matter with you?”" What does this sentence portray other than the assumption that all women who weren't working yearned to have their own professional lives as they saw ambitious women like Slaughter? And, also, that they felt insecure as all-rounded women of their inability to have a career alongside a family? As I learnt in Jurisprudence class, the limits of Liberal Feminism (a school of thought aimed at establishing equal rights of women to that of the men) are that they project upon the rest of the women the same aims, feelings and opinions that liberal feminists have. I owe them a lot; my right to be heard and seen in public in the world has been carefully and beautifully protected and asserted by them. A few legal cases in the US of A were decided more fairly in reference to gender discrimination, reflecting the truth of the voice of liberal feminism due to the hard work of such feminists. However, a criticism Liberal Feminism faces is that it seeks to make women equal to men, thereby, upholding the standard of men as the ultimate. Many women do not want to be like men; they don't want full-fledged careers or the lack of opportunity to nurture their children. As Marilyn Monroe has reported to have said,"Women who seek to be equal to men, lack ambition." This is not saying that women may, or do, not do so if they please; to say so would be taking the exact stance that we are criticising Liberal Feminism for: women can and should be able to want whatever it is that they want. A definition of how a woman should be like is obstructing the triumph of women. Hence, Slaughter's previous conviction that going after success on the professional front because that is what feminism demands is perhaps, misplaced. Moreover, the way she asserts that her own achievements implied to other women not taking the same route that they must do the same also carries with it assumptions. Many women are perfectly content with staying at home. Not every woman feels the need to work outside home to be successful or to have an identity.
     Another observation which made me think was the sentence said by Slaughter's peer,"When a woman starts thinking about having children, Sandberg said, “she doesn’t raise her hand anymore … She starts leaning back.”" Is that true, I wonder? If it is, if the woman's ability to bear children makes her "soft" and, in anyway unable to deal with the strong, aggressive world, then why is it that we are still partaking in the Nature vs Nurture debate? Quite obviously, the ability to bear children is biological. If women are biologically inclined to go soft, and thereby, lose focus in their work by having children, then why haven't sociologists and scientists yet not determined that gender IS reflective of our biological nature? That women are biologically inclined to be maternal and tender? During my marathon of "Grey's Anatomy" where I started watching the show all over again from the first season (do not judge), Dr.Bailey who is called "the Nazi" throughout the show for her no-nonsense attitude says, after giving birth to a child, and i quote:  "I went soft. I... had a baby, and I swore that it wouldn't change me, it's just-- it does change you. I got tired, I got busy, and I stopped teaching. I stopped teaching when you needed a teacher the most."
       What is pop culture teaching us? That women, by their ability to become mothers, are not capable of matching up to men in the world if they so seek? Or is this simply the truth? Like, Slaughter notes, is becoming a mother an obstruction in the way of achieving the capability in your career? Some Radical Feminists observe that motherhood, in fact, traps the woman. They believe that man has progressed so much throughout life because they have control over nature, whereas women are still dependent on the timings of their pregnancy, birth control, and child-bearing. How absurd it is that they seek to hide the one glorification the female sex has been given by nature! In our culture of Pakistan, whether or not a woman is respected in her own right, her right as a mother is often revered. It seems superfluous to me that some would twist the gift of motherhood as a negative; what are you doing then but aiming to make women into men? Coming to the more relevant point, is this true? Are most women really inclined to go soft when they fulfill biological roles? Slaughter says that women are biologically inclined to choose a family over a job if the choice ever arises, whereas most men would choose a job over family. She acknowledges that men do not love their children any less than women, but that they have a different way with dealing with issues at home, let's say, a hurting child at home. She says that women don't feel as comfortable as men do for being away from home during work, and the following is how she asserts her opinions:
"A simple measure is how many women in top positions have children compared with their male colleagues. Every male Supreme Court justice has a family. Two of the three female justices are single with no children. And the third, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, began her career as a judge only when her younger child was almost grown. The pattern is the same at the National Security Council: Condoleezza Rice, the first and only woman national-security adviser, is also the only national-security adviser since the 1950s not to have a family."
