Thursday, June 15, 2006

Personal empowerment: use it or lose it

Lawyers, Guns and Money (and others) has been hot on the topic of female empowerment and the mommy wars, all surrounding the work of Linda Hirshman. For those of you who missed this conversation the first time it came around, Hirshman's basic argument is that the rhetoric of choice (small-c, not abortion-related) has stymied the feminist movement's progress in the realm of female empowerment. When feminism is about the ability to choose, with every choice being equally valid and valuable to women everywhere, it becomes difficult to compare the relative benefits and drawbacks of these choices. Even harder is talking about whether the choices offered are all just different kinds of enslavement to men. Check out all of the links above and read the comments, because it's a very interesting discussion.

Where I wanted to weigh in is against the words of a blogger called Mrs. Coulter, who wants us to think in broader terms than money-grubbing capitalism and patriarchal power structures. Please read the above links if you need more background, but I am going to take a few snippets from the conversation at the latest LGM thread between LizardBreath and Mrs. Coulter.
LizardBreath, you are blaming the wrong people for the problem. The iniquities and injustices that WOHM are faced with are not caused by women who "opt-out", but rather by a system that forces an all-or-nothing decision with regards to career vs. family, on both men and women.
By accepting Hirshman's arguments, you are buying into the system, one that devalues childcare and "traditionally feminine" occupations as unworthy, one that devalues the family (except as a political prop), one that views the worker as the property of his/her employer. I forget who said it now, but in the original Hirshman discussions, one of her critics commented "When did feminism become the hand-maiden of capitalism?"
Frankly, I think it would be better to advocate for better and longer parental leaves, better and less expensive daycare options, and greater workplace flexibility than to decry SAHMs as gender traitors, but that probably doesn't sell as many books. One of these days, I'll be back in the workforce and I fully intend to use whatever managerial power I may have to enable working parents to balance their lives as they see fit.

The problem I have have with Coulter's line of argument is that she's pulling this back to the passive issue of blame. After decades and waves of the feminist movement and women still, in general, living their lives by the dictates of the men who surround them, I think it's pretty clear who to blame. (My short answer would be just about everyone, though some people are more invested in the patriarchy than others.) There are some things that oppressed groups can request from their oppressors - more respect, more compensation for hard work, more freedom - and there are things that oppressed groups can take. When you move more things from the "ask" category to the "take" category, you're going to be making a lot more progress a lot more quickly. This is the direction in which I see Hirschman's argument going, so I think it does have a lot of promise.

The problem with stay-at-home moms in regards to empowering women is that a stay-at-home mom does not have much de facto power. Her time is limited by her obligations to her children, and her mobility and decision-making powers are limited by her lack of any kind of economic self-sufficiency. This isn't exactly her fault. No matter how much a woman desires to be a SAHM, I don't imagine that those women who end up in the households where they do more than their share of the housework consciously planned that kind of inequity into their futures. The key issue here is that SAHMs don't have the power in the here and now that would allow them to advance the cause of women's empowerment. This is not to say that being a SAHM is anti-feminist at all. What I do mean to express that finger-wagging, theorizing and repeated requests do not a movement make.

Things have to change for things to change. When women are opting out of the workforce, they're opting out of the power that it gives them. The relative meaning of power here is important, but not in the way that most of us would like to think about it. We don't always need to think of power in traditional, patriarchal terms, but we do to a certain extent need to do so when we're forcing the patriarchy to yield its power. This is about creating changes in society that don't make abusing and ignoring and disempowering women so easy. This is about making changes in society that make abusing and ignoring and disempowering women impossible. Hirschman at least has some constructive suggestions here that involve women guarding their self-sufficiency and self-worth. Maybe she's thinking a little too much inside the capitalistic, consumeristic, male-dominated box, but that's the box we live in now after all. I am certain that there are more creative solutions than what Hirschman has laid out, but I am also certain that they need to give women permanent possession of their power. Solutions involving more flexible work hours and better support for single parents or abused spouses can be very effective, but they are all dependent on the cooperation of people who may or may not be interested in helping the little gal out.

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