Saturday, October 27, 2012

review: The New Feminist Agenda

While I was reading Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict (reviewed previously), I cast around looking for reviews to see how other people had responded to the book. In doing so, I happened upon this review in the New York Times by Judith Warner (author of Perfect Madness, a journalistic skewering of the ideology of the perfect mother as practised among middle and upper-middle class white women in the USA). Warner actually reviewed two books: Badinter’s, with which she had some issues while simultaneously being seduced by the elegant writing, and former Vermont governor and US ambassador Madeleine M. Kunin’s 2012 book The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family. While Warner compared Kunin’s dry plain-speaking style unfavourably with Badinter’s, she much preferred Kunin’s ‘concrete, realistic’ politics, writing: 

Kunin’s is not a book of literary value, like Badinter’s. The writing is unremarkable, and there are no big, interesting philosophical ideas. Yet whereas Badinter’s argument is beautiful and essentially wrong, Kunin — Pollyanna-ish faith in the family-friendly nature of female politicians aside — is almost unimpeachably right, as she diagnoses what we in America need, why we’ve never gotten it, and how we may have some hope of achieving change in the future.

I too had some issues with Badinter’s book, although not quite the same ones as Warner, and thought it might be interesting to likewise read Kunin’s book in order to gain some insight into ‘concrete, realistic’ solutions.  Unlike Warner, however, I was less enamoured of Kunin’s book. I concede, however, that this may well be because I am not from the United States. I don’t mean that in an obnoxiously knee-jerk anti-American way. I mean rather that I found this book, while interesting, of limited use to those outside the US.  Instead, it made me very glad that I lived in a country that does not do the following:

  • have no paid parental leave whatsoever (the only OECD country which does not)
  • have slim to no paid sick leave for anybody, let alone parents of small children
  • fail to protect unpaid parental leave for more than three months (after three months, parents seem to be at the mercy of their employers)
  • fail to provide free healthcare for small children
  • fail to provide new parents with professional support in the first weeks after having children 
  • consider a forty-hour working week to be ‘part-time’
  • have no right to request flexible working legislation
  • tax spouses (usually mothers) at a marginal tax rate meaning proportionally more tax is taken from them, thus making it even more unaffordable for women with children to work
  • does not provide proper regulation of early childhood education leaving some of it dangerously inadequate, and ensures that this sector remains one of the most poorly remunerated in the country (unless you are privileged to work for the Department of Defense)

And the list continues (and I will concede that there are New Zealand politicians now in power who seem hell-bent on eroding some of the protections we currently do enjoy, particularly in respect of single parents on benefits). Quite properly, Kunin is outraged at this laundry list of societal failings and her pragmatic aim is to set out a programme for women to take up the call and demand change.  She even begins her book describing her anger:

in my seventies I’m still dissatisfied with the status quo and harbour a passion for change. Old age allows me the luxury of being impatient - there isn’t much time left - and it permits me to say what I think, to be demanding, and, best of all, to imagine a different world where there is true gender equality in the workplace, the home and the political arena. (p 1)

Kunin then details a list of her expectations, developed through her involvement in second-wave feminism, that she sees as remaining unfulfilled. At the top of this list is the elusive goal of balancing career and family. Indeed, she was motivated to write this book by concluding that ‘many women who have careers that we could never imagined for ourselves are still flummoxed by the most age-old problem: how to have a job and take care of the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled.’ (p 2)

She then proceeds to systematically deliver the evidence of maternal disempowerment in the US, both in the workplace and on the home-front. She looks to international models (France, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Canada, the UK, and Australia) not simply to find the US lacking but to compare and contrast how other countries’ social policies would translate in the US environment (with difficulty, apparently). Her political acumen is to the fore here and the programme she develops from this analysis is nothing if not pragmatic: don’t go for ‘paid parental leave’ (who will support the idea of women being ‘paid to do nothing’ - aarrgh!) but ‘family leave insurance’ (a tactic which was apparently successful in New Jersey); appeal to business’s self-interest rather than their moral duties (here she looks at examples of companies who have implemented family policies and how it has benefitted rather than disadvantaged their businesses) and building bipartisan coalitions across different interest groups (people with disabilities, the elderly and men) in order to re-define what the rhetoric of family values means in practice.

