Friday, February 17, 2006

Liberation?

Several women in a Latin American e-mail list that I run (see Cara y Ceca) have raised the complaint that the liberation of women hasn't turned out to be such a great freedom after all and this has left me wondering. One of them went so far as to declare:

We'd be better off back in the age of the caves, when women only had to feed and look after the family. Now we have to be the one who supports it as well and that has consequences.

This is a professional who travels and lives what seems to be a comfortable middle class life. Another adds:

Due to the supposed "liberation," we are more enslaved than before.

A third offers a class analysis:

My experience shows me that the complaints come without doubt first from women of the upper classes, who generally have two maids, about whom they protest that "they are lazybones" as they themselves indulge in navel gazing. Middle class women are more evenhanded. They complain less and have more responsibilities. Lower class women, who don't complain at all, have the worst lot because they work at home and work outside the home while their men spend the day getting drunk. The strangest thing is that if the men leave them, they quickly search (and find) a substitute. What for? To support lazy slugs?

Asked whether the answer is for women to go back to kinder, k├╝che, kirche, they demur. No, that's not it.

So I wonder whether the problem is merely that we've been a little too optimistic. We thought, circa 1972, when it was said that "sisterhood is powerful," that a few good slogans and a few laws and regulations and even a few good magazine articles and movies would change things radically.

But, let's face it, the setup between men and women that existed then had been in place since men left the caves to go hunt and women stayed behind cooking, mending and caring for the young. What are three decades of the second wave of feminism against 100 millenia or so?

In the prevailing pattern, moreover, women have a biological role that is irreplaceable and an emotional and developmental role that I deem essential and also next to impossible to replace.

So long as human reproduction involves gestation within a woman's womb for nine months, I don't see too many ways out of the conundrums that a woman working outside the home inevitably faces: mothering is just a huge responsibility that only a mother can fully discharge. Can a mother do anything else?

The Republicans seem to think so. They're willing to force poor women with infants to drop off the children with day care providers the GOP is unwilling to subsidize and attend "work activities" in order to receive federal aid that fails to lift them out of poverty.

Another exponent of right-wing ideology, none other than Generalissimo Francisco Franco, paid mothers and housewives who stayed home a small State stipend (I think it was a few hundred pesetas monthly) back in the 1950s.

More liberal views in our Western society, and I include Latin America as Western, seem to prescribe women engaging in a balancing act and men occasionally trading places. In the USA, we have the Family and Medical Leave Act, which at least holds a job slot, albeit without pay, for an employee attending to pregnancy or family illness. The house-husband and "Mr. Mom" arose in the 1970s, largely exceptional instances of this option. And, of course, day care.

Let me say something unpopular right up front. I think day care stinks. Care providers are mostly foreign or poor and uneducated women with the same fairly rough and tumble manner in which they were brought up.

I see them in downtown Washington, taking them to Laffayette Park in little carts that remind me of those ridden by prisoners on their ride to the guillotine; there's a cookie-cutter response to every child's question or problem and on the whole an evident desire on the part of the women, to let the little creatures play so they can talk about their dates. The university educated woman who leaves a child in such care is gambling with her child's sanity.

My younger son would have wilted in such care. He was an unusual boy of very inventive ideas that would strained the uncaring adult. For example, at one point he had a very complex set of substitute names for colors: blue was red, red was green, green was turquoise, etc. This changed every week, then every two days, then every day, until it stopped and he adopted the conventional vocabulary.

But I can imagine what would have happened at a day care center. Some young woman with an IQ to match her low pay would have exclaimed, "Speak right! This is blue!" Slap! And he would have gone off to be in a corner. Terrified.

He attends Harvard today. Would he have without university educated parents willing to do without a second income to make sure he was cared for by the person who loved and understood him most? And I have no idea what a single mother in that spot would have done!

But day care isn't the only problem. We simply need to come to grips, as a society, with the reality that motherhood and fatherhood are important roles that can't be delegated and should be supported.

Think about it. We all know that U.S. wages have pretty much stagnated in real terms since 1973. In fact, the average wage in 2004 was 22 percent below what it was in 1973. Is it merely a coincidence that in the intervening three decades the half of the population that used to stay home entered the labor market?

Why is it that our parents were able to support a family on one income and our children barely can on two? We, as a society, simply don't value the unique, unpaid labor of women and don't make it possible for men to share in it more.

I'm far from having "the" answer to such a problem.

Once again, I harken back to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the 1932 vision of a future in which human reproduction took place in industrial laboratories in which society was genetically engineered for harmony and sex was merely a pleasure without consequences. Men and women were precise equals, yet Huxley could not overcome his 1932 prejudices in sketching his characters.

It's a possible future. Otherwise, we're a long way, baby, however long we've already gone.
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