Feminism and the Apotheosis of Work
The normative expectation that women should participate in the labor force to the same extent as men emanates from an ideology of gender equality, which was widely expressed by the most influential voices in the feminist movement between the 1960s and the mid-1990s.19 (Of course, there were other voices seeking to define modern feminism as well, just as there were other issues beyond the labor-force participation of women, including abortion and sexual violence, on the feminist agenda.) Toward the mid-1980s alternative views about caretaking, the value of women’s work, and the reality of dependency in everyone’s life were gaining expression, but the advocates of gender equality continued to capture the imagination and shape the core movement until recent years.20 The timing here is important because normative expectations do not change overnight. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, feminist support for a more flexible approach to work and family life, sometimes referred to as care feminism or relational feminism, was on the rise. This strand of feminist discourse emphasizes the value of care work and the need for women to have meaningful opportunities to choose how much of their lives to invest in paid work and childrearing.21 Supporting this position, Anne Alstott argues that “a pluralist approach should grant each caretaker equal resources and permit her to decide for herself which life to lead.”22
Feminist discourse on paid work and childrearing is evolving, and which, if any, points of view will eventually dominate is an open question. At this time, however, normative expectations about employment for women (shared by many men as well) remain strongly influenced by the feminist views concerning gender equality that were promoted up through the mid-1990s. As Cynthia Fuchs Epstein observed, in the writings of the 1960s and 1970s, feminists of all political persuasions subscribed to a core ideology aimed at transforming gender in the family and the marketplace.23 Louise Tilly and Joan Scott maintain in the introduction to their historical analysis of women, work, and family that much of the theorizing in the early 1970s emphasized paid employment as the solution to the oppression of domestic life. Although Tilly and Scott are not convinced of this view, they note that “the link between wages and liberation for women also seemed to be associated with the idea that self-determination was possible in the labor market but not in the family.”24 And Wendy Kaminer notes that even though the Women’s Freedom Network in the 1990s was not part of the liberal wing of feminist thinking, it still represented “a traditional strain of feminism that has focused on expanding individual opportunity, in the belief that the sexes can and should compete as equals in the marketplace.”25
Comparing attitudes toward gender roles in ten member countries of the OECD, survey data from the 1994 International Social Survey Program reveal that the United States had the fourth highest score on an ideology index of gender equality, just below Norway, Sweden, and Canada.26 Gender equality in this context is less about equal treatment without discrimination than about equal results in terms of men’s and women’s roles in family life and their attainments in the workplace.27 The push to neutralize gender distinctions is driven by the idea that traditional differences between men’s and women’s investments in work and family life derive more (some would argue essentially) from socialization than from biology. The feminists’ dilemma, as Alan Carlson puts it, “is that this movement—like all modern ideological movements— is at war with human nature.”28 Gender feminists assert that all the traditional differences between behaviors of men and women in work and family life are socially constructed.29 They claim that, in the absence of expectations cultivated by traditional patriarchal society, the particulars of a satisfying life would be entirely the same for men and women. But the traditional expectations will not wither of their own volition. Thus, gender feminists have actively sought to establish a new pattern of socialization for men and women that raises expectations for equal participation at all levels in the labor force and in every facet of domestic work and childrearing. To date, these efforts have been more influential in changing the socialization of women than of men, although men have increased their investment of labor in domestic and childrearing activities.
Normative expectations about motherhood and gender relations have been changing well beyond the U. S. borders, throughout the industrialized world. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s an OECD report proposed policies aimed at altering what its authors saw as the entirely social construction of gender. The objective of these proposals was to discourage role differentiation in regard to men’s and women’s investments of time and labor in paid employment, domestic duties, and leisure.30 The expectation that women should participate in the paid labor force throughout their adult lives has perhaps taken the strongest hold in the Nordic countries. As Lane Kenworthy explains, the Nordic approach “promotes greater gender equality because it better facilitates mothers’ employment in terms of both joining the labor workforce and limiting the interruption that results from the birth of a child.”31 Strictly speaking, the movement to limit a young mother’s absence from the labor force is not a Nordic approach—it is found mainly in Denmark and Sweden. Finland and Norway, as we will see later, take a rather different attitude.
