Friday, March 28, 2014

Once upon a time - a brief history of feminism as I see it

Once upon a time, things were relatively simple. Men were the wage-earners, women the caretakers of home and children (or managers of a larger household, in affluent families). The roles were not quite so rigid, of course, and many times a woman would help her father or husband in the family business or in the fields, particularly during the busiest seasons. But generally, he managed the matters without, she focused on those within.

The majority were content. Domestic life gave them busy, innocent occupation, with enough time to refresh themselves, pursue hobbies and crafts, and nurture community life. Some, however, were displeased. They had no inclination to marry and have children, or perhaps they could not. Or they had ambitions which did not tie in with the popuar image of a woman back then. Or perhaps they would have been satisfied with the traditional feminine pursuites for the unmarried, like teaching or nursing, but their family thought it is a disgrace to send a daughter out as a governess. Maybe they noticed injustice in the existing order (because, let's face it, no order is perfect).

This dissatisfied minority, restless, active, generally well-educated and unburdened by petty concerns such as earning their bread, became vocal. 

Fast forward to our times... 

The ideal "balanced life" of the 21-st century: both man and woman are wage-earners. Both have careers. Both share household responsibilities with scrupulous equality. Anything but the bare basics of housekeeping (and sometimes even that) is thrown out of the window. Cooking is abolished in many homes. Children are in daycare or extended school programs many hours in the day, and when they come home, the tired children and overburdened parents are supposed to share a mythical "quality time".

The minority which was never inclined to family life got their fair deal. They are pursuing the glorious careers they could hardly dream of a hundred years ago. They are equal to men, and if anyone says otherwise they will file a lawsuit against him. 

For the majority of people, of course, the situation is different. The majority of women do not have careers. They have jobs. Plain, simple, less than thrilling jobs. A large part of them is a derivative of what a woman would traditionally do in her own home: daycare workers, teachers of various ages, house-care providers. Many are saleswomen or hold administrative jobs - i.e., work that has a lot to do with communication and cooperation, two things women are very good at. It's as if women, despite everything, send the following message out to the world: "if we are told we must do something outside our homes to be considered worthy members of the society, we will choose the more flexible and less stressful option!" - this has little to do with the "glass ceiling" and lack of opportunities, and everything with natural inclinations and priorities. 

Of course, even a part-time job is stressful. Perhaps the woman isn't away from home for as many hours in a day as her husband is, but she is away quite a lot nevertheless. And in most households, it isn't like both spouses share the lot by taking two part-time jobs and dividing the household chores and childcare equally! More often than not, the woman's job is seen as being of secondary importance... because, no offence, it is. If her husband is holding a relatively good and stable position, and she earns significantly less than he does, the family can survive without her income. Also, if she comes home at 3 and her husband at 7, naturally all the household chores fall on her - and naturally, she can't juggle it all as well as she is "supposed" to. When the husband comes home, he finds a drained, exhausted wife and many times, a less-than-perfectly-tended household. 

Feminism has been, in a nutshell, a flip of a coin. Long ago, most people were happy and some were dissatisfied. I'm sorry for those who could not find their place, but surely we, as a society, did not gain from things becoming what they are now, when a minority is happy and proud with its achievments and the majority is struggling with ideals that are impossible to maintain. 

I believe that most women would gladly go back to being housewives if:

1. They could manage on one income. The prevalent notion is that even two average paychecks are barely enough to survive, so how could you do it with only one?! It's true that prices have become, relatively to salaries, much higher. But so have our expectations become higher. It is perfectly possible to manage on one income if a family is willing to undergo the necessary adjustments such as a simpler life and more frugal ways. Of course, there would be no keeping up with the Cohens. But a creative and satisfying life is very much within reach of every family who takes the leap.

Note: the sad prevalence of single mothers is the myth-buster of "you need two paychecks to survive". Somehow no one doubts their ability to raise children on one income. Of course you'll argue that many single mothers receive child support and government aid. Many don't, though. My mother did not, nor did she hold some very lucrative high-paying job. If you are a housewife, you will get a lot of "oh, but how are you managing financially?"; if you are a single mother, no one will blink an eye. This is despite the fact that a housewife generally has more time on her hands than a single mother does, and therefore more ability to contribute to her family's finances in other ways (shopping and cooking frugally, thrift store bargains, creative small business ventures). 

