the other lie

I’m a little behind in my reading, I confess. Only today (for boring reasons) did I get around to reading The Feminine Mystique. Since I am so behind, I have the advantage of reading the text through the criticisms of others (notably bell hooks) and the luxury of a pdf version online. Because the book celebrated 50 years since publication, I also have the help of retrospectives: Ashley Fetters’ article in The Atlantic gives a concise and helpful overview of the major criticisms (and has its own argument to make with respect to the book and its reception).

If you want to read about those major criticisms–that the book is racist and classist, founded on lies, and homophobic–please click the link above and read Fetters’ article. Here, I want to point to one more lie that permeates The Feminine Mystique: the ‘pointlessness’ of the work mothers do. The problem with no name seems to me to be only partly about women’s newfound ambitions being frustrated by the daily suburban routine. The women who don’t make an appearance in the book are those who found meaning in family life, and those who never had the opportunity not to work (see ‘classist’ above).

Please don’t stop reading now, because you assume that I am about to argue that motherhood is intrinsically fulfilling and women should all be trained not to develop other ambitions. Not at all. I am, after all, a Catholic theologian who teaches at a university in the UK. The work I do gives me a sense of ‘more’ beyond the boundaries of family life, and I enjoy it. I confess to a certain weariness sometimes, though, and wonder whether it wouldn’t be better not to have ambitions. I sometimes think I would be a better mother if I were always there for and with the children and not off teaching, researching, or writing. I’ve no way of knowing. I do envy women that seem satisfied with family life, who somehow make motherhood a profession, a vocation, a career. But this is a bit of a digression.

The pernicious lie of The Feminine Mystique is that the work housewives did was ‘pointless’ (in the words of one of Friedan’s informants). It is a lie because the work is not pointless. It’s repetitive, and it can be boring and isolating. But the mundane tasks that involve care for others–preparing food, cleaning, looking after children–are necessary. Care is not pointless. And that’s the pernicious part of the lie. The tasks associated with the care of children are demeaned by the complaint that they’re pointless. The implication is that these things are unimportant; by doing these tasks every day we achieve nothing. In this line of work, there is no opportunity for advancement–no raises, no promotions, no corner office. And those are the things that mark us as important.

As long as we believe that, however subconsciously, we will serve our children badly. Not because we don’t care about them, but because we have begun to treat childhood as something of a disability. Children are not able to look after themselves, they need educating and training so that they can become productive. All this is true. But in adopting this attitude to childhood–it’s something to be got over–we ignore children in themselves. Children are not merely defective adults. (This is one of the key insights of the work of Maria Montessori.) Even if they were, and raising children was simply the process of shoring up the deficiency, it wouldn’t be pointless. Treating children as doing the essential work of becoming the people they are meant to be takes a different kind of attention to them, an attention that does not just measure them against the standards set for grown-ups but helps them to see who they are becoming. That work is not pointless.

So Betty Friedan was wrong about that. As grateful as I am for the opportunity to study and to work, which is a fruit of the feminist movement, I do sometimes worry about the cost. When caring gets sidelined, children suffer. And not only children, but all those who need care–the elderly, those with disabilities, and us temporarily able-bodied folks, when we fall seriously ill. Caring is a distraction from the really important stuff; let someone else change the sheets and prepare the food, so we can get on with the stuff that matters. I think we’re missing something here.

But I can’t say more about what it is: I have to take my 5-year-old daughter to the library now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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giving thanks (for some women)

This past week, I was honoured to find myself on Maggi Dawn’s list of women writers of theology, spirituality and Christian history–especially as the list included women who have taught and inspired me over the years. I am no less grateful to Bryony Taylor for reading the list all the way to the bottom, and discovering my name near the end of an alphabetically-ordered postscript. Thanks, Bryony, for broadcasting your findings!

And I have been thinking about that list, and the women who have taught me. Because even though I have been taught by many more men than women, it is the women who have drawn me forward, pointed me toward the path I now tread. I wasn’t just being nice when I acknowledged my debt to feminism. (See my feminist paradox.) So today I am giving thanks for a few of these women .

As an undergraduate, I looked forward to the classes I had with Karen King. After class, I would grab my dictionary and look up the words I hadn’t heard before, which she used in class as ordinary and precise vocabulary. Her lectures were always interesting, and she was brilliant in the Q & A. Thanks, Karen. I knew as a junior at Oxy that I wanted to be like you when I grew up; I am still trying.

When I continued in my studies at Duke University, I encountered two particularly gifted and challenging teachers, who introduced me to worlds about which I had known very little. Elizabeth Clark taught me more through her silence at the beginning of seminars than many others could through eloquence: think, and learn to speak your mind carefully and clearly. We were expected to read and to make an intelligent contribution to the discussion. I fell in love with early Christianity because of Liz (and ended up married to Lewis as a result, perhaps). Thank you, Liz.