The view of childbirth as an interruption in labor-force participation that should be limited as much as possible has not yet gained complete acceptance in the United States. However, the ideology of gender feminists embraces a powerful expectation that women should be engaged in a lifetime of paid employment—just as men are. Barbara Bergmann, one of the founders of the International Association of Feminist Economists, opposes the idea of extending child-care tax credits to include parents who care for their preschool children at home, because benefits for home care would reinforce traditional roles. She thinks that women’s status has benefited from the willingness of mothers of very young children to work outside the home. Supporting a normative attitude that childbirth should result in no more than a brief intermission from work, she maintains that “all women workers have better job opportunities when the custom is for most new mothers to return to work very soon after the birth of a child.”32
Support for the norm of continuous labor-force participation by women, occasionally punctuated by brief periods necessary for reproduction, is consistent with the male model of labor-force participation: you hit the ground running upon leaving school and stay in the race until retirement. A number of career lines require an early start, and in the competitive marketplace most lines of work demand a concerted effort in order to reach the top rungs of professional and executive leadership. If women are to keep up with men, they have to start working early and stay at it. The emphasis on women’s continuous attachment to paid employment makes good sense and is particularly helpful for those women with ambitions to have a run on the fast track to high-powered positions in society.33
Yet, at the same time that the male model of a lifetime devoted to paid employment supports the American dream of mobility and success, it overshadows and to some extent blocks out alternative paths that might be equally sensible for women who have other ambitions in life. The norm of continuous labor-force participation ignores the implications of increasing longevity in recent times as well as the fact that having children and staying at home to raise them is not necessarily a lifetime occupation. It imposes a static view of women’s roles and the value of their work throughout the life cycle, based on the demands of the market and traditional male activities. From a dynamic perspective, the economic value of parental care and household management is substantial during the early years of childhood and declines as children enter school. A home-care commitment of five to ten years would leave most mothers with thirty years or more in which to participate in the paid labor force.
Bringing into question the norm of continuous labor – force participation reframes the issue of motherhood and employment as a question of how to divide parental labor throughout the family’s life cycle rather than a choice between a one-earner or two-earner family. For those seeking to create a balance between motherhood and employment, the essential issue becomes whether to follow the male model of starting a lifetime pattern of work immediately after school, which involves the concurrent performance of childrearing duties and labor-force participation, or whether to initiate a sequential pattern in which they fully invest their efforts in childrearing and paid employment at different periods.
Obviously, certain career options may be closed to women who opt for the sequential pattern of childrearing and labor – force participation rather than the male model. Starting in one’s mid-thirties would make it difficult to become a mathematician, media personality, physicist, doctor, fashion model, professional athlete, politician, or multinational CEO. Also, there is a higher probability that those who follow a sequential pattern of full-time motherhood and paid employment will not reach the pinnacles of occupational success. Few people attain such career heights in any case. Room at the top is quite limited—the vast majority of people spend their lives laboring in the middle grounds of their occupations. Posing the sequential pattern as an alternative approach in no way forecloses the option of the male model—a continuous line of employment remains open for those with their sights on the heights of professional achievement.
