Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Feminism:
What Went Wrong?

I don't think Sarah Palin is qualified to be Vice President of the United States and, given her views on a range of issues, I wouldn't support her for any elected office. But I'd much rather have a beer with her than with any of he other candidates.

Palin is the beneficiary of the left-wing politics that she despises, and of Second Wave feminism which was part of that package. If she had been born 20 years earlier, and gotten her BA in 1967 instead of 1987, she would never have gotten a job as a sportscaster when she graduated. If she had been running for high political office in 1988 instead of 2008, her socially conservative, religious right constituency would have been horrified at the idea of the mother of a 4 month old baby working outside the home in any capacity, much less running for the vice presidency of the United States. And in 1988, she wouldn't have been running because there wouldn't have been an affirmative action pick on the Republican ticket.

Palin is the living symbol of what I took to be the goal of the feminist movement: to fix things so that women could be like guys. That was it. Very simple. To see to it that women had could get guy jobs and hunt moose--if, of course, that is what they wanted to do. The purpose of feminism as I understood it was to eliminate sex roles so that both men and women could do the jobs and live the lives traditionally reserved for men only or for women only--so that no one's options would be constrained by an accident of birth.

That's what I thought it was all about. But then strange doctrines started creeping in. First and foremost, there was the idea that feminism was inextricably linked to every other edifying sort of -ism. Gay rights, and the rights of every oppressed or marginalized group was supposed to be intrinsic to feminism. Peace was a feminist issue because, rather than freeing women, and men, from the constraints of sex roles, a significant vocal minority of feminists held that the aim was rather to valorize traditional femininity.

Finally, abortion took center stage as the defining feminist issue. To make matters worse the very rationale for making it the central issue was sexist. The working assumption was that if a woman had a baby then she must inevitably raise it, that women "bonded" with their babies through pregnancy as so that giving them up for adoption was unthinkable. Of course, the idea that a woman could simply dump the baby on its dad never crossed anyone's mind. That's what I'd do if I had a baby I didn't want: first stop out of hospital--dad's place. "Here's your baby. I'll come by from time to time to see how he's coming along, and send you a little money every once and a while if I remember. Bye."

Now Democrats are being skewered on the abortion issue because they will not compromise. And compromising would skewer Palin because most Americans wouldn't want to see the kind of draconian anti-abortion legislation she wants--with no exceptions for rape or incest, whatever the stage of pregnancy. Suppose some miserable 14 year old girl is abused and raped by her father. No morning-after pill for her. And then there there are those sweet, cuddley stem cells. Those atheistic pro-abortionists may trot out that actor who has Parkenson's and scientists may whine, but all human life is sacred (exceptions: capital punishment and war).

Even on the worst case scenario, if Roe v. Wade went down in flames, and a significant number of women did not have access to abortion, parenthood is a matter of choice--as fathers know. Work for most women is not a matter of choice and for the 2/3 of American women who are not college graduates, the labor market is thoroughly sex-segregated and sex discrimination is the norm. Feminist activists, members of the unisex elite, don't seem to notice and the Democratic party taking abortion to be the central feminist issue has not made workplace issues a priority.

Right now the Walmart class action sex discrimination lawsuit, involving over 1.5 million current and former Walmart employees, is chugging its way through the courts. Hundreds of women have told their stories--stories with which most working class women can empathize. Abortion is controversial but it is uncontroversial that women should get equal pay for equal work and, more fundamentally, that they should have equal access to on-the-job training, promotion, and a fair opportunity to get equal work.

Sarah Palin got to be a guy--to shoot moose, work as a sportscaster and, through the Republican Party's one-off affirmative action program, run for the vice presidency of the United States. Most women don't get the chance. If Democrats want to recapture the working class vote it might be helpful to do something for the millions of working class women who are stuck in boring, poorly-paid, deadend, pink-collar jobs.

2 comments:

Chris said...

Interesting post, I'd love to see a more in-depth analysis/rant about what happened with feminism.

I think there are a lot of people who subscribe to the idea that feminism should be about "eliminat[ing] sex roles so that both men and women [can] do the jobs and live the lives traditionally reserved for men only or for women only" - but this other brand of feminism seems to have hijacked the term.

What I'd really love to see would be a good discussion/dialogue between the two.

H. E. said...

Chris, there's an enormous amount to say on this issue but for starts (I've got class in about 25 minutes) here are some things that happened--trying to be fair and balance:

(1) It was recognized that women were both separate and unequal, and that addressing separateness alone--sex roles and sex segregation--didn't do much for women who were, by choice or circumstance, doing women's work. Most egregious example: at a big university teaching hospital in the Pacific Northwest, parking lot attendants (all male) were getting paid more than nurses. There are lots of women who want to be nurses, it's hard work, it takes lots of education and skill, and we sure as hell need nurses. More generally, no reasonable person wants to say, "all women should behave like guys and get guy jobs--if they don't, tough on them," because the work women have traditionally done is important--and undervalued. So feminists rightly addressed the issue of getting women the pay and respect they deserved, not only for jobs that were traditionally female, but for the unpaid, invisible work women did in the home.

(2) Sex segregation proved much harder to eliminate than feminists initially thought. It was embedded in a whole web of practices, attitudes and social arrangements that couldn't be unraveled. So the take of some was: OK we're got women into law school and medical school, we've got them into management, and we've got most women working outside the home. Sex discrimination is illegal and women have formal equality under the law but sex segregation and sex roles persist. So we have to recognize that they aren't going to go away and work on equality for women who do women's jobs and play traditionally female roles.

(3) Academics who "did feminism," vide e.g. Alison Jaggar, came up was a taxonomy of feminisms that became canonical. And in this taxonomy the goal of equal opportunity and the elimination of sex roles, in the labor force and in the home, was conflated with the conservative political idea that formal equality under the law was enough, that affirmative action and even the strict enforcement of anti-discrimination regulations was illegitimate. The market would fix everything and if, given formal equality under the law, women were still playing traditional sex roles in the home and in the labor force, that was simply a matter of choice and no further action should be taken. This was the account of "Liberal Feminism" that became canonical. But, arguably, it was a big, big mistake because it is perfectly consistent to hold that while the goal is equal opportunity, you cannot achieve that goal without proactive government intervention, including the enforcement of anti-discrimination regulations, affirmative action, and aggressive social engineering.

(4) Feminist organizations were dominated by upper middle class women and their clientele were educated middle class women. Feminism catered for its clientele. They cared about equality of opportunity in management and the professions, because those were the jobs they did, or to which they aspired. When women got into those jobs, the take of many was, "OK, sex segregation in employment is fixed; now all we need there is a mopping up operation to bust the glass ceilings, see to it that women can make partner in prestigeous law firms, etc." They didn't notice that sex segregation had hardly been addressed at all in the labor market for jobs that didn't require a college degree, because those weren't jobs that they wanted and because, I suspect they assumed that when it came to "bad" jobs all cats were equally gray in the darkness. "What's the point of working to see to it that women can be auto mechanics? There's no difference between being an auto mechanic and a secretary: they're both bad jobs we wouldn't want and neither provide any job satisfaction--jobs for people who are indifferent about the work they do. Besides most women wouldn't want to get dirty. And women who really care about what they do will just go to law school or get MBAs."

That anyway is for starts. I've got to get to class!