    Again, the debate about nurture vs nature comes in: am I bound to be less focused to my work than my male peers only because I have a biological impulse to be a mother? Some law firms in Pakistan have a strict, explicit policy against hiring women lawyers. The idea there is that women lawyers and associates, after being trained and groomed by the law firms in their career, will choose to spend time away from work, or leave work completely, if they marry or become pregnant. Male lawyers, on the other hand, seem to be better guarantees as investments. While I was interning at a law firm, my female boss, about to get married, told me how glad she was of finding a companion in life. She said that her worst fear had been to stay single all her life because most successful women in the field of law that demands long hours and tenuous work seem to have no families. 
   Slaughter talks about how women can strike a balance, which may mean a slower career, but a more "content" lifestyle: "when they turn down promotions to remain in a job that works for their family situation; when they leave high-powered jobs and spend a year or two at home on a reduced schedule; or when they step off a conventional professional track to take a consulting position or project-based work for a number of years. I think of these plateaus as “investment intervals.”" What I don't understand is why shouldn't men  have to do this, too? Why are we still hanging onto notions of the man primarily being the breadwinner and the woman being the nurturer? Although Slaughter destroys all notions of the possibility of winning half the battle of having it all by having a supportive husband, I feel that it does not help matters that whereas women are often running home from work to spend time with their children, men are not. Why is the male entitled to skip out on quality family time or bringing up his children, but if the woman does it, she is a "bad mother"? A comment by someone who identified himself or herself by the title "snarkalicious"  on Slaughter's article noted: "For some reason, it's a foregone conclusion that men will be absent from family life for the demands of work. Why saddle women with so much guilt for doing the same thing?" Although Slaughter achieved a lot of support and encouragement from her husband who spent more time with their children than Slaughter herself, something virtually unheard of in our society, she felt that she needed to spend more time with her children for herself, rather than for anyone else like the society or her husband. This begs the question: why don't men feel the same way when they are away from home for better jobs, higher promotions, or more salary?! Why shouldn't my husband face the option of staying at home while I work to look after the kids? A colleague who has graduated and tried her hands at litigation recently said to me,"People used to tell me that litigation is not for women-and I was like fuck you, but now I'm telling you the same thing." Being engaged and set to marry in a few months, she said if she started coming home at 10pm or so, her husband and/or her in-laws would obviously not like it. Let's pause here. Husband and in-laws wouldn't like it? Am I the only one who thinks of this as blatant patriarchy? A man is entitled to work for as long as he wants, come home whenever he pleases even if it includes other recreational activities rather than work, but if a woman chooses to do so, it is not right? I'm not kidding myself: I know this is how society is, and perhaps, tomorrow I will be doing the same thing. In fact, it may even be something I'd consider ideal or preferable for myself. I don't want to be called a hypocrite later. People change, whether men or women, and their likes, dislikes, roles, aims and preferences change too. Who knows where I'll be a few months or years down the lane, or what I'd prefer? What people don't realise, however, is that women working is often not a privilege. It is a necessity. Most of our maids are the only earning members of their families. They bust their asses 24/7 while their husbands are lying somewhere, OD-ing on drugs. Increasingly, women in middle-class families are taking up the option to work; gone are the days when only one person earning was adequate to sustain a family economically. Women rise up and decide to divide the workload with their husbands. It's sad and almost disgusting, then, that men aren't so keen on sharing their wives household duties or acknowledging their duties as fathers which consist more than just dropping them to school.
