Is Sleep a Feminist Issue?

BlogHer Original Post

After recapping (to the best of my ability) feminism in the aughts, I am now focused on what I'd like to see happen in the new decade we are in. According to Arianna Huffington (of The Huffington Post) and Cindi Levie (editor of Glamour magazine, one of the few women's rags that I sort of like), the biggest issue facing women these days is not the wage gap between men and women, the lack of affordable child care, the disparity of domestic labor division, or the housing crisis. It's not even the ever increasing pressure that women face to remain young and thin and at all costs. Nope. It's a lack of sleep.

Quite frankly, they make a compelling case. People need approximately 7.5 hours of sleep every night for the body to function healthily. Huffington and Levie point out that the "sleepiest" Americans are women, particularly working women. On average, working ladies get an hour and a half less sleep per night than recommended daily allowance. To encourage women to get more sleep, they are hosting a sleep challenge. Every night in January, Levie and Huffington will get the amount of sleep they require to perform at their best. They wrote:

Ladies, the choice is ours. Do we want to be empowered women taking charge of our lives -- or do we want to be cult members, dragging ourselves around like zombies and going along with everyone else's crummy ideas?

Bwa ha ha ha! Now that cracks me up. Of course, the choice actually isn't usually ours. If we don't have partners willing to take on their share of the domestic tasks or workplaces that are flexible to ensure that people can do what they need to at home and at work, I'm not sure how women are making a choice to not sleep: the choice is made for us. (Or, if women didn't have jobs in the first place, they'd rest more. See? It's all feminism's fault. Crap, just writing this is making me tired, but I can't sleep until I finish it.)

In my case, the nights in which I don't get enough sleep are the ones in which I am vexed by insomnia. Often my inability to slumber peacefully is triggered by something I read or some political news, like the "right" of a pharmacist to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions because he is morally opposed to it or how sex trafficked women are punished when police bust up prostitution rings or how men in Afghanistan threw acid in the faces of school girls to prevent them from continuing their educations. These things throw Maurice (the hamster who runs on the wheel that powers my brain) into a tizzy, he decides that he needs to take a five mile run, and do you know how long it can take a hamster to run five miles, even at top speed? A long fucking time. So for hours, my brain is going, going, going, and there is nothing that my tired eyeballs can do to shut the thoughts up.

Anyway, Kate Harding at Salon's Broadsheet is similarly skeptical. She compares sleep deprivation to the extreme diets that a lot of women undergo, noting that both lack of sufficient sleep and food are techniques used in torture. (She also cracks me up, up intentionally.)

Back to my original gas bagging about feminist issues, Lisa Schmeiser at Filthy Commerce has some facts to share (facts that will no doubt cause me to lose sleep, but whatevs...) about why women sleep less than they need to:

We can start with the second shift: U.S. women still do nearly twice as much housework as men do and that disparity doesn't go away even when the woman's a high earner. The default for domestic affairs still rests with the distaff partner.

Oh snap! But wait! There's more! Laura Vanderkam calls bunk on the study that found that women get only six hours of sleep:

There are two problems with this stat. One is that the [National Sleep Foundation] commonly partners with drug companies such as sanofi-aventis, maker of Ambien, one of the country’s most popular sleep drugs. They definitely have an interest in more people thinking they are sleep deprived than actually are. But the other problem is that the NSF’s annual poll is a “quick response” survey. The pollster simply asks you how many hours you sleep and you tell him. But people are notoriously unreliable at remembering these things, or averaging out exceptions (if you slept 6 hours 3 nights this week and 8 hours the other 4, you sleep over 7 hours a night — but you’ll probably remember the 3 lousy ones and say 6). In a culture in which sleep deprivation is a sign of how important you are– or how dedicated you are as a mom– it’s very easy to underestimate.

I don't know that I agree with her conclusion (read the full post), but I think the source of the sleep deprivation fact is crucial to know. I once took Ambien, and seriously, I will never repeat that mistake. My friend and I were flying to London to visit another friend who just had a baby. I worried about not sleeping during the overnight flight, so she offered to share her Ambien with me. Except that it was really her sister's Ambien. Never before have I taken someone else's drugs (prescription or illegal, I'm a total goody-two-shoes), but that night I accepted two pills. Yes, two. And when I finally woke up just in time to leave London (not really exaggerating on that, and I am sparing you the details about how I puked and couldn't wake up enough to get myself to a bathroom), I realized that maybe a little sleep deprivation is A-OK.

So, what do you think: Is sleep the feminist issue of 2009?

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants and is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track.

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