I realize the rest of the feminist internet is going to disagree with me on this one, but I loved this Elizabeth Wurtzel piece on 1% housewives.
Is it mean? Yes. Is it representative of most women’s lives? No. But maybe it’s time modern “internet feminism” made room for polemics and hard-nosed viewpoints and positioned itself as a serious social movement, instead of focusing on identity and making everyone feel good.
Wurtzel is a provocateur. The piece is titled “1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible” and, predictably, it provoked outrage. And there are certainly places where the piece is weak. Firstly, she’s focused on a very small subset of women – the hyper-wealthy and highly-educated, who are married to hyper-wealthy men in big cities like New York and L.A.– and so the piece can hardly be said to be representative of women generally (although I’m not sure she intends to make it about women generally; it seems to me that she intentionally targets the most privileged women for a reason). The piece also seems to be largely about her personal annoyance with a certain type of woman in her social circle, and it certainly lacks nuance. Secondly, she tries to draw lines around who’s a “real feminist,” which is a pointless exercise, and she defines a “real feminist” as someone who earns a living and has money and a means of her own. Obviously there are plenty of “real feminists” who don’t earn a paycheck. Obviously there are plenty of people who, because of age or ability or socioeconomic status, are dependent on someone else and are still “real adults.” And obviously stay-at-home wives can be feminists, even if I cock an eyebrow to the claim that staying at home full time is a “feminist choice.”
But that aside, Wurtzel poked some things that needed to be poked – “I choose my choice” feminism first among them.
In any comment section on the internet where feminism comes up, someone will pipe up and cry, “But feminism is about CHOICE!” No. Feminism is not about choice – at least not insofar as it’s about saying “Any choice women make is a feminist one and so we can’t criticize or judge it.” Feminism isn’t about creating non-judgmental happy-rainbow enclaves where women can do whatever they want without criticism. Feminism is about achieving social, economic and political equality for all people, regardless of gender. It’s not about making every woman feel good about whatever she does, or treating women like delicate hot-house flowers who can’t be criticized.
Wurtzel has been widely condemned for being “judgmental” of stay-at-home moms, and I’m sure I will be too. Do I personally condemn every single woman who stays home with her kids? Of course not. But do I think that a society with huge numbers of housewives, where staying at home is very much a gendered “choice,” is probably not a society that’s particularly good for women? Yes. And if these criticisms are “judgmental” and the argument goes that judgment alienates other women, then how do we cast judgment on negative social trends that are demonstrably bad for women (see the Atlantic article on the study of men with stay-at-home wives, and the reality that a whole lot of women who stay home end up financially insecure) without hurting the feelings of people who think that any critique of a social force is a personal attack on their lives? Is avoiding hurt feelings even the goal? Should it be? I wear make-up and I shave my legs, but I don’t get bent out of shape when someone references The Beauty Myth or points out that beauty culture and norms are not great for women. And sometimes I do get bent out of shape when someone criticizes my choices, because it sucks to feel judged. But I’m also a grown-ass woman, and I can see a lot of value in being made uncomfortable; I can see a lot of value in recognizing that sometimes I’m doing something that on a grand scale is less than great, even if I have my reasons and even if that realization isn’t going to change my behavior (but especially when it does change my behavior). I can decide when to take or leave criticism. I don’t think every feminist criticism is a catfight. I do think that feminism, and life generally, is big and vibrant and diverse and better off for its differences of experience and opinion. But when it comes to discussing politics and social justice and the way we live, I’d rather be brought to the mat than handled with kid gloves.
I’m hoping we can have a similar conversation about staying at home, and remember that no one is trying to make staying at home illegal. No one is trying to (or even really has the power to) dictate your choices.
Feminism is, of course, about giving all people a greater range of choices, and not restricting those choices by sex. But the freedom to choose one’s path doesn’t come with a right to be free of criticism or judgment or critical thought. And we judge men’s life choices all time – I judge men who don’t take care of their own kids, who believe that a woman’s place is in the home, who condescendingly say that being a full-time parent is “the most important job in the world” but would never do it themselves, who are able to work but prefer to live off of their mothers or girlfriends and play videogames all day, who enforce masculinity in their sons, who date women the same age as their daughters, who work at evil corporations, etc etc etc. And men judge men’s choices too, but no one calls it a catfight or a “daddy war.”
So yes, women’s life choices are up for judgment, and fairly (what’s not fair is categorizing serious political discussion as a “mommy war”). That is the thing with choice.
