In December 2005, American Prospect published Homeward Bound, one of the best articles I’ve ever read on feminism and the women’s movement outside of The Feminine Mystique. The article discusses the “choice” movement and the opt-out “revolution” and generally takes the perspective that it’s not much of a choice for women to be choosing the same undervalued sphere that they’ve been forced into for millennia, against the spheres of external power, intellectual pursuits, and wage-earning that men have traditionally claimed.
Great as liberal feminism was, once it retreated to choice the movement had no language to use on the gendered ideology of the family. Feminists could not say, “Housekeeping and child-rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting and not socially validated. Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power, and honor.”
Here’s the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, “A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.”
One of my female friends responded:
who defines the word “flourish” here? and by whose definition do we judge whether or not someone is “flourishing”? and why on earth would the home be called “this less-flourishing sphere”? who allowed the family to be so devalued and debased that it less valuable than other realms of activity (um… The Man)? surely that is not every one’s definition: not everyone’s value. i do not allow anyone to tell me that the family is a less valuable sphere, and therefor my choice to assign it to myself makes me just as unable to acheive “full human flourishing” as women who have it put upon them. that’s crap. we’ve let this society’s values dictate for us the value of the family sphere. THAT was a mistake in old school feminism. (in my humble opinion).
I think you can judge whether someone is flourishing or not by whether they’re left with feelings of hopelessness, of worthlessness… of getting divorced after 30 years of service to spouse and children… by being neurotic, by being on atavan and prozac and zoloft and whatever else. The author, along with Betty Fredian and similar, talks about “flourishing” as having the latitude to exercise one’s mind and one’s talents to the fullest extent of one’s capacities. They make the judgement — in its capitalistic, western-individual style of morality — that the physical work of homelife and the mental exercise of raising children, day in and day out, in the modern American nuclear family, for ~15 years, is not enough to fulfill adult mental and social capacities, as evidenced by 60 years of watching women do it and then become psychotic. Because then the kids leave and you are left with 20 years remaining in life, having spent the previous 20 doing not much more than reasoning with toddlers. They’re saying that the evidence points to everyone talking about how fulfilling of a choice this is — and it just turns out not to be after 15 or 20 years. And they’re trying to give women the language and the moral authority to avoid the same old trap.
Isn’t there something funny going on when we have (1) a many-thousands-year-old tradition of telling women that their only acceptable sphere is the home; (2) a lot of prejudices against women taking the helm in the valued spheres; (3) almost zero men ever actually making the decision to handicap their wage-earning ability to raise children or take care of housework?
How often is it that the woman (versus the man) hamstrings her earning potential and her ability to support herself, by quitting her job in order to raise children? Or, forget the capitalist earning potential — how often does she give up a passion or a dream because she’s not getting 8 hours of sleep tonight and has to toilet train the toddler and is presumed to manage the household? Is it not almost exclusively women who can mentally infantilize themselves because somewhere, in the back of their mind, they always have the socially acceptable recourse of marriage? Isn’t it still mostly men who grow up with the mental gravitas that they will always have to look to themselves and be their own last recourse? I’m not saying that this is the idealized state of the world — to be able to only count on yourself, without trust or fallback when shit happens. But I’m saying it’s gendered and I’m saying it’s bad that it’s gendered. Why is it still moderately radical and weird to choose not to have kids — it is — or for the man to work part time while the woman is a fulltime career behemoth?
The “choice” is still only really left to women, therefore gendered, therefore suspect — the “choice” isn’t one that men get to make. (Hell, maybe if you’re both in icky deadend jobs, you each want to cut back because family life is more interesting and fulfilling than whatever you’re doing.)