She is obviously way more cognisant of the terrain of US politics than I will ever be, and her proposed programme sounds sensible. And yet even Kunin recognises that it may be too unachievable: “Could we hold a march for family­/work policies in Washington? Would anybody come? Or would they be too tired, too busy, too scared of losing their jobs to attend?” Warner thinks what’s needed is a new glamourous multi-tasking Gloria Steinem as a figurehead to inspire and rally everyone. I’m not so sure.

My issue with Kunin’s programme is that it still deeply enmeshed in specific ideas about what constitutes ‘real work‘ and looks primarily to self-interest (particularly in the business world) to provide the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for paid parental leave, flexible working and so on, and I think business has a key role in this - but not to the exclusion of a strong social safety-net provided by a functional welfare state. And I’m frankly disappointed that her pragmatic suggestions appear to perpetuate the myth that stay-at-home parents don’t work (which is why looking solely to business will only ever provide part of the solution).  

As unpaid - or low-paid - carers of children, the chronically ill and the elderly, stay-at-home parents (usually mothers) work too, and in doing so contribute immeasurably to the economy. ‘Immeasurably’, that is, in the sense that it isn’t systematically measured - there are many examples of calculating the costs of a mother’s unpaid work: here in Canada and here by the International Labour Organisation. Where is the part of Kunin’s programme that calls for the substantive recognition and valuing of this work?  Sure, she gestures at in places - for example in the chapter, ‘New Family Portraits’ which looks at shared parenting, stay at home dads, and how to explain ‘resumé gaps’ - but when she espouses calling for ‘family leave insurance’ because people will be turned off by ‘paid parental leave’ (because who wants to pay someone for ‘not working’ - aargh!), it may be pragmatic and politically palatable but it’s still reinforcing the idea that the unpaid work of caring is not productive work at all. 

I recently had some insight into this distinction. Having just bought our first house, my husband and I decided it would be prudent to look into life and income protection insurance. Our insurance advisor - a working mother herself - recommended insuring my husband’s income only (even though I too am working). While she was aware that this might come across as offensive to me, nonetheless the advice was couched in terms of the problems we could face if my husband couldn’t work for whatever reason. I’m not disputing that: it would totally suck if we didn’t have access to his income. But later on it got me thinking - well what if something happened to me and we not only lost my income, but my ability to care for our child for no pay whatsoever? If we had to pay someone to care for her without my income to cover it, or for my husband to reduce his hours so he could do it, then we would also face problems (which would, admittedly, be ameliorated to some extent by the safety-net of the welfare state - as would his unemployment or disability). But that unpaid care is apparently not worth insuring because it has no monetary value. 

This is patently nonsense. In a family with dependent children - and overwhelmingly so in the US, I would guess, with the thin social safety net provided - the unpaid work of the primary care-giver enables the other partner to be economically ‘productive’. And this is even more the case for single-parent families: participating in the paid economy is somehow - unbelievably - valued more highly than being able to provide parental care in the home. The limits of Kunin’s analysis in this respect are problematic, yet how to recognise the value of unpaid or low-paid care-work is canvassed at length in earlier work by Ann Crittenden in The Price of Motherhood (2001) and New Zealand’s own Marilyn Waring in If Women Counted (1988)

While there is much of interest and value in Kunin’s book, perhaps this blind-spot shows up the limits of a politically pragmatic approach, rather than one that takes fundamental issue with the ways in which a national culture operates, and, on that basis, demands laws, policies, practices and institutions to show it values families in fact, not just in rhetoric. After all, if your starting point is compromise, then surely you only end up with small wins at best.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

terrible twos?

My baby is nearly two. ‘Ah, the terrible twos!’ people say knowingly, leaving me wondering what we might be in for. It’s true that, as my baby is getting older and becoming increasingly independent, we have had some moments where our desires didn’t exactly coincide (translation: she has a big meltdown if we want her to have a bath and she is busy doing something else). But - and here I should be trying to find as much wood to touch as possible - so far these meltdowns have been few and short. (I suspect this might be the moment when parents with older children are starting to think ‘mmhmmmm...just wait’). 

