Did You Know You Need to Earn Money to Be Feminist?

BlogHer Original Post

Writer Elizabeth Wurtzel dropped a bomb on SAHMs this week with her Atlantic piece, "1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible." The tagline? "Being a mother isn't a real job -- and the men who run the world know it." Despite The Atlantic being one of my favorite magazines and consistently putting out stellar editorial, my first reaction was, "What a load of crap!"

working mother

Credit Image: Jerry Bunkers Kim on Flickr

For at least twenty seconds, my mind couldn't stop sputtering over the tagline, even knowing that Wurtzel most likely did not write it. But then I began reading and came upon this.

Let's please be serious grown-ups: real feminists don't depend on men. Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own.

But as I am trying not to just pop off and attack people online without truly trying to understand them first, I read the article three times and realized I am confused by Wurtzel's theses. There seem to be two: 1) Rich wives of the one percent who have Ivy League degrees, full-time nannies and no need to earn their own money annoy her and 2) You aren't a feminist if you don't work for money, because money is the only way to measure equality. Or: Money is the only way to measure the success of feminism.

In another Atlantic piece, Wurtzel quotes a researcher who says men view all women the way they view their wives with a sort of benign sexism, thinking they are protecting when in fact they are stifling.

As the research shows, all most women seek is the opportunity to be judged as individuals, rather than viewed through the narrow lens of someone else's marital kaleidoscope. Perhaps Desai and her colleagues will spark the conversation that reminds male leaders that though their wives may expertly run their homes, that does not mean that other women cannot succeed in the workplace by pursuing a different set of choices.

I think there's a whole lot going on here in the one-percent SAHM article, and it seems to be in line with Wurtzel's other writing about what's keeping women down. She wants more women in positions of power, and I do, too. She wants rich people to stop being ridiculous with their money, and I do, too. So I agree with her ultimate wishes if not her methodology for us getting there. And ... I still think this article is ridiculous.

I could say she's full of it because I have friends who are SAHMs and I know they will be offended by this and I feel like I need to defend them, but that's not it.

I disagree that feminism boils down only to money, even though money has a lot to do with power and in a capitalist society, power is most closely equated with either a) fame or b) money. Wurtzel diluted her argument by both separating out and lumping in one-percent SAHMs from the rest of them, because clearly anyone who is wealthy enough to both not work and employ domestic workers is, well, one percent. As in not really worth talking about, the exception to the rule of how most people live.

By lumping SAHMs who clip coupons and buy groceries at Walmart and get all their kids' shoes at thrift stores with SAHMs who, as she puts it, "going to Jivamukti classes and pedicure appointments while the nanny babysits" is problematic (for one thing, I had to look up "Jivamukti classes" and I went to college and have a job and everything). And also problematic is more thesis confusion, because she spends quite a bit of time talking about how most working women work out of pure financial necessity. Which point is she making? They don't go together at all. First she says failing feminism is a problem of the wealthy, then she says this:

Hilary Rosen would not have been so quick to be so super sorry for saying that Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life if we weren't all made more than a wee bit nervous by our own biases, which is that being a mother isn't really work.

I'm lost. There are rich, one-percent fat cats and then 99% financial-necessity working moms? What about the SAHMs who aren't rich and don't have nannies or even at-home manicure kits? They are also making Wurtzel feel "betrayed" because they aren't working at paid jobs, even if the paid jobs would net them less than the cost of daycare? All the working mothers are feminists because they earn money, and the SAHMs aren't because they don't?

I can buy parts of her argument -- that women haven't made near the strides we should in terms of financial and political equality -- but then the parts about the rich people and the feeling betrayed because someone who can read chose not to work completely lost me. She's assuming working outside the home can actually net you money, which in many cases for those of us with kids, it doesn't. My daughter's daycare cost more than our mortgage when she was a baby. And I only have ONE KID. And my husband and I earned about the same, so there was no obvious person to quit, which would have made any decision to have someone stay home a tremendous financial burden that didn't make sense. Depending on the career trajectory of women when they become mothers, they could be breadwinners or not, and all those factors -- I'm sure -- go into the serious decision for one of the adults in the house to completely forgo earning money. It's not a decision to be taken lightly and may have absolutely nothing to do with gender roles and everything to do with salaries.

I don't have a huge stake in what she's writing about, because Wurtzel would be very happy with me -- I self-financed my maternity leave (I was a freelancer at the time) and have worked since my daughter was three months old out of financial necessity, at times earning more than my husband. She's not bagging on my life, which made it easier to try to pull apart the threads of her argument. In the end, I decided the headline was provocative but the tagline was what really pissed me off, and I don't know who wrote that. Wurtzel's a lawyer and an extremely direct writer, so it's possible her writing style is like this no matter the topic. I decided what I really want to talk about is feminism and how to get from where we are now to an America where power is shared equally between men and women. Women shaming other women isn't a good path for that.

Inflammatory taglines aside, the dictionary definition of feminism is:

fem·i·nism   [fem-uh-niz-uhm] noun 1. the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men. 2.( sometimes initial capital letter ) an organized movement for the attainment of such rights for women. 3.feminine character.

As long as SAHMs are raising their boys and girls to understand whoever works or stays home with the kids is doing so because it's what's best for the family and not because of his or her plumbing, they're feminists in my book. They're advocating social, political and other rights of women equal to those of men. And working mothers who don't, aren't. We may measure feminism's success in society with dollars and cents and the number of females running companies and countries, but feminism in action is women and men changing the way the next generation thinks, one little mind at a time.

When I asked one of my fellow feminists, author of Sisterhood, Interrupted Deborah Siegel, what she thought, Deborah replied, "I agree that equality is not a state of mind. But Wurtzel's characterization of feminism, as those in the trenches fighting for parity on a daily basis well know, is diminishing and demeaning. It's also painfully off base. Feminism never has been - nor is it now - merely about individualism. In mistaking a popular notion perpetuated by a few for a social movement for justice and change, Wurtzel tremendously misleads."

In another Atlantic article, former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote this after leaving the position in Washington, D.C., to be back in Princeton with her sons:

Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men. After all, we have a new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers. Let us presume, as I do with my sons, that they will understand “supporting their families” to mean more than earning money.

That's not really the gist of Slaughter's article, though -- it's about how we can and should change the structure of business and society to make school schedules line up with work schedules and incorporate geographic and time-related flexibility into all jobs so childcare situations aren't such a you're-fined-$10-for-every-minute-after-six-you-arrive (true story) living nightmare when traffic is backed up on the freeway and your boss wanted "just five minutes" at the elevator door. I love everything Slaughter wrote so much please consider this my online fan letter to the woman. That article is hella long, but you should all read every word of it: Seriously, it's that good.

What did you think of Wurtzel's article?

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for BlogHer.com.

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