      But let's turn the facts in the story a little bit: I take offence to the fact that a man is entitled to have any career he wants, no matter what it means for his family, but am I ready to consider an unemployed man as worthy of my attention? Obviously not. Nothing spells "run, now!" to most girls more than a man who is either chronically unemployed, unambitious or loading off his father (read: wadeirey ka beta). Yet, quite obviously, women in Pakistan don't face the same issue.They can lounge around at home waiting to get married without having to answer anyone-less responsibilities, more freedom. The point is that their careers or salaries do not define them. That is a privilege in its own. Then why does it make me, a woman who does not have the pressure of earning enough money to sustain a family, still completely entitled to object to the discrimination and the sexism she faces when she comes out to assert her place outside of the home? Simply because, I want to. I, a woman, want to fight the battle outside home and this alone makes it a right of mine to be given the same, if not more, opportunities that men are entitled to. Men may not have the luxuries that women have of escaping the life outside into the safety of their homes, but that is another, albeit, a valid, battle to fight. So, all my male classmates who look at me when I rant about injustice to women and say,"You're actually lucky because you don't have the responsibility of maintaining a family", I may be lucky that I don't have that responsibility, but that does not make it okay for me to be unlucky in other matters. 
On a different note though, something tugs at my conscience. The question remains: Is it double standards if I want a man who thinks it perfectly normal his wife work outside home however much she wants, but I can't accept a man who doesn't leave the house at all or earn money for his house and family? And if it is double standards, then really, what right do I have to assert anything? 
       Toure in an article on Time says about "having it all": "I have all the respect in the world for the impossible challenges working moms face. The battle is not the same for men; it is not as tough. We don’t have both the maternal voice and the feminist voice in our heads telling us we should be at home nurturing our kids and also at work building fulfilling careers. But it’s nearly impossible for men to have it all too. Many men want fulfilling family lives. I want that even as I fulfill my familial role by providing. But most of the time I feel like I’m not involved enough in either my career or my kids’ lives." Aha! That's a novel idea, then. So, I can almost hear you saying, 'this means not only can women not have it all, but men can't either?' That is exactly what this means. No one can have it all, because having it all, like Lindy West says, does not exist at all. This is how West describes "it all": "completely made-up, baseless magical construct that doesn't mean anything."
My problem with Slaughter's article, then, is the title: "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." That is my number one problem because it implies that while women can't have it all, men can! This makes it almost inevitable for some women either to satisfy themselves with being "the weaker sex", whether or not they choose to call a spade a spade ("men are just different"-most will choose to say) or by pining to match up, and maybe, even killing themselves in the process. 
    The fact that it is okay for fathers to be away from home in our culture is reflected in these words of Toure: "My dad didn’t have it all, but he never seemed to worry about it. For many years he ran his own accounting business in Mattapan, Mass., and during tax season we barely saw him. He drove us to school and that was the last we saw of him until the next day’s drive. He taught me that a man is a provider. If that means working long hours and missing out on some key family moments, then so be it. I knew my dad loved me because he was always at the office. He was far from an absent father, but he did not achieve the balance I’d like to have. Alas, as I write this, my wife is putting the kids to bed by herself. I’ll get home later and kiss them asleep in their beds." He further states,"Men are more likely than women to choose work at a cost to family. Perhaps they suffer less emotionally over that, but there’s still pain there. We just push the feelings down and don’t complain. That’s why our side of this story rarely gets told. We must push away the hurt and press on, or revel in the joy of providing and forget about all that we’re missing at home because we’re working. But the hurt is still there." 
   Now, I don't know whether I'm just feeding the stereotype that men "don't complain", or "push away the hurt" and "hide from their feelings" crap, but this article makes it more plausible that women's woes of having responsibility towards home is more-so ingrained in what they are brought up to believe, rather than in their biology. I am NOT saying that all women should stop staying at home and get out there and do what they want-throwing the children on their husbands to take care of. Please do not issue a fatwa against me for trying to destroy family life. What I am saying is, maybe, if men effectively, actually shared more of domestic and family responsibilities, women may be able to have at least half of as much as them. Indeed, this is why I have always believed that amazing assets to feminism can be men. This culture change does not mean men choosing to stay home on Sunday and proudly flashing their invisible "Best Dad of the Week" tiara. No. It means that they share the responsibilities with the women, that is, they not only do this as a favour upon the female species, but they do so as something they are obligated to do, as fathers, as husbands, and more importantly, as humans. 