Thinking that it might be a good idea to get prepared for what the next few years might hold, I talked to our local Plunket nurse about managing behaviour (translation: what should I do if my baby turns into a wailing banshee in the middle of the supermarket?)  Before offering some useful tips, she said that part of early childhood development is about learning how to control strong emotions in a healthy way. She also said that so-called tantrums are a form of communication: sometimes toddlers act out because they are frustrated at not being able to express what they want in a way their parents can understand (and parents can get frustrated at not being able to understand too). If a child can speak well from an early age, they are less likely to have meltdowns because they can’t be understood. On the other hand, they can have meltdowns when their wants are understood and not supplied (for example, when their winning argument about not wanting to have a bath is ignored)

Whether it is failure to be heard and understood or failure to have one’s desires fulfilled, ‘tantrums’ (starting to really not like that word) are an expression of frustration, of being thwarted, and of being ignored. In other words, the kids are angry.

As an emotion, anger seems to have a bad rap. Anger is conventionally equated with overweening aggression and violence: at best, it should be ‘managed’, at worst ‘suppressed’. Modern psychologists, however, apparently view anger as a primary, natural, and mature emotion experienced by virtually all humans at times, and as something that has functional value for survival. Anger is thought to mobilize psychological resources for corrective action. It is uncontrolled anger that is the problem. 

British psychotherapist Sue Parker Hall, for example, argues that anger originates at age 18 months to 3 years (those ‘terrible twos’) to provide the motivation and energy for a child who is beginning to separate from their carers and assert their differences: it therefore emerges at the same time as thinking is developing.

As with much else, anger is also gendered: girls and women more commonly display passive angry behaviours such as sulking (another of my pet hate words), vindictive gossiping, defeatism and self-blame, while boys and men more commonly display aggressive behaviours, such as destructiveness and bullying (I am generalising here, of course: different people can display different combinations of passive and aggressive behaviours).  

Why might girls and women engage in more passive angry behaviours? Bit of a no-brainer this, really: because, more broadly, girls and women are not encouraged to be assertive and direct in the expression of their feelings. Instead of openly addressing people’s hurtful behaviour with them, girls and women are taught to shun them and b*tch (no coincidence that this is a pejorative word for women) behind their back. Instead of raising their voice and telling people what to do, girls and women are meant to keep quiet and get on with it, leading to the development of resentment (and rough shaking of kitchen implements). Cue an unsuspecting man saying ‘what’s wrong?’, to which a woman classically replies ‘nothing’ (in a way that indicates that everything is wrong and she’s really angry about it). He will shrug his shoulders, go back to what he’s doing, causing yet more anger .... and a million comedy routines are born.

This is by no means to say that women should adopt more active forms of anger if this means adopting aggressive, threatening, intimidating and violent behaviour. Rather, the ideal for both genders is to speak up, say what’s bugging them, and work through it constructively. It’s the speaking up about what’s bothering you that can be the hardest thing to do, especially when it seems trivial. Both men and women, boys and girls - and I include myself in this - are works in progress when it comes to managing anger successfully.

Here Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has in the last fortnight shown the way in terms of directly expressing her anger with the person concerned. Whatever her political record (and, as with any male politician, there is plenty with which to take issue), Gillard demonstrated her anger by standing up, naming the misogyny and sexism in public life, and shaming the behaviour of those responsible. That has to be a positive step in tackling sexism in public life, and it’s no wonder it struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of women worldwide.

But what about social anger? Who could deny that anger is a force for social change, both positive and negative? As I mentioned in a previous post, if ‘first wave’ feminists weren’t angry about their lack of economic or political clout and sought to do something about it, then a whole lot of women would be a lot worse off. This is true in any number of movements.

Women, particularly mothers, are still angry. In the 1990s, a Women’s Anger Study found that there were three common roots to women's anger: powerlessness, injustice and the irresponsibility of other people. Another study found that parenthood exacerbated anger in women: ‘women have higher levels of anger than men, ... each additional child in the household increases anger, and ... children increase anger more for mothers than for fathers.’