The teacher I have always most desired to emulate, however, didn’t teach me theology or anything about Christianity, really. Lynn Sumida Joy taught me the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. I avoided philosophy, too intimidated and unsure of myself, until I arrived at Duke and was forced to take ‘Theories of Religion’; I became intrigued by Kant, and signed up for Dr Joy’s seminar the next semester. Never mind that some prior study of philosophy, preferably of Kant’s philosophy, was really necessary for the seminar–if not listed as a formal prerequisite. I was baffled by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and turned up to class feeling that I had no idea what it was all about. By the time I left the classroom two hours later, I thought I grasped the basic point. She wasn’t just a teacher, she was a miracle worker. Thank you, Lynn (if I may).

For these women, and many more who have instructed, inspired, encouraged, and challenged me, I give thanks.

Deo gratias.

my feminist paradox

I have to acknowledge my debt to feminism. Teaching theology would never have been an option for me before feminism. Feminist pioneers not only in theology but in social and critical theory broke the ground and laid the foundations of the ‘building’ in which I now pursue my academic work. I am grateful for that; I love what I do. I also appreciate the hard choices that lots of said pioneers made in their own lives so that I would not have to choose between being a professional and being a mother. 

So I didn’t ‘choose’. I try to do both. With countless other women, I feel like a near-failure most days and a total failure every other Wednesday (or something like that). The thing is, I look around me and see that the women whose careers I most envy are those who pursued them in the most traditional way–without the interruptions that forced me to abandon this post last week. I returned to it this morning, though, because I heard an interview with a successful woman who works in the City. Her observation about women’s success in her line of work? The highest achievers are those who ‘work like men’: unencumbered by the school run or the child off sick from school. She is free to stay late, to dash off to a foreign city at a moment’s notice, because her husband is covering the childcare. 

Don’t mistake the wistfulness for a negative judgement. Dividing up the domestic responsibilities is a delicate undertaking, and reversing the ‘traditional’ gender roles is certainly one option. Around here, though, it’s much more messy: daily conversations about who is doing the morning or the afternoon school run and what’s for dinner are the norm. And I certainly can’t complain about my lot. I have an incredibly supportive husband who has always done more than his fair share, considering that he (like the woman on the radio this morning) is the ‘primary breadwinner’. 

What worries me about the various arrangements we devise, whether we’re in paid employment or working our tails off at home, is that very often we regard the ‘stay home with the children’ option as a ‘sacrifice.’ We could have been at the top of our game in some line of work, but we chose to give it all up for the sake of the children–as if raising children doesn’t require us to be at the top of our game. We sacrifice ‘doing something’ or ‘being someone’ in the world for the obscurity of the domestic realm. (I’m trying hard not to rant, here, and may not be succeeding; sorry.) I worry about three things in particular. First, I worry that we’ve forgotten that being devoted full-time to one’s children is a privilege. Not every mother has that choice. Second, I worry–and this is the thing that drives me to distraction–about the value judgement implicit in the language of sacrifice. 

But–in the third place–I worry about how the feminist achievements of my forebears have shaped our imagination. Subtly (and sometimes not so subtly), we are being taught that women ‘can’ in a way that is all too easily converted into women ‘should‘. And that, I think, is just as insidious as the old way of thinking–women ‘can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’. The status of motherhood seems not to have changed. It’s just that some of us are allowed (encouraged?) to moonlight as mothers while keeping our day jobs. The more important stuff still happens in the ‘world’, not in the home.

Nonsense. That’s just nonsense. Raising human beings from infancy to adulthood is of ultimate significance. Now I am not saying that ‘therefore, mothers should all stay at home.’ I don’t. I try, and usually fail, to do both. Some women don’t have a choice, and some choose careers that take them away from home a lot. I am not saying that’s bad; my 7-year-old proudly proclaimed to a friend on the playground once, ‘my mummy’s a professor!’ (Only a lecturer, really, but who am I to correct my enthusiastic son?) What I am saying is that we really ought to remember the ultimate significance of what happens in all those moments we do have with our children, as we accompany and guide them on the most important journey of their lives: growing up. 

I remember when I was in college the requirement that ‘attractive alternative beverages’ be served whenever alcoholic beverages were being offered–so it never became a choice between a tasty alcoholic drink and some cloudy tap water. Sometimes it seems as if the potential for success in the workplace looks like a beautifully-executed mojito or an exquisite pint of beer, against which the potential for nose-wiping and car-pooling appears as a glass of lukewarm tap water in a plastic cup. That’s the shaping of imagination I want to resist. I want to remember–and it’s so easy to forget–that both paid employment and home-and-family keeping provide opportunies to work extremely hard and not always be recognised for it (really!), opportunities for exhilarating moments, and the potential for self-realisation. I want to see motherhood as the old-vine zinfandel next to the Oregon pinot noir of paid employment. 

Remember that billboard advert (for cigarettes, I think): ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’? Well, I (at least) still have a long, long way to go.