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Choices and Feminism

Down in comments here, Martin Weiner remarks:

It seems to me that Kieran is upset because these young women are making choices (and the whole point of feminism was, I thought, to widen women’s choices) [...]
This is a very common rhetorical move, I don't quite know where it came from, and I have to say that it's rather silly. It's obviously true in some sense that "to widen women's choices" was/is the point of feminism, but I think it's equally obvious that to read a commitment to that goal as requiring feminists to foreswear criticism of any choice made by any woman. Maybe some women want to break into the traditionally male-dominated field of serial killing. Surely we can criticize that choice. Less extravagantly, the fact that feminism has already accomplished a lot has opened up a lot of opportunities for women, especially relatively prosperous women, to more-or-less free ride. Since nobody expects anyone to totally ignore their own self-interest, it's genuinely silly to get too trenchant about complaints of that sort. But at the same time, no social movement that still wants to accomplish stuff can afford to become totally complacent about free riding. Actually achieving a world in which women have as many choices open to them as men do would require many women (and, for that matter, men) to choose to do many things that may be contrary to short-term self-interest. It's often easier to simply adapt oneself to actually existence injustice than to try and change it. But those who are committed to change are going to need to criticize the less-committed for their lack of commitment.

September 23, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Actually achieving a world in which women have as many choices open to them as men do would require many women (and, for that matter, men) to choose to do many things that may be contrary to short-term self-interest.

Absolutely true, but good luck convincing anyone of that, since most don't really give a crap about changing the world when their own day-to-day lifestyle issues are at stake. Hell, I can't even convince a cranky SAHM that the logistical hassle of an outing with the kids this afternoon would still have some medium-term benefits in the form of more cheerful tempers & a better night's sleep.

Anyway, I've never really bought "difference feminism" or the all-about-choices line; feminism has IMO always been about revamping gender-based power structures to make them more equitable and flexible. Let's face it, the choice to fulfill exactly the same functions a woman 150 years ago might be freeing/empowering/whatever, especially since feminism minimized the potential penalties for doing so, but it doesn't advance gender equity in any noticable way.

Posted by: latts | Sep 23, 2005 3:42:19 PM

I'm sorry, rich women who raise kids are "free-riders"? Compared to who, their rich husbands? Or rich women who work? Please.

The reason feminism is so threatening to well-bred men (and to many well-bred women) is because as its currently argued, it challenges the arguments that elites use to justify the fact that they get to have better lives than everyone else does.

Today, we give people who get paid lots of money credit for doing all sorts of other things--"productively contributing to society," and "using their education," to name two.

The idea that making money means you are doing these other things is simply stupid. Hollywood action movie producers, for example, make bushel baskets of money, but I'm hard pressed to see how they're "using their education" or being "productive." At the end of the day, most people making lots of money come from lots of money, and it's pedigree more than actual contributions that's driving the reimbursement process. (it's why we see legacy admissions--it's in every elite person's self-interest to perpetuate this cycle.)

The thing that feminism brings up is that it's not fair that we see an i-banker as a contributor and his kid-raising wife as a leech (or free-rider, as you so kindly put it). And that's right--it isn't fair.

But this insight also tends to lead thinking people to think about lots of other unfair things, and then all the sudden you're wondering exactly why we pay Paris Hilton so much and teachers so little, and who gets the easy paths vs. the hard ones in life, and who exactly has more privileges and choices and who does not.

So, no, it's not surprising that rich women protect the choices that other rich women make. It's actually very much in their self-interest to defend this choice and to try and put in place protections for women who make that choice. But rich women who stay home and raise kids are really no more or less selfish than the women who go to work and make bushel baskets of money. They are, just like their husbands, profiteers in a corrupt system.

I guess my point is that I take issue with your statement: "Actually achieving a world in which women have as many choices open to them as men do would require many women (and, for that matter, men) to choose to do many things that may be contrary to short-term self-interest" It's actually realtively easy to do that. The really hard thing is what many feminists are trying to do--to create a society in which there's more opportunity for everyone.

Posted by: theorajones | Sep 23, 2005 5:04:34 PM

>But those who are committed to change are going to need to criticize the less-committed for their lack of commitment.

Criticizing the less-committed for their lack of commitment is not currently an effective strategy for liberalism, in general, or for feminism, in particular. That isn't currently a good way to get the political power to change things.

Posted by: Joe O | Sep 23, 2005 6:55:20 PM

"That isn't currently a good way to get the political power to change things."

Sure I love the alternative Bull Moosian strategy of caving on everything...the left has made huge advances using that method in the last thirty years.
....
I have no words to express how much I liked this post.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 23, 2005 7:21:21 PM

I don't think the left should cave, I just think critisizing people who want to stay at home with the kids isn't an effective route to social change.

Posted by: Joe O | Sep 23, 2005 7:35:36 PM

I just think critisizing people who want to stay at home with the kids isn't an effective route to social change.

Maybe, but what we're talking about here is criticizing extremely privileged young women who are making a choice at a very early age not to do anything with their privileged position. This is something rather different.

Posted by: bza | Sep 24, 2005 5:38:09 PM

Maybe, but what we're talking about here is criticizing extremely privileged young women who are making a choice at a very early age not to do anything with their privileged position. This is something rather different.