Moreover, the sequential pattern of moving from one type of work (unpaid caregiving) to another (paid employment) is compatible with emerging trends in employment that reveal a decline among people in the workforce who devote their entire career to a single line of work. In recent years many people have been changing course in midstream. A 2004 nationwide survey of more than six thousand working adults found that 58 percent of the respondents had changed their careers—most of them more than once.34 In addition, an increasing proportion of women over thirty years of age are enrolling in educational programs, which prepare them to enter or reenter the labor force at that stage of life. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by the year 2014, approximately 27 percent of all women in degree-granting institutions will be over thirty years of age, up from 17 percent in 1970.35
Nevertheless, the expectation for women to follow the male model of continuous employment is still firmly in place, as suggested by the critical response to reports of well-educated mothers opting out of the paid workforce (a movement that, if it gains momentum, could elevate the sequential pattern as a countervailing feminist alternative). This work-oriented norm has taken such a firm grip because it promises women more than just equal status with men at the corporate table and economic gain with which to enhance materialistic lifestyles. The attractions of a constant connection to the labor force are powerfully reinforced by the frequently (and almost universally) expressed presumption that paid work confers social and psychological benefits on women, along with disparaging assessments of unpaid household work. This perception of the personal rewards of employment has come about mainly because the vast majority of those who publicly talk, think, and write about questions of gender equality, motherhood, and work in modern society are people who talk, think, and write for a living. And they tend to associate with other people who, like themselves, do not have “real” jobs—professors, journalists, authors, artists, politicos, pundits, foundation program officers, think-tank scholars, and media personalities. (As one of them, I am qualified to speak with some authority on the subject.) They are not wealthy captains of industry but members of an occupational elite that is in some ways more privileged than the run-of-the-mill CEO and CFO.
Of course, people who get paid to build knowledge, inform the public, and shape social policies work for their wages, and they often work hard at what they do. When I say that they do not have “real” jobs, I am referring to the fact that the kind of work they perform provides a degree of physical and temporal autonomy unknown in the typical work week of nine – to-five employment. Not only do such people enjoy an extraordinary level of discretion in deciding when and where their work is performed, but much of the time there is also considerable latitude regarding what they actually do—what they write, talk, and think about. Freedom to manage the when, where, and what of their labor increases the likelihood that it will be experienced as meaningful and enjoyable rather than oppressive.36
Among the professoriate, for example, most of my tenured colleagues in the social sciences and humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, are required to spend four to five hours a week, thirty weeks a year, teaching in a classroom. That is, their temporal and physical autonomy is limited by employment for about 120 to 150 hours a year. When faculty speak of “office hours,” they mean the two or three hours a week spent waiting in their office for students to come by in search of advice (often the loneliest time in a professor’s schedule). Such a schedule contrasts sharply with the standard nine-to – five, five-days-a-week schedule. According to Paul Graham, the most demoralizing aspect of the traditional office job is that you’re supposed to be there at certain times: “The basic idea behind office hours is if you can’t make people work, you can at least prevent them from having fun.”37
Industrial production is no longer organized on the classic time and motion studies of Frederick Taylor, well known as the “father of scientific management.” Yet, as Daniel Bell explains, “time rules the work economy, its very rhythms and motions.”38 In 2002 the average U. S. worker put in 1,815 hours on the job. For most workers, this time was spent at a particular place—office, shop, desk, factory—for prescribed hours performing designated tasks.39 In academia, even the physical location of the work is flexible, and sometimes shifts from assigned classrooms to the professor’s home or the local coffeehouse (if the class is small enough). Academic freedom also assures instructors substantive license to select the material they teach under a particular course heading. Preparation for classroom teaching is time consuming, but once a lecture is fine – tuned it often endures, since the knowledge conveyed in many subjects—the history of ancient Greece, experimental research design, introductory French—does not change dramatically from year to year.
In addition to teaching students in the classroom, faculty meet with and advise students, serve on academic committees, attend professional conferences, perform community service, and conduct independent research (which especially involves a major commitment of time and effort). With all these activities, many faculty work fifty hours a week during the thirty weeks of classroom teaching. Yet most of this work is of a self – directed, voluntary nature, marked by a high degree of physical and temporal autonomy and substantive license—as anyone on campus who has tried to organize a faculty meeting on a Friday can attest.40 University teaching is by and large divorced from the normal discipline of everyday life in the marketplace. It bears only the faintest resemblance to most work in the real world.41
Moreover, some of the professional duties are arguably rather pleasant. Learned gatherings of academic associations are rarely held in Topeka, Kansas. Traveling instead to places like New York City, San Francisco, Paris, and Geneva, professors gather to present their latest findings, engage in lively intellectual discourse, and exchange gossip with old friends and academic colleagues from around the world, followed by a grand banquet in the evening—and they get paid for doing it (not royally, but well enough for the exertion).42 Joining those whose views on social matters are taken seriously by the public, tenured professors are part of a privileged class of columnists, media commentators, think-tank pundits, and others that experiences the enjoyment of paid employment.
