Monday, November 27, 2006

Matriarchy: Home Ec for Feminists

I've been participating in a women's support group the last few months for women of a variety of ages with a variety of concerns. So far it's been an incredibly enriching experience for me, but it's also brought up some old questions about femininity, gender roles, and where I fit as a not-that-womanly woman. One topic that came up last week, for example, was how do we more equitably divide the labor at Thanksgiving so women don't do all the work. Which I think is an awesome, extremely important question for the women who asked it during group, but it's not something that I'm particularly concerned about. My father does all the cooking in my household and Thanksgiving is no exception. The food my dad cooked was delicious to the point that my grandfather, full of awe, awfully declared, "It looks like you're good for something other than gardening after all!" For those who didn't catch it, that's a reference to Asian American gardeners! Wooooo! Happy Thanksgiving!

But back on point, lately I've been wrestling with a sense that maybe I'm not a very feminine woman and also with the sense that none of the women who played a major role in my life when I was growing up, were what I would think of as particularly feminine either. My mom is an assertive, opinionated lawyer who pretty much rules our household with an iron fist. My grandmother and great aunts on my father's side are some of the mouthiest, most assertive women I've ever met who also ruled their households and families with iron fists. Sandra Oh once commented in an interview with Bust that she has never met a passive Asian American woman in her entire life, which I completely identify with. The women I modelled myself after when I was growing up were forces to be reckoned with in comparison to many of the more mellow men in my family who tend to do all the cooking, in addition to being more emotionally available. It's difficult for me to disentangle how race played a part in shaping the gender roles in my family, but I feel like the Japanese American culture certainly must have played some kind of role.

And as I reflect on the women in my family, it hardly seems surprising to me that taking the role of the passive, compassionate caregiver does not come naturally to me. And when I think of those aspects in my personality, I almost always trace them to the men in my life and not the women. I think a large reason feminism appealed to me at such an early age is that from my perspective as a child, it was so obvious that women were already the ones in control. The world of business, politics, economics was meaningless to me in comparison to the crushing dominance of women within the more human, interpersonal world of my own family. What confuses me about this experience, however, is that I'm not sure it is unique or actually outside the old patriarchal norms of womanhood to begin with.

Going all the way back to the 19th century, it's easy to trace the importance of Republican Motherhood which stressed that women did indeed dominate the household and that they made their influence through their families, by educating their children and advising their husbands. And even though this might be simplifying things somewhat, one of the most crucial victories for First Wave feminism was it's assertion that women could and should contribute to society on a direct political level. Suffrage meant pushing out into the public sphere and emphasizing the importance of women's participation and leadership on a broader level than what home and family could contain. And naturally, I wouldn't second guess what a crucial step that was for women. But it does lead me back to one of the slippery debates that Third Wave feminism raises: "Is choosing to be a housewife, a feminist choice?"

Personally, my answer to that quesion is easily no. Growing up in a culture where there is still a tremendous amount of pressure put on young women to automatically become housewives and dedicate their lives to their families it is difficult for me to look at my already married and pregnant peers and feel they have not been at least somewhat influenced by patriarchy. Even with my card-carrying feminist beliefs, I think I've been influenced by that pressure and when I see intelligent, charismatic, college-educated women putting their lives on hold, it's very disappointing to me. While I am willing to believe that within the context of their lives and their options they certainly might be making the best choice, I still think the choice they're forced to make is un-feminist from the get go. If they had more options, if their context was different, a lot of women would choose differently. Not all, but a lot.

On the other hand though, I still see the power women have within their families and within their relationships as very important. I think it would be stupid not to use that power, stupid to understimate what it's worth. It might not be feminist to be a housewife, but when I see a woman leading her family and marshalling her household I do see real feminist power and real feminist potential. Which raises an even more interesting point: maybe feminism is not so much about the path we take in an embattled and constricting world, but about how we live that path as women, how we face our oppression with courage and honor, and how we learn to live with those limited choices.


Anonymous pignut said...

I lived for 2 1/2 years in a Muslim farming community. Gender roles were fairly strict. Men did very hard physical work (lumberjacking, building work etc.). Women did the time consuming jobs like housework and gardening. Other tasks were shared. Women enforced these gender roles, if I did housework, my girlfriend was criticised by the other women. Women controlled money, business and the household finances (this is common in the muslim world), so the issue of women doing unpaid labour did not arise (a lot of women had paid jobs too, but it was frowned on for a woman to be sole breadwinner in a household). There was at least one divorced single mother in the village. She lived with her parents. This was not a big issue because everyone was living in extended families in a mutually supportive community.

The economy had changed in recent years so there was less paid manual labour for the men to do, but it was still socially unacceptable for them to help out in the home. The society and economy had changed, but the mindset hadn't.

This was bad, but not as bad as in the developed, post industrial world, where able bodied men sit behind desks earning large salaries (while denying these jobs to women and the disabled), and expect their wives to stay at home, raise kids, clean and iron their impractical high-maintenance clothing, and do all the housework. There is still physical work needed in this economy, but exploited third world people do that. The economy is changing faster than mindsets. Shifting the emphasis from community to nuclear family is also pretty shitty.

In the village, the gender roles made sense. We invited volunteers to help out, they were mostly female (why don't guys volunteer?), and given the choice, nearly all chose the housework and cooking, because they were mostly not physically suited to digging trenches, moving sacks of cement or barrowing manure up hillsides. I know there are women out there who could do these jobs better than a weedy guy like me. I just didn't meet many.

All women should have the option of doing the same jobs for the same wages as men. Getting educated and getting into politics, business and law should be high priorities for women in twenty first century urban America. But please don't force your own values onto other societies without making a real effort to understand them first.

5:53 AM  

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