The researchers found that this ‘anger gap’ was because:

Parenthood introduces two types of objective stressors into an individual's life: economic strains and the strains associated with child care. Women are exposed to both types of strain more than men. Economic hardship, child-care responsibilities in the household, and difficulties arranging and paying for child care all significantly increase anger, and explain the effects of gender and parenthood on anger. In support of a gender inequality perspective, we find that mothers have the highest levels of anger because of economic inequality and the inequitable distribution of parental responsibilities. Mothers also are more likely to express their anger than others.

When it comes to feminism, women and anger have an uneasy relationship. Anger has ignited many a social movement, but can also be the stick used to beat those who would strive for change. Former US ambassador and Vermont governor Madeleine M. Kunin writes about anger in her 2012 book The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family. In it, she quotes from an interview she conducted with Anita Hill. Hill says:

‘We have to be allowed to be angry.’ // Women are hesitant to be angry because ‘they don’t want to be labelled femi-Nazis,’ she says. ‘Feminism has been caricatured to [such] a degree that it takes anger as a political tool away from them.’ (p 254)

Kunin agrees, but cautions, ‘if anger is too severe it may result in despair, the belief that nothing we can do will change anything. Or extreme anger may result in violence  - the belief that the only way to change anything is tear the existing system down and start from scratch.’ While Kunin thinks that there is a place for this kind of anger - e.g. in protests against totalitarian regimes - she believes that ‘change best occurs when we can express controlled targeted anger focussed on a new vision of society’.

Change can also occur by recognising that anger, particularly in women, is a healthy response to injustice, irresponsibility and powerlessness. If women learn to both express and channel their anger to address those things then doesn’t that also help role-model to their children - particularly their girls - how to best articulate their anger rather than suppress it?  

Speaking for myself, one of the things that drove me to start this blog was anger. I might not have put it that way when I started out, rather viewing it as a creative and intellectual outlet, and something to alleviate the boredom of being stuck at home with a baby all day. But it was also a means of venting some frustration: both with the pinkarama that seems to pass for girlhood these days, and with the lack of recognition and respect for the work involved in stay-at-home-parenting.

Similarly, the frustrations of toddlers are also about powerlessness and injustice (or at least perceived injustice: ‘You want me to have bath? But I want to keep riding my bike! That’s so unfair!’). It might not be quite in the same league as movements for social change - and I don’t wish to trivialise those by the comparison - but there are power relations within a family to which toddlers are on some level responding.   

Bearing that in mind, I’m going to try my best to empathise more next time a battle of wills is brewing at bath-time ... 

Monday, October 8, 2012

review: How To Be A Woman

Newsflash! Feminism is not fusty, fussy and frowny.  It’s fun, funny and frivolous. After all, ‘it’s a good time to be a woman: we have the vote and the Pill and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727.’ But, as Caitlin Moran, concedes ‘a few nagging questions do remain.’


If the blurb on the back of the book is to be believed, Moran has the answers to the questions that every modern woman is asking. 

After finishing it, I’m not quite so sure. Some of the questions about botox and brazilians seem less like the concerns of ‘every modern woman’ and more like the kind of things you might find posited as ‘issues’ in Cosmo

Having said that, I do think it’s great that this book has struck a chord with many girls and women, who have found something of value in it, and have, hopefully, taken up Moran’s call to re-define themselves as ‘strident feminists.’ And if it then encourages them to take a deeper look at the serious, momentous and urgent stuff rather than simply guffawing at an anecdote about getting really drunk with Lady Gaga, then Moran will have achieved a great deal. Several reviews have already welcomed the book in this way, and I think it’s difficult to argue with the positive impact a best-selling book about feminism can have. I myself was interested in her insider's take on how the media construct representations of female celebrities as 'everywomen' (basically, by asking when they're going to have a baby all the time).

Other reviewers have, however, criticised this book because of what they perceive as its inherent snobbery and focus on the mores of a particular social set, likening it to a Victorian etiquette book in the process. More broadly, I think the book reveals the limits of individual memoir as a ground for political action. Memoir gives a writer license to retreat into the authority of subjectivity, so, in Moran’s case, one could be forgiven for thinking that brazilians appear to rate more highly than rape as a feminist issue (although I realise it’s not a zero-sum game and there is a relationship between the two). I found myself torn between interest in Moran’s memoirs - she’s lived an interesting life and spins many a funny yarn about it - frustration at her wanting to make a joke of everything all the time, and exasperation at some of the supposedly empowering solutions she trumpets (burlesque and female-centric porn will set us free apparently. Um, really?) 