2. It became a socially acceptable choice again. It is very important to women to be approved, validated, accepted. Did I mention communication and cooperation? Men can exist as lone wolves, women can't, not without being miserable. We thrive on approval and it's normal (just have to be careful who we choose to receive it from). This is the reason why girls do so much better than boys in mainstream co-ed schools. The system encourages cooperation, hard work (which often turns to drudgery) and docility more than anything else. It glorifies the average and is extremely harsh on misfits. 

A little anecdote from my school days. Once, a student took pants off in a classroom and flashed a tushy in the face of the teacher. Sounds extreme, I know. But can you guess the gender of the student? That's right, a boy, of course. But I digress.

Currently we live in a community where most women are homemakers. Not the perfect homemakers, but the old simple busy moms and housewives with a bunch of children and a messed-up, lived-in home. The choice is acceptable and therefore comes with social validation in our small community. In the time I have lived here, three more women (out of 13 families) have quit their jobs to stay home.

3. Women could find an alternative source for the satisfaction normally derived from working. Few women get a thrill from the substance of their paid work. But the workplace has become the community they so desperately crave; many have no social interaction outside the family other than with their co-workers. This is especially true in cities, where many do not know their neighbours. 

Other will never dress up or put on some make-up at home. They follow an unspoken House Code that dictates they must wear frayed sweat-pants and a stained T-shirt from junior high. This alone is enough to depress a woman, because we see so much importance in being aesthetically pleased. 

On the other hand, if a group of women dressed up neatly and gathered with their children for some mid-morning activity (like doing some handiwork together while catching up with each other), they would get all the refreshment and none of the stress a job outside the home can bring. 

Naturally I don't wear my best clothes while scrubbing floors or working in the chicken coop. But neither do I wear stuff that's only fit to go in the trash bin. I have good, simple, sturdy and nice-looking work clothes, and nicer things to put on Shabbat and social gatherings.


I realize I have made a lot of generalizations in this post, and so I'm prepared for some "but I'm not like that at all!"s and "you have failed to mention so and so"s. I still believe, however, that what I wrote is true for many women. 


Dafna said...

All good points. We (myself and husband) struggled with this when he was in university and I was not. I was able to get a very good job for a wonderful company that allowed me time off for holiday and family. My husband was ever grateful for this. Now we are able for me not to have to have a work commitment. I am very happy with this. I do believe this is the right way of things.

Rebecca Grider said...

Feminism is just agreeing with the statement that women are entitled to the same human rights as a man. That's it - she is entitled to autonomy and authority over her own choices, her body, her choice of lifestyle.

That's it.

If you agree that a woman should be able to decide for herself if she wants to stay home or go out to work and that choice should not be dictated by the men on her life or societal pressure, then you're a feminist.

marytaylr said...

Yes, yes, yes!

Amica said...

While I agree that many more married women would probably choose to stay and work in the home if they were financially able to survive on one income, I have to disagree with your characterisation of the past. I'm a historian (a career which I find very rewarding, and wouldn't swap for full-time homemaking even if I could), and I have to tell you that the idealised past where most women were happy working at home while their husbands were the wage earners is something that has only ever been true of a minority of women for a short amount of history. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, only the aristocracy (men and women) were able to not work in money making employment. In the industrial revolution, most working class women typically worked outside the home in factories, with children either working alongside them, or being taken care of by older women. In the middle ages, peasant women worked the land alongside their husbands, and middle class women either worked in their husband's or fathers businesses, or as 'femmes soles' - women who ran their own businesses whether married or not. More men in that period ran businesses from the home too. For all expect those with inherited wealth, it would have been impossible to survive on the wage earnings of just one person.

It was only in the Victorian era that the middle classes has sufficient wealth to enable one person to stay at home as a full time home maker, and even then they were usually assisted by servants who were of course lower class women and men who were working outside the home. The practice of a majority of families consisting of a male wage earner and a female homemaker is really only something that happened in the first half of the twentieth century in the western world, and was probably only true for a small majority of families at most.

So, while I support the idea that women should be able to make the choice between a career and being a homemaker, and that the world would be a better place if families could survive on one wage if they choose, the idea that that was how it was in the past is simply not accurate.

