Thursday, June 21, 2012

Well, I Guess I'm Not A Feminist After All: Elizabeth Wurtzel, Feminism, and Motherhood

I said I wasn't going to read it.

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.

Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits

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


  1. I like the refinement you bring to the analysis here. As usually happens with any totalizing view of the world, the value of the multiform integrity of the subject gets ignored,at best, or at worst, vanquished. The goal of feminism, or any movement whose object is greater freedom, should be a fuller expression of human potential. Unfortunately, homo economicans, is but one expression of human value -- and an exceedingly limited one at that, the chanting of consumer capitalism notwithstanding.The feminist movement, as we tend to think of it, for better or worse, took wing during the great period of American empire; consequently, the most pressing and important goals were political and economic. Those are important goals, and there is much territory still to be gained in those areas, but economic value is not synonymous with human value. Movements working to secure greater equality for a repressed group tend to operate under a banner reading: "We want to be just like the empowered group." That may be how things start, but it need not be their end. The greater gift feminism has to offer humanity is not merely more of the "same" values, but new lessons in how to rightly value the fully human in all its complexity.

  2. [My response will be 2 posts, because I wrote two much. >.<]

    I very much agree with what you're saying here. I think that you've brought a lot of very important points to the discussion.

    I'm going to draw a couple conclusions without reading either piece. Their arguments, as you present them, seem to be pretty solidly within a liberal feminist model. Now, I don't mean to belittle liberal feminism; it had, and has, a lot of important things to contribute to the discussion, but hasn't the discussion within feminism progressed so much farther? Are we really so constricted by the husband as breadwinner model, that the only way we can imagine economic, political, and social equality is by inserting a woman where the man was and expect her to perform as good as, if not outperform, the man? No, I think we've acknowledged that that conversation ignores a lot of the oppressive practices of patriarchy, and it's tiresome that we're still trapped in this negative feedback loop.

    I do want to acknowledge that, yes, economic AND social equality means that a woman should not have to be dependent on a male partner. This lessened dependence leads to security in all aspects of life, including a lessened risk of domestic violence. So having access to her own means of income is super important, which is why there has been so much done over the last century (and more!) to open up career opportunities and earning potential for women.

    But solely focusing on economic security as a means of social and political equality means that we're still devaluing traditionally feminine roles and experiences. I think looking at some conversations about the experiences of stay-at-home fathers would reveal just how problematic this is. Every conversation I see about the wage gap includes some comment about women deciding ("making the choice" as if it's a fully autonomous decision that isn't influenced by the structure of the system) to take time off in order to have children. No one ever asks why their male partners (assuming they're in a heterosexual relationship, or a relationship at all) don't make this choice or are excused from making this choice. I'd even go a step further and say that no one asks why they're passively excluded from making this choice. It doesn't even seem to be a topic for conversation.

  3. [Second half of the post above]

    And finally, of course, these types of arguments remain incredibly classist. We need to acknowledge that these conversations are modeled on an "ideal" white, middle-class, heterosexual family structure that is rarely "real". We're told it's "normal" (it's an ideal to strive for), but it rarely is (whether through choice or circumstance). These conversation continue to ignore women who have to work, women who don't want a partner, or women are partnered with women.

    They also ignore the fact that a lot of women have worked, for centuries. Getting "women into the workforce" isn't a grand invention of the 20th century; getting women economic equality for the work they do and expanding work opportunities is.

    I also think the points that you bring up about children and mothering are some of the most important points of your response. I feel like feminism hasn't figured out how to discuss the parent-child relationship respectfully, as a relationship between two human beings rather than an oppressive practice. It is extremely naive to expect women to stop having children, as you point out.

    So, unless Wurtzel and Jill expect all "feminists" to be Lesbian, separatist feminists who avoid all penetrative sex with men, they need to expand the conversation pretty darn quick. We need to 1) accept that "economic equality" goes far past getting women into the workforce, 2) continue to scrutinize what has been categorized as women's work and what economic value it's been given (or not) and deal with that head on, 3) we need to find a respectful way to discuss the parent-child relationship that acknowledges that children are autonomous human beings and 4) we need to acknowledge men and the fact that men's roles are as much at stake in rethinking this model as are women's.

    Liberal feminism was a good start, but it does nothing to break down the structures that create inequality. Feminism has come so much farther than this, and Wurtzel should know that.

    1. Yes! These are excellent points, and I am especially drawn to your points 3 and 4. Children are not like dishes that need to be scrubbed or houses that need to be decorated; they are human beings, and we have meaningful relationships with them built on respect and love. I think the conversation about men's roles being challenged fits nicely with the talk about children's roles because--if we're talking about the FUTURE of feminism--our boys are growing up in a time when the way their roles are portrayed (especially in children's media and pop culture) are particularly complex. If we don't find ways to break down the barriers to work (of all kinds) based on gender, we're just going to continue to have iterations of this same debate with different backdrops.