Yes, the personal is  political, and (paraphrasing bell hooks) ‘there is no joy in appropriating someone else’s oppression’. The power of consciousness-raising rooted in personal experience is then to elevate it to the structural: ‘I’m only earning half as much as that doofus of guy doing the same job as me’ - ‘me too’ - ‘let’s start a revolution!’ The idea is that even those not directly affected will recognise that ‘there but for the grace of God ...’ 

All the amusing anecdotes and hilarious romps involving lots of booze, Lady Gaga and so on got a bit wearing after a while. I couldn’t help but think that while there was a lot of strategic mileage to be had out of the ‘feminism is fun, dontcha know’ schtick that there was also a disavowal of some righteous anger as well. Women aren’t meant to be angry, so it was disappointing to see Moran, in interviews promoting the book, quickly pointing out that she’s a funny feminist not a scary or awful one. 

Sure, pioneering feminists like the suffragettes might’ve shared some laughs over a gin or three, but they went on hunger strikes, chained themselves to railings, lobbied politicians, and even threw themselves under horses because they were bloody well PISSED OFF at not having the vote and not having the right to own property. Similarly, second wave feminists probably had a rollicking good time at consciousness-raising sessions, protest marches, and speculum parties. But they were also pretty incensed at being poorly paid for their work, being stuck at home with small kids all day while being treated as little more than children themselves, needing male relatives to sign documents for them, being subject to overt sexual harassment as part of daily working life, being unable to decide their own reproductive futures, and, in some cases, being legally raped by their husbands. 

Pretty hilarious stuff, when you get down to it.

And yet, there are other moments when Moran drops the quips that have a quiet power. In the book’s postscript she poses herself the rhetorical question ‘so do I know how to be a woman now?’  Instead of the expected self-deprecation, she writes ‘I distrust this female habit of reflexively flagging up your own shortcomings ... I’m talking abut the common attitudinal habit in women that we’re kind of ... failing if we’re not a bit neurotic.’ Her response to the question instead? ‘Kind of yes, really, to be honest (pp 297-8).’ Not exactly strident, maybe still a little neurotic, but progress nonetheless. 

Where the book is most powerful - and given its theme - most pertinent to this blog, is in the chapters on birth, mothering, not-mothering, and abortion. These chapters are the strongest because the amusing anecdotes and wry asides retreated - but, you’ll be relieved to know, didn’t disappear entirely - to include moments where, to put it bluntly, shit gets real. Particularly confronting was her chapter on abortion, which aimed to show that deciding one’s own reproductive fate is about more than what happens in cases of rape and incest. 

Here are a couple of selections from these chapters:

(on birth): of course, I haven’t told you the half of it. I haven’t told you about Pete crying, or the shit, or vomiting three feet up a wall, or gasping ‘mouth!’ for the gas and air, as I’d forgotten all the words. Or the nerve that Lizzie damaged with her face and how, ten years later, my right leg is still numb and cold. Of the four failed epidurals, which left each vertebra smashed and bruised, and the fluid between them feeling like hot, rotting vinegar. And the most important thing - the shock, the shock that Lizzie’s birth would hurt me so much; would make me an animal with my leg caught in a trap of my own bones, and leave me begging for the doctors to take a knife and cut me free. // For the next year, every Monday at 7.48am, I would look at the clock and remember the birth, and tremble and give thanks it was all over, and marvel that we both survived. (pp 221-2)

(on deciding to have an abortion) This isn’t who I’m going to be again: another three years of being life support to someone who weeps for me, and rages against me, and who knows, when they’re ill, can only be relieved by resting their head on my belly, and dreaming they’re back inside. My two girls ... are all I want .. I’ll do anything for those girls. // But I will only do one thing for this baby - as quickly as I can before it goes any further (p 271)

To me, these stories offer a much more powerful version of the personal is political than the chapters which preceded it. By putting herself out there in this way, Moran really has the potential to speak to other women’s experience and effect change. But that's all a bit po-faced and serious, innit?