“Women” are also not a monolith, and factors like race and socioeconomics and ability and location make it nearly impossible to say that any woman who chooses X is Y. Which is exactly why Wurtzel focuses in on a very particular subset of women: The most privileged women in the world, who have (or could have) enormous economic, political and social power. The women who, like it or not, have incredible influence in shaping how their even-more-powerful husbands see women generally. The women who actually have a pretty full range of choices.
So politically, what does it mean when those women choose to be financially dependent on their husbands and stay home raising kids?
It means immediate financial insecurity for those women (see how much your husband thinks you have “the most important job in the world” when it’s alimony time). It means you have less of an ability to leave the relationship. It means your husband has more decision-making power – you can talk a big game about the egalitarianism of the relationship, but when one person holds the purse strings, they have more say. It means that if something happens – you get a divorce, your husband dies or is incapacitated or goes to jail – and you need to go back to work, you will have a radically limited set of options; taking years off of work does not exactly make one easily employable, in part because one’s skill set has atrophied, and in part because employers rationally don’t want to hire someone who is going to leave the job as soon as a man with a big bank account comes along.
Choosing not to work when one is highly-educated and highly-skilled also has consequences for other women. The sister to “I choose my choice!” is “It’s a personal decision.” But – say it with me now! – the personal is political. And yes, that is one of the most over-used phrases in feminist discussions, and I’m not even using it totally appropriately here, but: No woman is an island. And while our personal experiences as women often have political components and are not in fact isolated individual events, so too are we political actors. Yes, women get the short end of the patriarchy stick, but we aren’t passive recipients of social forces; we also have the power to change and manipulate those forces. It’s how we’ve come as far as we have – men did not just wake up one day and decide to cede power, and it’s silly and counterproductive to say that feminists shouldn’t push women toward egalitarianism because men, as the more privileged class, should be doing all the work. I wish that’s how social change was made. It’s not.
And social change has been actively impeded when it comes to gender equality, primarily by men but also by a culture that now puts “choice” (but really a highly-constrained set of very gendered choices) ahead of progress and equality. And many feminists, unfortunately, are complicit in supporting a choice model over an egalitarian one. While how one individual sets up her family may be private, the aggregate is not; and it’s tough to argue that the housewife model is simply a private choice made within families with no outside influence and no greater consequences. The study that came out the other week about men with stay-at-home wives was instructional: Men whose wives stay home see women as less capable, tend to view majority-female businesses as less competent, and are less likely to hire and promote women.
But beyond that, the housewife model is what makes male superiority in the workplace possible, and creates disincentives to more family-friendly workplace policies. Men who have stay-at-home wives literally have nothing other than work to worry about. They have someone who is raising their kids, cooking them dinner, cleaning the house, maintaining the social calendar, taking the kids to doctor’s appointments and after-school activities, getting the dry-cleaning, doing the laundry, buying groceries and on and on (or, in the case of 1% wives, someone who coordinates a staff to do many of those things). That model enables men to work longer hours and be more productive; women in the workplace cannot compete (yes, stay-at-home dads exist, but there are a few thousand of them in the United States, making them uncommon enough to be insignificant for the purposes of this conversation). And of course men see that women can’t compete, and it cements their view that women aren’t as capable, and they end up mentoring bright young men who in turn rise up the ranks. And then the “opt-out” women opt out, and a bunch of other women who wouldn’t have opted out see that there’s not really a place for them and they don’t rise to the top either. And because women are the ones who are constantly treated to discussions on “how to balance work and family,” we feel like that’s our responsibility. Corporate cultures that are built around a man-and-housewife model aren’t exactly family-friendly in the first place, and making them really change is going to be impossible unless men are forced to change their behavior. So far, the corporate response to large numbers of women leaving has been to make it easier for women to leave. “Family-friendly” policies at places like law firms and big banks end up amounting to, “you can work part-time” — which means four days a week, and means you’re never going to achieve the highest-level positions, and is a path really only utilized by women. The men who have always been the most powerful go right on ahead maintaining that power, and they don’t even have to consider their own “work-life balance” because someone else is taking care of the entire “life” part. If none of those men had stay-at-home wives – if the men currently occupying the highest-level jobs in the world had to take as much responsibility for childcare and homecare as working mothers — you can bet that corporate culture would look very different.
That impacts a lot more people than just your family.
