Why Suzanne Venker’s About Halfway to Right…But Still Not There

Sometime last month, Suzanne Venker-~-about whom I have made my feelings known more than once on this blog-~-published something about how women can’t really do it all, and how we should rely on our men.  After all, we can’t work full time at a job and also work full time raising kids/running a house and expect not to be miserable…right?

For once, I think Venker came marvelously close to something resembling progress…except, of course, that she wants women to rely on their men financially.  Ignore, just for a moment, the heteronormativity of that premise, and let’s look to other problems with her concept, shall we?  First of all, in this economy, many households can’t manage on a single salary.  That’s a fantastically privileged way of looking at gender roles in light of the way many families currently live.  Second, when women are completely reliant on men, they lose exit options-~-that is, one of the most transformative things about allowing women to work has been that women have been better able to negotiate within their marriages for things that they need, and to leave if a marriage becomes abusive or untenable.  And third, keeping women at home cuts a large portion of our society’s talent out of the workplace.  There are women out there who are going to enact policies that change people’s lives; who discover cures for life-threatening diseases; who inspire students to love learning and to stay in school; who save lives; and who change the world in millions of other small ways that they frankly might not be able to from their living rooms.  It’s frankly economically inefficient to assume that we don’t want that talent in our labor force.

So where did Venker almost go right?  I think she has a point when she says that women can’t be expected to do everything, both at the office and at the home, and they need help from their significant others (I’ll be gender-neutral here).  But I think we need to approach it differently: men need to step it up at home.  Time use surveys indicate that women still spend almost twice as much time as men caring for household members or performing household chores.  At the same time, men report spending more time on leisure and socializing than their female counterparts do.  That seems problematic, if we want to strive for any semblance of gender equality.  I don’t think it’s at all that women need to stay home to be happy: it’s that their partners need to help out at home.  If that time use were more evenly matched, I suspect women would feel less like they had too much on their plates, and more like they were moving towards a meaningful work/life balance.

It’s been said that feminism failed women by making it seem like we need to have it all, when that’s not entirely possible.  It’s been said that having it all is, at best, a privileged idea, and at worst, utterly out of reach.  But I’m not sure that’s true.  I’m not sure that feminism led us down a path that sets women up to feel like failures.  Rather, I think feminism simply has yet to achieve its goal of making things truly equal.  If our true goal is to untangle ourselves from the notions of gender roles designated by a male-dominated system, then we need to fight not only the norms that kept women out of the workplace, but the norms that discourage men from doing laundry and changing diapers as well.

Women are often reluctant to share in these household responsibilities, or to insist upon male partners picking up the slack at home when work is getting to be a lot.  A large part of this is still Patriarchy-based socialization: if women are still being taught that the home is their responsibility, that it’s the mother’s job to care for the children, that it’s the wife’s job to keep the home in order, then women are likely to feel like they’ve failed in some way by needing to burden-share these responsibilities.  And at the same time, if men internalize those same messages, they’re less likely to feel it’s their job to help.  On top of that, if our society continues to treat care labor and housework as if it is not valuable-~-as illustrated through lower salaries for those who do this work professionally and disparaging rhetoric regarding this work in popular discourse-~-then it is likely going to be difficult for us to motivate any sort of change.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we need to treat housework like it matters, or we’ll never get society to accept that all genders need to be responsible for it.

We’re still a ways away from “having it all”, but I, for one, am not yet ready to throw in the towel and say we need to have women get back to their kitchens so men can bring home the bacon (also, what kind of allegedly healthy diet only consists of this bacon they’re bringing home?).  If men and women alike are going to work in the labor market, then men and women alike may need to start sharing more responsibilities at home…and that’s something both women and men need to put effort towards encouraging.  Like Suzanne Venker’s argument, we’re about halfway there…but we could do a lot more to make it.

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~ by Randi Saunders on January 27, 2014.

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