Monday, March 19, 2007

Choices, Choices

The conservatives suffer from what used to be called a multiple personality disorder (remember The Three Faces of Eve?) when defending the traditional division of labor between men and women. They can't figure out if women staying at home is something our genes force us to do or if it is something the god of the fundamentalists forces us to do or if it is just a thing women choose to do (la donna รจ mobile).

The Independent Women's Forum (a gals' subsidiary to the extreme right) mostly argues that women choose to focus on their children and therefore choose to have lower earnings and less retirement income one day. Here "choice" is used very much in the way I would use it in deciding whether to have chocolate or vanilla ice cream on my cone on a nice spring day. These women have no societal norms, no disapproving in-laws, no uncooperative bosses, and certainly no regrets. The wider society doesn't matter in these choices at all. Not even the children's father matters, as you can see from the usual graphics accompanying stories about family-work balance: A woman holding a baby and perhaps a telephone.

That's one of Eve's many faces in the conservatives' multiple personality disorder. Then there is the fundamentalist wing which argues that God has intended women to stay at home to be helpmeets to the men who are the real family leaders and priests. No choice here, at all, just the unavoidable divine judgment, although the Bible never says that women should stay at home. But consistency must be a hobgoblin of only small fundamentalist minds.

The third face of Eve on the right is the Evolutionary Psychology one. The capital letters are to distinguish this popularized version of various prejudices from real evolutionary psychology. The capital letter version believes that women were once primitive cavewives, cooking the mammoth the valiant hubby caught with his bare teeth, and so it will be, forevermore. In this view of the past women never did any hunting or gathering or small-game hunting or anything much outside the cave.

The problem with all these multiple personalities the conservatives offer as an explanation for traditional sex roles is that if one is shot down another one takes its place. But the most common of them is still the choice-based argument, and what is interesting about it is how well the conservatives have managed to sell it as the general explanation to the mainstream media. E.J. Graff has written an excellent article on the so-called opt-out phenomenon among professional women and on its treatment as "choice" along the vanilla-chocolate dimension of ice-cream flavors. She points out the ahistorical aspect of all this writing and its reappearance decade after decade, with the same framing focusing on nothing but the one woman in isolation from the wider society or even her own partner.

A postscript: This tendency of viewing women in isolation from everything else is not a solely American phenomenon. Broadsheet reports on the German movement to lure women back into hausfrauery. One of its proponents argues that "the survival of the country is at stake -- Germans will 'die out' if women don't change their behavior."

Note how it is women alone who are to change their behavior, even though the incentives for them to do so will not be altered? This in a country where school is over very early in the day and where children are expected to go home for lunch, both factors which obviously affect the costs of having many children. And note, once again, how men are not asked to change anything on the surface, though of course they would have to work much harder to support larger families as the sole breadwinners, ultimately.