  4. When we devalue the parent-child relationship, for women or men, we've lost the point of it. There are differences in the dynamic of work-parenting time shares for women and men--women tend to be the ones to take leave, to have a part-time career, or to stay home altogether, not always, but usually. The career part is (according to some) the only part worthy of a feminist discussion. But the caregiving, as you put it raising a human being, is incredibly important, whether it is a man or woman that does it. As a raiser of human beings, I'm sad that we don't, as a society, see it as much more than feeding, watering, and cleaning.

  5. I think you pretty much said everything that needs to be said about Wurtzle's piece. I don't read works like hers, and it isn't because I can't handle people I don't agree with, it's that I can't handle stupid people. There is so mmuch wrong with what she said that to try and argue against it is a pointless waste of time. But I will say that boiling feminism doen to money is a sad way to look at the movement overall and at the role men play in the movement. Many, many stay-at-home mom's have been able to do lots of good for the rights of women because of the financial freedom their husband's provide (Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins is an, albeit extreme, example of these women). And even women who do support themselves financially, the work they then do for feminism (lobbying, protesting, volunteering, speaking events, publishing blogs and articles) isn't paid work. So how can she say that work like that has no meaning because they aren't paid for it? And as for doing things that you don't get paid for....arg! See, it just goes on and on. And I haven't even gotten to how much this argument devalues the roles of the new breed of stay-at-home dads.

    Grr. I'm just going to leave it here. I has a mad now.

  6. ITA with this quote from prior commenter "The greater gift feminism has to offer humanity is not merely more of the "same" values, but new lessons in how to rightly value the fully human in all its complexity."

    The whole premise of her argument, that money is the only thing to value, is just maddening. Devaluing 'women's work' is doing precisely the same thing that our patriarchal society has done forever to keep women secondary. True equality is about valuing all people, whether they are making six figures or unemployed. Only valuing people with jobs is not equality.

    And I fail to see how telling women they must have a well-paying job to matter in society is achieving any feminist ideals. Seems like she's just regurgitating the same oppressive language we've heard for decades.

    The sad part is, I agree with her that in our society if you don't have a job you don't matter as much. And those in power are the ones with money. Perhaps instead of forcing women to mold themselves into that role we should be working to dismantle such a system for the benefit of men and women.

    1. I completely agree, and I think you're right that there's a catch-22 inherent in this discussion. If you don't have money, you can't get into a position of power that could dismantle some of our reliance on having money to be in a position of power. But to place the blame for that paradox on the women who are trying to exist within that oppression is just crazy to me. Refusing (or being unable) to give up all other measures of success for the purely economic one is not a measure of feminist drive.

  7. I haven't read Wurtzel's piece and probably won't. I doubt I would agree with her extreme positions however I am sympathetic to her irritation with intelligent well-educated women who leave the workforce.

    Certainly economic equality is only part of what we are fighting for. We live in a deeply flawed capitalist society and it would certainly be better for all of us (men, women and children) if society were to 'evolve.' But that's not going to happen any time soon. In our society, equality is largely about money.

    I find that I am often impatient with young women who "opt out" of the workforce. They claim to do it for noble goals, e.g. "I don't want someone else raising my children" (which is usually a way of demeaning my choice to work full time and place my daughter in daycare). But I often detect something else at work. First, not working is always preferable to working. No bosses, no deadlines, no silly office politics. Second, walking away gives you an excuse for not trying to compete without feeling like a failure. What I want to ask them (and of course don't) is whether they would consider working while their husband's stay home. If it is really about the children then it shouldn't matter whether mom or dad stays home. I suspect for most of the women I know they wouldn't be comfortable with the shoe being on the other foot; mom spending 60 hours a week at the office while dad stays home with the kids.

    I get what you write above about Wurtzel's claims about "betrayal." However, I believe that as an educated, upper middle class woman that my staying home would be a betrayal of women who don't have the option to stay home. This entire debate annoys me because most women work because they have to, either to provide absolutely necessary income to their families (not just for frivolous 'extras') or health insurance. There is no choice for the vast majority of American working mothers. This is a choice for the upper middle class.

    Perhaps I'm deluded but I think my staying in the workplace, in a position of authority, can make things easier for women who have to juggle work and family and can't just decide to stay home. If the only people in management levels are either men with SAH wives or women with no children why would Corporate America change?

    Of course this is all lofty rhetoric on my part since the primary reasons I continue working are personal (I like my job and like the money) and that I believe it sends the best message to my daughter. I want her to go to a good college an then graduate school and them embark on a well paying, professionally satisfying career. I think she's more likely to do that if she sees me working.