Miriam said...

Very well put, Anna!

"Feminism is just agreeing with the statement that women are entitled to the same human rights as a man. That's it - she is entitled to autonomy and authority over her own choices, her body, her choice of lifestyle".

This is the offcial agenda of feminism, imho. Who wouldn't agree with it? However, it goes much deeper... Here's a good article about re-definig the new normal:

SubWife said...

I just wanted to second Amica's comment that your view of the past, with hobbies, ability to refresh, etc, is very idealized and has little to do with realities of the vast majority of women from the past. Up until 100 years ago, the vast majority of the work force was agrarian. Ask anyone who had ever lived on the farm pre modern innovations, and they will tell you that most of the time it was back breaking labor, for both sexes and from a very young age. And hobbies? When I mentioned this to my grandmother, who grew up on a farm, she laughed. What you would consider one, such as sewing or knitting, was a necessary skill for them, often a matter of survival.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you very, very much for this incredibly well-written article. I really needed to read this today. Blessings, Sister. ~ C.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add to Amica's and Subwife's comments that women have always worked outside the home alongside men.
This happened primarily in the fields, but when the majority of the workforce shifted from agrarian to industrial after the first industrial revolution, women could be found doing hard support labor for their husband, fo example working as "hurriers" hauling heavy coal carts through mine shafts in Great Britain, often bringing small children along to help.
Later, piecework in textile areas was a common occupation for a 19th century woman.
Employers stated they preferred to hire women, because they could be "more easily induced to undergo severe bodily fatigue than men".

Women have always undergone heavy labor outside the house, but it wasn't recognised by the society as it was for men.

So the wave of feminism that you referred to didn't force or induced women to work outside the house, but simply demanded for them the same condition that men had always had.


Rebecca Grider said...

Miriam, insinuating that the whole of feminism is represented by extremist views is akin to assuming that all religious people support staining of LBGT persons because of the rambling a of a small subset of people. Anyone can find examples of extremism in any philosophy; those statements usually are not supported by the majority of those who subscribe to it.

My question is thus: how is having the freedom to live your life according at your own volition a bad thing?

Anonymous said...

Have all of you ignorant folks who are attacking Anna's well-written article completely missed a key phrase in the very first paragraph of her article?!! ''many times a woman would help her father or husband in the family business or in the fields, particularly during the busiest seasons.'' Please at least read through an article twice, to check you haven't missed anything, before taking it upon yourselves to criticize. I, for one, will treasure this piece of writing, and print it out and stick it on my fridge. Thankfully, most of us women are not against you Anna, but rather, very grateful, as you are one of the few brave voices out there nowadays, speaking the Truth.

Miriam said...

Rebecca, I don't know if your question was a rhetorical one, but I'll answer anyway :-)

I guess I have to leave G-d out of this answer, because "your own volition" is often opposite to G-d's.

If you are living decently (I mean according the laws around you) according to your own beliefs and values, it is ok as long as you do not force others to follow your style. It's that simple. But there is no real freedom as long as we are having discussions like this... There is no real freedom as long as there's the one-style-fits-all-system being pushed into every home.

I was raised on a farm. I begun driving a tractor at the mature age of 8. I know something about hard work... my mother was always there, doing the hard work_at_home_(on the farm). She taught everything she knew to me. My father had 2 jobs outside the farm and hauling firewood, he was occupied for 1-2 days a week By them. I never felt I lacked something. At the age of 16 I felt ready to have my own family, I knew how to run a household, how to garden, milk cows etc, I knew the seasons; what has to be done when. Hobbies weren't around or even understood as they are today... But we allways had one day a week for rest and recreation, always. There were religious gatherings, picnics By lakeshore, lots of books, bikerides, wandering in the woods, visiting friends, time for your thoughts. It was life in the depths of Finnish countryside in the 60's and 70's.

All that I wanted for my children, too... but the modern cry was and is for education, and so the sad story of my "career" begun. I always felt misplaced, and finally depressed, so I left my "career" and now I am slowly getting myself back, I mean recovering from the ultimate stress the modern standards caused.

No one said staying home as a wife and/or a mother is an easy task. I think no one meant it's just watering some houseplants and dusting your laptop. It's hard work no matter how you look at it. If someone feels she has more time and energy, and wants an outside job, that's ok for me, but please do not say I should do it, too.