Temporal autonomy was not always reserved for the occupational elite. In the nineteenth century, cigar makers in Milwaukee went on strike to defend their right to leave the shop at any time without their supervisors’ permission. This was not atypical. “During much of the 19th century,” Tom Lutz observes, “there were more strikes over issues of time-control than there were about pay or working hours.” About his own job, Lutz admits that “we academics do have something few others possess in this postindustrial world: control over our time,” which surveys reveal as the most common factor in job satisfaction.43
But the joys of work are not evenly distributed. Tolstoy may have had it right that happy families resemble one another while unhappy families are all miserable in their own fashion. Whether one is happy or unhappy at home, however, there is considerably less variance in the demands of unpaid family work than in the demands of labor-force participation. Unpaid family work may be portrayed as shaping unformed personalities, nurturing relatives, and managing the household—or, in more pedestrian terms, caring, cooking, and cleaning. However it is presented, the scope of activities is relatively narrow in comparison to jobs in the paid labor force, which include, of course, caring, cooking, and cleaning. To say that there is less variance within home-centered work is not to say that it is less formidable or strenuous than paid employment, but that the scope of roles in paid employment is more diverse—ranging from, say, mining coal in the depths of the earth to flying airplanes at thirty thousand feet, or from sitting on a stool in a factory to holding a seat on a board of directors. The world of paid work encompasses a vast array of activities, from those that are low status, boring, physically demanding, poorly rewarded, and dangerous to those that are high status, exciting, physically easy, well rewarded, and safe—with the latter being in relatively short supply.
The privileged few with high-status, stimulating, and well-rewarded jobs tend to experience the social and psychological advantages of work, which they then broadly attribute to labor-force participation. They have the kind of jobs in which they think “doing lunch” is work. (Foundation officers, for example, know that upon accepting the post they will never again lunch alone or tell a joke that is not heartily appreciated.) For most workers, however, lunch is a one-hour break from labor to refuel their bodies for the next shift—or a midday meal they have to forfeit in order to run household errands.
To date, the prevailing norms for working mothers have been shaped by an influential core of the occupational elite who publicize the presumed universal social and psychological rewards of paid employment (which they themselves do experience), while ignoring the social and psychological benefits of unpaid caring and household work. Indeed, when unpaid labor is addressed, caregiving and household management are often depicted as servile, tedious, mind-numbing work of limited worth.44 One might say it started in the mid-1960s, when Betty Friedan identified what she experienced as the oppressive drudgery of household work—“the problem that has no name.”45 Friedan graduated in the 1940s from Smith College, one of the elite Seven Sisters women’s colleges of that period. By her own account, Friedan’s marital life was a wretched affair, and there were accusations of domestic violence on both sides. As Dan Seligman points out, the problem that had no name may have been rooted to some extent in the tribulations of an unhappy marriage. He contends that The Feminine Mystique described a world “populated more or less exclusively by upscale college-educated women raising families in comfortable suburban homes in the 1950’s.”46 The late Elizabeth Fox – Genovese agreed that in many respects feminism can be seen as an account of the lives of young, white, well-educated, and well-to-do women—a slice of the population for whom work offered not only additional income but also the promise of personal fulfillment.47 Still, with three million copies of The Feminine Mystique sold in the United States, Friedan’s gloomy depiction of domestic life must have resonated among many women in those circumstances.