And we see it – women and men. We end up building our lives around it. I’ve spoken with many of the bright young single men who are on the receiving end of high-level male mentorship. They often express a desire to have kids and a stay-at-home wife, and they ALWAYS couch it in gender-neutral terms — “It’s not that I expect my wife to stay home, it’s that I think one parent needs to stay home with the kids when they’re very young. I don’t want my kids taken care of by strangers.” And when I would say, “Well then why don’t you stay home?” the response was, “Well I would, but at the point when I’m having kids I’m going to be at a crucial point in my career and I can’t just take off a few years, so it’s not about gender, it’s just about the fact that it would be impossible for me.” To which I would say, “Well what if she had a career too, and taking several years off would be damaging to her career?” To which they would say, “Well we would obviously talk about this long before we got married, and I just wouldn’t marry someone who was in that position. It’s not sexist — there are tons of women who would love to quit their jobs and stay home, and it’s their choice, and if both partners agree then how can you say it’s sexist? It’s a private family decision.”
It’s private. I choose my choice. She chooses her choice.
I do in fact reserve most of my anger and vitriol for the men in these scenarios, but the Wurtzel piece is about women, and women are not passive victims. We make choices. Those choices have consequences big and small. Despite graduating from college and various graduate schools in higher numbers than men, women are still not advancing to the highest positions in their fields. Fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Women are 16 percent of corporate executives and 17 percent of law firm partners. It’s not just because women are choosing not to compete (although some are). It’s that our cultural institutions of power are built around a male breadwinner/housewife model. Women by definition cannot beat that model, and so the many who don’t want to go the housewife route simply don’t get ahead, or they leave. Technically that’s a “choice.” It’s just that your hand is forced.
Corporate achievement in a capitalist society is of course not the only marker of success. But in our society, where we live now, money and success mean influence and power. And women have very little influence and power.
Then there’s the question of dependence. Is it a good thing, when there are other options, to choose to be wholly financially dependent on someone else? I say no. Financial dependence means less power. In the comments at the Atlantic and elsewhere, I’ve seen people arguing that the dependence argument is bigoted because particular classes of people – people with disabilities, the elderly, the poor, children – are dependent, and that doesn’t make them less human or less valuable. And of course that’s true. But dependent classes of people – people with disabilities, the elderly, the poor, children –also tend to be more vulnerable. They tend to be more vulnerable to abuse, to neglect; they have fewer options and very little social and political power. That doesn’t mean that dependency is bad in and of itself; it does mean that dependency comes with a series of negative consequences. Choosing dependency when one has other options makes one vulnerable and cedes power. Choosing dependency in a capitalist society does position one as, duh, a dependent. And I will admit I think it’s slightly princessy and entitled to expect that someone else fully financially provide for you when you are fully capable of providing for yourself. I also think it’s princessy and entitled to expect that your wife will stay home and do 100% of the care work for you and your kids.
Plenty of people will come back and argue that stay-at-home 1% wives aren’t “dependent;” they’re contributing to their relationships by working in the home. And sure, they’re contributing a service and of course parenthood is work, but Wurtzel is right that it isn’t a job. It’s something that the vast majority of people do, for which there are no requirements and very few regulations. Where Wurtzel is most correct in her whole essay is this:
Yes, of course, it’s something — actually, it’s something almost every woman at some time does, some brilliantly and some brutishly and most in the boring middle of making okay meals and decent kid conversation.
“Motherhood is the most important job in the world” is up there with “support the troops” in terms of sacred cultural rhetoric that is ultimately entirely hollow. Is being a parent some combination of difficult and mind-numbing and exhausting and engaging and heart-warming and monotonous and soul-feeding, depending on the minute of the day? Yes. Do we need much more actual support for parents instead of just rhetorical mommy-head-patting? YES. But if we’re going to get that, we need to situate parenthood realistically – which is not a “job” even though it’s work, any more than I’m a chef and an accountant and an interior decorator and a housekeeper because I cook my own food, do my own taxes, decorate my own house and clean up after myself. And… that’s ok! Some parents are excellent. Some are incredibly bad. Most are mediocre. Just like everything else in life.
What’s weird is our cultural insistence that being a mother is THE MOST IMPORTANT EVER – and what’s troubling is the degree to which that rhetoric serves as a widely lapped-up substitute for actual policy and workplace shifts that would support parents (but especially mothers). Those policy and workplace shifts are by necessity going to undermine and challenge male power. Men aren’t going to do that themselves. So we can talk a big game about choosing my choice and motherhood being The Most Important Job Ever and we can look the other way while men run the show, or we challenge real power and try to get a piece of it.
It’s also worth considering the messages that we model to our kids. If staying home is your “feminist choice” and you actually have a full range of choices, what does that say to your sons and daughters about gender roles? Is it in any way challenging an already deeply-held cultural assumption that women exist to serve others? That women are care-givers and need-meeters and housekeepers and emotional-work-doers, whereas men are breadwinners and influencers and public-sphere-operators who are served by women? What is your son going to expect of himself and in a partner? What is your daughter going to internalize?
Bombs thrown. Discuss away.