Friday, September 26, 2008

On the Fence Between the Feminist Generations

In a recent article in my very favorite More magazine (written for smart women over 40!), two leading feminists discuss whether younger women are trying to trash feminism. The older generation is represented by 64-year-old Linda Hirshman, who wrote Get to Work...and Get a Life Before It's Too Late, and the younger generation is represented by Rebecca Traister, 33, who covers gender politics and media for Salon.com. Here are some salient points and my comments:

Traister recalls being at a pro-choice rally and teen girls asking what the coat hangers on the buttons mean. I agree with her that young women need to learn their history and not take our progress for granted.

Hirschman is horrified that the movie "Juno" was such a hit...and she says that "the idea that a 16-year-old should bear a child that she then has to give away is just atrocious." Traicher points out that this is a huge gap between the feminist generations...young women like the movie because it says that smart, witty teens can talk about sex, have sex, and be embraced by their family for their choices. I see the gray area here, as an avidly pro-choice mom who chose not to have an abortion when I had my own unplanned pregnancy at the age of nearly 42 (a surprisingly high proportion of women over 40 have abortions). I thought that "Juno" did a great job of pointing out the anguish that women endure when they do have abortions...and also not damning women who do have them. So I side with Traicher on this one.

Apparently the generation divide has been coined "The Great Pantyhose Divide" by career consultant Mary Crane. Wow--I didn't know I'd become a dinosaur by wearing pantyhose!! What do young women wear with skirts in the winter to keep their legs warm? Or maybe they don't wear skirts in the winter?? Traister says she has NEVER WORN PANTYHOSE. Well, she's also a writer for Salon.com and probably works in her pajamas...but still...I'm no fan of pantyhose but I haven't discovered a good alternative yet in cool weather.

On wearing revealing clothing: Hirshman believes that women are better off behind a barrier of concealment. "If men are completely dressed, women shouldn't walk around with their boobs showing." Traister believes that you should be able to expose a certain amount of flesh without being a sex object. I'm with Hirshman on this one. How can you expect to be treated as an equal, when you expose your flesh and men's eyes are drawn to your exposed parts rather than to your mind?

On Hillary vs. Obama: Hirshman is angered by women who claimed they were voting for Obama as a feminist choice. I have to agree with her on that point; however, I also respect the women who were pro-Obama all the way, especially given the fact that Hillary supported the war. (This conversation was published before McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate; I'm sure that would have led to a great deal of agreement between the two women.)

The two women also discuss the choices modern-day women are making to step out of the workforce and raise their children. Traister believes that the ability to make that choice was one of the things feminism was supposed to fight for. However, that choice should be made "in concert with men making different choices as well." Hirshman says that the daughters of feminists have recreated the 1950s sitcom, with men as breadwinners and daddy figures and women who stay at home.

Most of the men I know are way more involved fathers than their fathers were, and they participate much more heavily in cooking, cleaning, and other activities. In many of our friendship circles, the moms often work part-time or full-time, or plan to go back into the working world eventually. I am aware that there is still a pretty big gap in the amount of time women spend on domestic chores vs. men. We have made a great deal of progress in raising children who do not think that only women cook, for example.

But I do agree we'll be a lot closer to true equality when more men make the choice to be stay-at-home dads, do more of the cooking, and breastfeed their children (oops...wait...).

Upon reading more about Hirshman, I have discovered that she is a highly polarizing figure in feminism, discounting women who "stay at home kissing boo-boos." She was actually quite well behaved in the More discussion. In this controversial article, she reminds us that the glass ceiling still exists in the home--I do agree with her there. Half of the wealthiest, most privileged and educated women in the U.S. stay at home to take care of their children. My guess is that it's a combination of the following reasons:

  • Most work environments continue to be less-than-friendly to women with small children...especially in the most demanding of careers.
  • Many women fall in love with their babies and cannot bear to be away from them all day. I so get that.
  • Women still bear the brunt of most of the household chores, and it is mighty stressful to have to manage a household and a career at the same time.
  • If they can afford it, women would rather have one parent be the primary caregiver, because it's easier to ensure that their children will get nurturing, loving, and one-on-one attention. And women have traditionally played this role instead of men...and are probably better prepared for this role (and definitely more accepted by society!).
In my case, I am lucky to work in a place that offers me flexibility to be there at my kids' performances, school meetings, and other events. I am actively involved in their lives although I work full-time. I'm also lucky to have a loving, nurturing stay-at-home dad for my kids. But I know that I am privileged to have that choice, and many women do not have the option. Sometimes I do envy my husband that he gets to hang out with the kids all day...but I also know that my personality is better suited to working outside of the home. I wish I could have the best of both worlds, though!

I like it when women can have respectful, intelligent discussions about choices they are making. But I don't like it when they hurl slurs at each other. It goes both ways--I have been looked down upon and asked how I could possibly go back to work after I had my kids. I think that some women look the other way in my case because my husband stays at home with them. But what if he didn't? Who are you to tell me what is best for my family?

However, those women who do make the choice to stay home, or like me whose husbands do, need to recognize that many women do not share the ability to make that choice. I'm not talking about couples who insist they both have to work so they can afford their three SUVs, private schools for their kids, and 5,000-square-foot houses. I'm talking about the single or married low-income moms without access to good child care who probably wish they could stay home and take care of their kids. But they can't afford to.

Pantyhose, anyone?

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