        This culture-change is far too in the distance to heed. Right now, we have 'bigger' battles to fight like bringing up able leaders for our country, deciding upon whether Gillani's disqualification was constitutional or not, fighting terrorism, and, alas, fighting domestic violence is on its own a huge challenge for the people of Pakistan to now also beseech a culture-change which actually grants women the right to have their opinions. It is idealistic. Slaughter, for instance, thinks that the solution lies in changing the professional structure to accommodate women who have families. This means, for example, more flexible working hours, or a work environment that is friendly to women carrying their newborn babies to the office, I guess. Until that is done, she says, women can not have it all. This is essentially what Radical Feminists (feminists that assert that women are different, but equal to men) say. That the entire superstructure of society is made by men for men, and it largely ignores the needs of women. 
      All women do not want the same thing. Some want to be single, others want to be not-single. Some want to work, others want to be housewives. Some want to be mothers, others don't. To categorize all women as the same kind of human being is the flaw in Slaughter's idea, one that Traister and West eloquently shed light upon. But, what if, I  choose to do want it all? Leaving aside whether or not it is physically possible for anyone to have it all due to his or her human limitations, and whether or not I actually want a family or a career personally, am I digging myself a pit to fall into if this was what I wanted? If I wanted to be a hands-on mother, bringing up my children myself alongside wanting an intense career, would I be living in a bubble? If, my husband, like a mature learned man (couldn't help but sublimely send a message, too), thought it to be as much responsibility of his as it would be of mine to be close to our children physically, wouldn't I still find it difficult to be away from them? Slaughter may be correct when she says it is a biological need, or maybe, it is Traister and West who are correct in saying that to be a "good" mother is perhaps only what we are socialized into wanting to be, but the questions remains: for whatever reason, biology or culture, if I want to be a mother and successful in my career, is it possible? Perhaps not. And if not, then how do thousands of women seem to do it? How do women like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Fehmida Mirza, for instance, do it? More importantly, with all the risks of sounding idealistic while I pose this question to the Pakistani society: why don't we ask the same question of men! Why don't we ask them whether it is possible to be good fathers AND be highly successful? Quite obviously, the definition of a 'good father' demands a lot less than the definition of a 'good mother' in our society, and this is not to take away due credit from our fathers who do just as much, if not more, for us than our mothers. This is to take credit away from the stance that says while men are more able, women are not. Will I 'go soft' whenever I become a mother, so as to negatively affect my work? Are some women correct in saying that women who go out to work and attempt to balance work and family are discouraging women's roles as mothers by even having the audacity to question whether a gift such as motherhood has any negative affects? Do feminist men really exist, or saying that you know one is essentially the same thing as saying you saw a unicorn? Is it possible to be the best mother and wife possible while having a career that requires long hours? Is it selfish for women to choose careers over family? If so, why isn't the same applicable to men?

Links that this post referred to:
Anne-Marie Slaughter's article Why Women Still Can't Have It All:

Toure's article:

Lindy West's article:

Rebecca Traister's article:

*Update after having watched a few more episodes of Grey's Anatomy: In a couple of episodes later, the Chief address Dr.Bailey about her concerns about having a baby making her "soft", and says,"Compassion and empathy are a big part of the job. I don't care what Savoy said, and I know I haven't always been supportive, but being a parent makes you a better doctor."
**This post does not invite consideration of gender roles as laid down in any religion. 
*** The title of my post is not implying that feminism may only mean the advent of all excluding family. Rather, it seeks to assert that feminism means that women can choose whatever they want for themselves: whether family, career, or anything else. There is no one way better than another.


No comments:

Post a Comment