Just because they are not joining the workforce or are doing so sporadically does not mean that they are "not doing anything with their privileged position." Being a housewife does not necessarily translate into being politically inactive or not doing anything to promote the welfare of those who do work outside the home.

Posted by: Glaivester | Sep 24, 2005 11:01:14 PM

In that case you've conceded the principle that we can expect engagement from those who've benefitted fromt he engagement of those who came before them. You're just quibbling about the application.

Posted by: bza | Sep 25, 2005 12:01:44 PM

BZA, when we start critcizing their husbands 1/5 as much for their completely non-contributory jobs as i-bankers, I'll entertain this notion.

But until then, it's a frustrating and disgusting double standard.

Posted by: theorajones | Sep 26, 2005 9:56:30 AM

Shorter Matt:

The point of feminism is to denigrate stay-at-home-motherhood, and that is far more important that widening women's choices.

Posted by: Glaivester | Sep 26, 2005 10:17:07 AM

Wow, Matt. This is truly stupid.

When you say "more or less free ride" maybe you mean "not at all"? Free-riding in this context means, what? Our sainted forefathers fought for our independence from the Crown. So you and I are free riding because we have not dedicated our lives, fortunes and sacred honor to fighting the British?! The fight for equal rights for women in our culture is won, and, like independence and abolition, is a one-way ratchet that has ratcheted.

The funny thing is that the demographic problem of most liberal democracies is a REAL collective action problem, where the people who have too few children are truly free-riding on those who are replacing themselves. The insane intergenerational transfer system Matt defends is in so much trouble largely because birth rates are low. And here he is calling women who choose full-time motherhod free riders. Just incredible.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Sep 26, 2005 10:51:13 AM

My thoughts exactly, Will. Creating people and ensuring that they are not molested or traumatized by some strange caregiver when at their most vulnerable is to do nothing with their lives. Surely there is much greater value to society in hyphenating one's name and making a boatload of money with no one to leave it to after they're gone.

The feminist argument also totally ignores the powerful biological instict for motherhood. Perhaps the upper-middle class are sufficiently evolved to have made this a simple matter of choice and not reflex.

Posted by: Just Karl | Sep 27, 2005 12:24:12 AM

Will, false dilemma fallacy. The criticism is of women who choose to bear children rather than bear children AND do other things traditionally conceptualized as work, not of women who choose to bear children rather than work AND not bear children

Also, your analogy to the American Revolution only goes through if feminism has completed every one of its legitimate objectives. There are so, so many counterexamples to that claim.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Sep 27, 2005 8:22:36 PM

washerdeyer, the women in question are not "bearing" children. They're RAISING children.

Pregnancy, for all its inconveniences, doesn't present nearly the challenges of parenthood. If humans were like turtles and could care for themselves immediately after birth, then this issue would be about the "bearing" of children, and it would be a trivially easy problem to solve.

But raising kids, as opposed to simply "bearing" them, is incredibly hard work. Minimizing the work involved does no one any favors. It's ludicrous to suggest that feminism is about criticizing women who refuse to do double duty as full-time primary caregivers AND full-time paid workers. Whatever you think of feminists, you can't seriously suggest they want women to be expected to do twice the work that's expected of men.

Posted by: theorajones | Sep 28, 2005 10:55:30 AM

You know, in some ways I prefer discussing this issue with conservatives-- they're usually at least honest about the desirability of fulfilling the traditional roles of Economic Man and Domestic Woman, while liberals mostly try to muddy the waters and pretend that these choices occur in some sort of vacuum. The fact is that a woman (or man, but really, how often is that the case?) who quits work for childrearing and domestic work is an economic dependent, realistically subject to the financial decisions of the wage earner, and is no longer an economic producer. In a strongly capitalist society-- that is a qualifier, btw, because the best ways to mitigate these harsh facts are certainly not capitalist-- that means that the aforementioned woman has little actual status, and this is entirely logical given the economic system. And, as is often pointed out, the loss of status is not only compounded over an individual woman's life in the form of lower achievement and pay but also, not entirely unreasonably, justifies lower status for women in general. Obviously, a society that really valued family life would try to blunt the economic and educational consequences of scaling back for these reasons, and try to smooth out the gender inequities, but the US isn't that kind of society. So, it's basically impossible to fully embrace capitalism, maternal sacrifice, and gender equality all at once-- you might be able to swing two of them given some flexibility, but all three simply can't coexist in any coherent way.

Posted by: latts | Sep 28, 2005 2:15:07 PM

This may well be the most senseless discussion I have ever seen, as well as the most sexist and elitist.

It ignores this most basic fact: Someone has to watch the kids. So if Mom (or Dad) is not going to watch them, someone else has to. And in the Yale case, the "someone" will likely be less educated and in a far lower income group. And we all know about the relationship between income and intellectual/academic achievement.

The argument that has to made is less about choice than whether parents secure a better "life deal" for the kids by raising them themselves or contracting it out. The notion that a mom is somehow a free rider for choosing to raise her own children should be abhorrent to us.

What percentage of women would prefer to be stay at home moms? Probably around 80%. This is in the face of the strongly capitalist society that Latts bemoans.

This is about women wanting to be mothers, and raise their children, an urge little different from hunger or thirst.

Posted by: Gomez Addams | Oct 4, 2005 11:27:22 AM

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