Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Gender Happiness Gap

It doesn't exist. Never mind, the New York Times decided to post a piece about such a gap, anyway, and in short order received 700 comments on it. Seven hundred comments really about whether men do enough housework, whether women are genetically capable of happiness only as housewives and so on. It's a real riot, a free-for-all festival of hating on the other sex. And quite a lot of hating on feminism, because feminism made women think that "they can have it all" and they can't! Then there is that other old saw about "feminism being all about choice" and how we have forgotten the need for women to choose but how come can't men choose at all?

You should read the Language Log link I gave in the first sentence and also a second post on the same studies there, because the problems with the studies are addressed in those quite adequately. Also because I want to rant and rave on those two smelly old ideas, the ones about having-it-all and feminism-is-choice.

I'm not sure who it was who first thought of describing feminism, the movement for equal rights of men and women, as a movement which pretended that women could have it all. Whoever that person was, may she or he never be able to enjoy chocolate again.

On one level the statement is obviously true: nobody can "have it all" by being both a master tenor, the leader of a country, the mother of fifteen children, a Buddhist monk and so on, all at the same time. But feminism really never said that women are capable of such superhuman acts. The point was more along the lines that if men could have both jobs and families couldn't women have those, too? And if married men could have bank accounts in just their own names, why couldn't married women have the same? Stuff like that. Equality stuff.

But reading some of those 700 comments on the NYT post I get the impression that what most critics see as "having it all" is the need for women to both work for money and to do all the housework and if they are stuck with this it is either the fault of feminism which made them think that they could do it all, without help or their own fault for not realizing that they can only be happy as stay-at-home wives and should have picked their husbands more carefully. Or they should have remained childless if they wanted a job that badly.

Note what is held constant in all those explanations? Men's roles. Indeed, some commentors complain that men don't have choices at all. Whereas feminism gave women all those choices (to work full-time, part-time or to work at home for no money), the story goes, the men were given no choice at all but to work, work and work for money.

I don't see what the laws are that stop men from being stay-at-home dads (I even know some) or from working only part-time. Given that many of the women's comments complained about their male partners not helping at home it can't be the case that they have never thought about those alternatives. They are quite legal, though probably not the way for a man to get ahead in his career. But that's exactly what they do to women's chances as well. The rewards are also quite real, of course: More time with the children, more time away from the rat race and so on.

So men do have some choices. Granted, they come with both positive and negative consequences but that is the nature of most choices.

And what about the other old saw of choice-feminism? The idea that feminism made it possible for women to choose what they wanted to do with their lives and that all these choices should be applauded as feminist ones?

I have trouble with that idea. It's certainly true that increasing gender equality would, on average, increase the number of choices women have available for them. But this does not mean that every choice a woman makes is a feminist one or somehow not subject to questioning or criticism. For instance, if I decided to become a cannibal goddess that choice would not be a particularly feminist one, and I certainly would expect some criticism for it. More realistically, a woman who chooses to subjugate herself to a man is not making a feminist statement by exercising her right to choose. She can make such a choice. But it's not a feminist one.

Ok, the ranting is done for the day. I'm fully aware that those 700 posts which set me off are not some random sample of opinions on the relationships between men and women. Those who feel strongly enough to comment are those who feel strongly and most likely in the direction of anger towards the other sex. But it wasn't really the anger in the comments that made me upset (for the lack of a better word, something less than anger but with a tinge of sorrow). It was the sexism peeking through in so many of those comments, especially the ones who think that the world would be a better place if the want-ads still (or their equivalent in Craigslist) came either in pink or pale blue (with higher wages for the blue ones) and if women just accepted that their role in life was to focus on their biological destiny and to leave all the rest of the world to those who are genetically equipped for it.
Via Pandagon.