I don't know statistics from Israel or US or any other country, but in Finland the mental problems of children has exploded onto our face. There's a big business in taking children into custody. Am I the only one old enough to see the connection, to see the difference between today and 20-30 (not to mention even more) years ago? No one wants to see that maybe stay-at-home mothers really did something good?

I don't mean to blame or insult working moms, no! But I do think the vast majority of them are victims... Victims of ther modern propaganda. All the women who did work outside their homes or farms in the past did it because it was necessary. They did not seek 'fullfilment' in their lives or they did not want to prove they were as good as men, or better. They did not work because they thought someone else is more capable to raise their children. They did not think even little children need expensive hobbies, and it costs money.

I think hobbies are over-rated. Please do not be offended! I don't mean there shouldn't be any nice things in your life, vice versa. But sometimes hobbies become larger than life... everyone should have one, or two, so if you have a family of 4 or 5 ids there a single night everyone is at home at the same time? As Anna said it so well: The Mystical Quality Time. Families should spend time together, so that they can stay together as a family. Husband and wife should have time together, so that they stay as a husband and wife, and so on. If you have a family, you should invest in it, not in yourself aka your hobbies.

But now I feel I have wandered too far... :-)

Mrs. White said...

I printed this out. Very well done!

Mrs. White

Mrs. Anna T said...

Miriam, your comment was very informative, thanks for telling us about your childhood! It sounds like just how I'd have wanted to grow up myself.

My bottom line is this: there will always be some societal norm, some standard. Always. This norm should be to the benefit of the *majority of people*. I believe that the norm of women working outside their homes - especially mothers - does NOT benefit the majority.

I realize that always, always some individual will feel crushed by the norms. I have been on that side too, and it hurts. But I still maintain that feminism did not do make women happier or families more stable.

Rebecca Grider said...

I think you have misunderstood me. I did not say that you should work or that you should stay home - only that whether you do or not so your own choice - which is the essence of feminism - the ability of a woman to make the choices that govern her life on her own terms. Women should have autonomy over her own life, her own body, etc. I can't say it in simpler terms.

It's more complicated than the choice between staying home and working outside the home. I'm also thinking if women on developing countries being forced to marry someone not of their choice, honor killings, forced marital rape, etc. feminism isn't just about giving women the ability to hold down a job and placing children on daycare. It is also about fighting the systems that allow women to be treated as chattel, as property. How exactly so that a bad thing?

Mrs. Anna T said...

Rebecca, I don't believe embracing feminism in its modern form is the only or even advisable answer to the violation of women's rights/human rights. By the way, I strongly believe that where women are treated as chattel, men are as well, though perhaps in a different way. In Muslim society - and I grew up in close proximity to it - women might be treated like commodities, forced into arranged marriages, etc... but then men are also treated as commodities - by more powerful men. There is a brutal hierarchy, and if you think feminism can change it, I fear you are misled.

It has never been this way for Jews. Women always had their rights and always enjoyed far greater liberties and higher literacy rates than women outside the Jewish community. We never needed feminism to come and "save" us, but it grew from within us. I am convinced it is the result of combining the typical Jewish desire for "tikkun olam" ("fixing the world") with some skewed education.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anna,
I don't mean to be polemic, but I think you must consider that you (and me, and all of us with access to internet and even enough education to work it) are speaking from an immensely privileged point of view.
Perhaps you feel that feminism means pressuring women to work outside the house instead of staying at home with the children, and you feel that the latter is better.
Fair enough, but please consider that having the possibility to CHOOSE to do so, and the possibility of having one income to sustain a family is a huge privilege, and it's not like that for everyone... in fact it's a matter of choice for only the tiniest minority of women.
As Rebecca said, there are horrible crimes being carried out against women in the world: violence, rape as a wheapon of war (for example as it's happening in Congo), child brides dying after the first wedding night because of internal wounds from marital rape, female genital mutilation... you name it.
Perhaps in those areas also men don't have it much better, but the violence, physical or psychological, that is sistematically carried out against women is uncomparable, because the whole society is structured to silence those voices.
When you are speaking against feminism, you are speaking in favour of a system of values that doesn't consider women as people, but as something inferior and therefore to be treated as property.
I think that having more equality in the world is necessary to raise awareness and eventually help to improve the living conditions for women in the whole world (although feminism is different in every culture and it would be very conceited to think that "one size fits all").
Perhaps for us privileged western women the worst thing that can happen is being frowned upon by friends for our choices, and i really wish that was the worst case for everyone. Unfortunately it isn't so.
When you complain about the difficulties of finding a group of friends to do handiwork together in mid-morning, or if you think that you don't get enough social validation for your activities, please consider that that's not the worst thing that can happen in a society.