Long before Friedan’s discourse on the powerlessness and oppression of motherhood and domestic life, George Bernard Shaw offered an entirely different scenario. In his 1928 handbook entitled The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, Shaw wrote, “The bearing and rearing of children, including domestic house-keeping, is a woman’s natural monopoly. As such, being as it is the most vital of all functions of mankind, it gives women a power and importance that they can attain to in no other profession, and that man cannot attain to at all. In so far as it is slavery, it is slavery to Nature and not to Man; indeed it is the means by which women enslave men.”48
But it is Freidan’s image of motherhood and domestic life that continues to exert influence. Writing in the early 1990s, Suzanne Gordon found that the low regard in which domestic activities are held creates an awkward dilemma: “Feminists cannot simultaneously applaud men who share caregiving in the home and helping professions and look down on women who freely choose to work in the home as mothers or who become nurses, teachers, child care providers, or social workers.” She asks, “If work in the family wraps one in a haze of domesticity and enrolls one in a cult of domesticity that blunts all talents, why would any man volunteer for this social lobotomy?”49
The core group of gender feminists that framed this negative image from the 1960s to the 1990s may have shrunk, but the view of household labor as an oppressive, boring grind continues to inform much of the public discourse. Indeed, among many elite professionals, it has become an uncontested fact of modern life.50 Consider the following statement comparing paid employment and household work: “Paid work outside the home is necessary for the income it provides to purchase food, shelter, health care, and other goods and services on which individuals and families rely. Paid work also provides people with a sense of purpose and satisfaction, although it can produce stress. Unpaid work within the home— cooking, cleaning, shopping, home maintenance, and caring for children—is also necessary for the health and well-being of individuals and families. As with paid work, unpaid work provides satisfaction and fulfillment, but much of this work is mundane and tedious” (emphasis added).51 The choice of words here is telling. After three lines that seem to offer a balanced view of paid and unpaid work, the statement concludes with a gratuitous reminder of the tedious and mundane existence of stay-at-home mothers. It is noted that paid work can produce stress, which seems a mild caution in contrast to the strong emphasis on the tedium of household work, which is not even demanding enough to be stressful. This quote is not taken from a 1970s publication of radical feminist persuasions. It comes from the introduction to a well-designed academic study of men, women, and work that was conducted by established scholars and published in 2004 by the Russell Sage Foundation—one of the oldest, most revered foundations supporting the study of social issues in the United States.
I can imagine readers asking, “Really, isn’t much of cooking, cleaning, shopping, home maintenance, and caring for children tedious and mundane?” My response to that is, “In comparison to what?” Linda Hirshman claims that “the family— with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks—is a necessary part of life, but allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.”52 Many people would no doubt find unpaid household chores less interesting than Professor Hirshman’s job or the paid work of the professors who wrote the Russell Sage Foundation report (or, probably, the work of many people who are reading this book and consider it part of their job). But walking up and down the supermarket aisle selecting food for a family dinner is a job that has more variety and autonomy than the paid work being done by the supermarket employees who stack the same shelves with the same food day after day, and those who stand in a narrow corner at the checkout counter all day tallying up the costs of purchases, and the workers next to them who pack the purchases into paper or plastic bags. That space in the market is a bit cramped for human flourishing. Is caring for one’s child—changing the diapers as well as experiencing the joy and excitement that comes with the first smile, step, utterance—a more wearisome job than that of the paid worker doing the same thing for four or five children who are not their own? Does standing behind a counter all day, sitting in an assembly line, driving a bus, or cleaning offices at night allow more opportunities for human flourishing than nurturing children and managing a home?
Not everyone gives the same answer. When Meghan Cox Gurdon’s second child was born she left an exciting job as a foreign correspondent to be a full-time wife and stay-at-home mother. The initial adjustment to spending all day with small people who clamored to be fed and showed no interest in foreign affairs took some work. She had to cope with a sense of diminished status, particularly when meeting up with former colleagues who wanted to know, “What do you do all day?” What she did all day—ferry kids around, plan playdates, load up on groceries, amuse and educate children, feed the family, keep everyone clean, and volunteer for schools—was outwardly unremarkable. She found, however, that “inwardly you feel you are the heart of your family…. Indeed, the dark secret of housewifery—the thing none of us knew until we gave up our paid jobs—is that it’s fun. And it’s deeply gratifying. Everyone gets frazzled occasionally, but one has the opportunity with this kind of life to escape the bruising rhythms of the larger world. We don’t spend our time under fluorescent lights. We never have to face office politics. We don’t receive paychecks, either, but we do have the luxury of time.”53