I heard about it, of course, this piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel that's ostensibly pointing out the problems with the women in the 1% but that also makes a lot of sweeping, dichotomizing statements about what "real" feminists do with their lives. But I said I wasn't going to read it because I don't want to get dragged under that tidal wave again. It's easy to draw a bunch of lines around your own actions and then label them as an identity. It's easy to cast off the people whose lives don't look like yours and decide that they're just not part of "it"--whatever it happens to be.
But then I got dragged in anyway. Jill over at Feministe has a post up about why she loves Wurtzel's piece, and she makes some decent points about the importance of feminism having a definition and that, sometimes, that means being critical of choices that women make:
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.I highlighted Jill's definition of feminism in that quote because it's the same as mine. No conflict. But there is a lot of conflict in the things that she goes on to say, and I think it's because--in Wurtzel's argument--"social" and "political" equality gets tossed enthusiastically aside because, as Wurtzel so clearly lays out:
And there really is only one kind of equality -- it precedes all the emotional hullabaloo -- and it's economic.Oh really?
Jill goes on to compare the discomfort that some of us might feel over Wurtzel's piece to the discomfort we feel when other patriarchal bargains are pointed out to us:
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).And I get that, I do. I even agree. I think that it's very valuable to examine our own lived experiences against the principles that we say underpin our ideologies and see what matches up. I think it's also okay when individual decisions that we make don't necessarily meet every single one of those principles because, hey, we're living lives, not allegories. And I think that people can still be feminists even when some of the decisions they make are not necessarily feminist decisions because people are more than just feminists, and maybe some of their decisions have to be made out of competing frameworks. That's the beauty--and the complexity--of being a real human being.
So I value Jill's insight on that account, though I think she missed the mark overall. In fact, I valued her opinion so much, that I decided to go and actually read this highly-cited, highly-controversial piece. I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised by some sort of nuance or applicable discussion to how the ideals feminism work out in complicated lives.
I was not pleasantly surprised.
The Relationship Between Individuals and Systems Who Act Within Them
If you get bent out of shape over the judgment you feel about shaving your legs during a discussion of the Beauty Myth, it is because you see how your individual actions are informed by a larger system of oppression. The problem, however, isn't you, it's the system. It's okay to feel judged--that's a natural reaction--but most of us can eventually step back and recognize that the people doing the judging are talking about the system that informs those decisions to begin with, not the individuals making the decisions.
In my opinion, Wurtzel is doing the opposite. She is not starting from a system of oppression and talking about how that informs (consciously or subconsciously) individual decisions; she is starting with individual decisions and conflating them with systemic issues, and she points very direct fingers at any woman who is living her life differently from herself. And while she's doing it, she cuts "real feminism" off for a whole lot of people.
Here are some of the parts of the essay that really, really dug into my soul:
Earn Money Or You Don't Count
"Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own."Whoa. I know that she's bouncing off of a discussion about the 1%, and I know that it's all fun and games to mock the rich for their horrible grasp of humanity (as if they are a monolith with no diversity of thought), but let's take a moment and just look at this statement. So a woman who cannot work for economic means, maybe because of a disability or maybe because she's living in an oppressive society that won't allow her to, is now not able to be a feminist?
Also, look back up at Jill's definition above. She says that "Feminism is about achieving social, economic and political equality for all people, regardless of gender." Though Wertzel apparently disagrees (it's all about the money, baby), I still find social and political equality important. Sometimes doing the work to attain social and political equality might be the very work that goes unpaid in a society, so does that mean that women who are volunteering in these realms now can't be feminists? Because they're not "earning their keep?"
And--perhaps the thing that irks me the most about this entire argument--isn't basing every definition of success off of monetary wealth wrapped up very deeply in patriarchal structures and capitalism? Why should the only way to access gender equality be by taking women out of traditionally feminine spheres and placing them into traditionally male ones without regard to their abilities, talents, passions, and--yes--icky "feelings" that Wentzel is so upset about.
Don't Betray Other Women By Being Different From Them
"I have to admit that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton -- one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better -- but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed."Well, we should all live our lives to make sure we aren't "betraying" anyone who has appointed themselves a feminist expert.
It's Not Work Unless You're Paid
"being a mother isn't really work. 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. But let's face it: It is not a selective position. A job that anyone can have is not a job, it's a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation)."Okay. I'm on the record for saying that motherhood is not a "job," and I stand by that. I think that "job" denotes some very specific requirements, like a set definition of the scope of your responsibilities and pay. However, I think it's utterly ridiculous for Wentzel to say that "being a mother isn't really work."
Of course being a mother is work. I also don't understand how the fact that "it's something almost every woman at some time does" makes it less important in a feminist discussion. Isn't the fact that most women will mother at some point in their lives make it a very important arena for feminist examination?
And here's the thing, the reason us crazy mothers get so bent out of shape and want everyone to recognize THE HARDEST JOB IN THE WORLD is because this is work that cannot and will not go away. If I choose not to wash my dishes or scrub my floor because I find that work distracting to my other economic goals, the consequence is a dirty house. If I choose not to parent my child because I find that work distracting, the consequence is--at best--a child (who is going to grow up and become a member of society, so I don't understand how we can pretend this is of no consequence to the future of feminism as well) who is not nurtured and--at worst--criminal neglect of a human being's basic needs.
Unless the argument is that feminists cannot have children (which maybe it is, beneath the surface, in which case, can you please just say that? At least then we'll know what we're dealing with), someone has to do the work of caring for these feminists' children. I'm absolutely not saying that the work of parenting should fall squarely on the mother's shoulders. I am a strong proponent of equally shared parenting, and I think that parenting is absolutely just as much a father's responsibility as a mother's.
And I think there is a very important conversation to be had (and that is happening, including on this very blog) about those roles, but part of that conversation means valuing the work of caregiving in a way that allows movement between work outside the home and work inside the home outside of strict gender binaries.
Further devaluing the work of caregiving, which has already been devalued within the patriarchal and capitalistic systems, isn't going to do anyone any good, and it certainly isn't going to open up avenues for more gender equitable caregiving arrangements. And--at the end of the day--someone still has to raise the kids.
The Life You Have Outside Your Dollar Worth is Pointless
"Which is to say, something becomes a job when you are paid for it -- and until then, it's just a part of life."Right. It's a "job" when you get paid for it. But what's so "just" about a "part of life"? Why should monetary worth be the only thing that's valued in a human being? I refuse to accept that definition of value because I refuse to see myself as a cog in the money-making machine. I choose to work outside of the home, and--yes--the financial benefits of that work help sustain my family and give me a sense of security, but that's not why I do the work. I do the work because I love it. I love teaching, and I feel a sense of fulfillment when I do it. I suppose I could have made more money doing something else. I could be working eighty hour weeks and fighting tooth and nail in a cutthroat economy to become a CEO or high-profile lawyer or something else that would make a more visible impact by becoming a woman in the highly-scrutinized workforce. Would putting aside my desire for a family and my own talent and passion for teaching make me a "real feminist"?
Or could it be that by raising a daughter with feminist principles, writing a blog that examines the way that gender works in pop culture (which I wouldn't be able to do if I were working eighty hour weeks) and teaching students who have been deemed "at risk" how to communicate their ideas more clearly to the world around them might actually be contributing to the feminist movement, too?
I know that's a lot of thoughts, and I know this is a touchy subject, but I really would love to hear what you think about this debate. In some ways, I'm glad for the controversy because I do think this is an important issue to talk about. In other ways, I think all this accomplishes is us screaming over top of one another without any rhetorical listening. So, what do you think?
Photo: katerha, 401K 2012