Sarah said...

Anonymous said: "Have all of you ignorant folks who are attacking Anna's well-written article completely missed a key phrase in the very first paragraph of her article?!! ''many times a woman would help her father or husband in the family business or in the fields, particularly during the busiest seasons.'' Please at least read through an article twice, to check you haven't missed anything, before taking it upon yourselves to criticize. "

I did read that part of the article. The point that I am making is that women in the past did far more than just help their husbands and fathers - they routinely had jobs outside of the house and owned and operated their own businesses in great numbers. Nor am I criticising Anna's or anyone else's decision to stay home if that is what they want to do; I am, however, saying that it's historically incorrect to say that's what most women did in the past. I'm not at all 'ignorant' about this - I have a PhD in history and expertise in gender history in particular.


Sarah/Amica said...

I just realised that I signed the last comment with my real name, and the previous one to which I was referring with the name I usually use on the internet - sorry for the confusion!

Kari said...

I love this.

I am technically living the modernist feminist "dream." I have my master's degree, and I work in a job I truly love. I'm only required to work on campus 30 hours a week, and I am off 4 months a year. My employer is family-friendly, and I have wonderful child care. I truly enjoy my job and feel like I am making a difference in my career.

And I am utterly exhausted. Even though my hours are fewer than some, I still do not have near enough time to run my household. I have had to lower my standards for nutrition and housework in order to spend as much time as I can with my daughter. I am often sleep-deprived because I save everything I can for when she is asleep and work late into the evening. It takes all of my energy to make sure we are all fed (and I hate my reliance on fast-food and processed foods) and clothed.

I work because we cannot survive on my husband's income. We tried. It was, literally, impossible. No amount of frugality would save us. So, we had to do what we had to do. We make the best of it. My daughter is loved and secure. I spend a lot of time with her, and, four months out of the year, I can be a stay-at-home mom.

But if I have the chance...yes. I'd drop everything and stay home. It's impossible to have it all.

Helen said...

I agree that the whole point of feminism is that we have the choice. As Rebecca Grider said - "Feminism is just agreeing with the statement that women are entitled to the same human rights as a man. That's it - she is entitled to autonomy and authority over her own choices, her body, her choice of lifestyle."

However, sadly for many, many women that choice isn't there. As Sarah, a fellow historian, said, in the past the majority of women worked outside the home - they had no choice, as the family needed the money they earned. The same is true now in most of the world. I believe that the difference between the majority and those of us who live in the west and who have had the chance of education is that we have a little more control over the type of jobs we do. Yes, many are low paid, boring drudge type jobs, but they mean we can make a contribution to the home finances, and we have some freedom in choosing which variety of boring drudge type jobs we do, and using the ability to work part time we can fit them better around our family responsibilities. Feeling that you are not making a financial contribution can be soul destroying for many women (I know, I've been in that position) and seeing your husband/partner working himself into the ground while you are at home can be truly detrimental to a happy relationship, as resentment can build up on both sides.

The value which society places on "work" goes much deeper than the dissatisfaction some women feel with regard to the use of the word "housewife". However much many of us would prefer to work solely in the home it is impossible, I think, to change hundreds of years of societal norms overnight. I really feel that expecting society to give you credit for staying at home and doing what you enjoy (albeit the really important job of raising children) is expecting the impossible!

During the course of my life I've done all 3 variants of the work/home thing. Full time work, part time work, home full time. We took early retirement (yes, I know we are lucky to be able to do so), and I'm home all the time now, but work hard keeping the place up to scratch and trying to earn a little money with my husband growing olives. I still miss the world of work, though, with the social interactions it involved, and feeling "part" of society.