Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Further Thoughts on Women’s Empowerment

In my last post, I uploaded the text of a speech I gave last Friday at a women’s empowerment luncheon at St. Thomas University. I was limited to ten to fifteen minutes for speaking, however, and so there was much that I wish I could have included that I didn’t have the chance to say on the topic of balancing work and family life. I thought I’d include some of those details now.

The subject has been much on my mind of late. Though I don’t have any (human) children, I have had an avalanche of bad luck in the last couple of years with my pets, health crises and losses that have more than tugged at what little professional attention I have. Moreover, my father’s recent full retirement last year, which I mentioned at the end of my speech, has really thrown the whole family into disorder. His inability to adjust to life at home—scratch that: the confrontation with the fact that he had no life at home to retire to after a life of unchecked workaholism, has really opened my eyes to the necessity of building a balanced life before it is too late.

And then there is the return of Educating Rita to the syllabus. It’s not the first time I’ve started my English composition and literature class with this film, but it had been a while. I thought I’d bring it back this year, which is also the thirtieth anniversary of the film’s release (the film is based on the 1981 play of the same name by Willy Russell, who also wrote the screenplay). The story, somewhat of a retelling of Pygmalion, involves the quest of the main character, Rita, to go to an Open University program to study literature. She is a working-class young woman, and sees this chance at an education as a way of “finding herself” and living a more fulfilled life. It’s a wonderful way to start an introductory literature class, since one can only hope that students might be infected by Rita’s enthusiasm for books, or at least be better able to understand what a literary education might offer apart from three required credits.

It’s also just a damn fine movie, one of those that always yields a little something more the more times you watch it. I saw it for the first time in the theaters when it came out. I was only ten years old, and who knows what effect it might have had on me. Since then I’ve seen it countless times. At first I identified with Rita as a student, and now I identify with Frank, her tutor. This last time I saw it, however, I was really struck by the pressure Rita gets to have a baby. She’s married, and twenty-six, and so it’s expected. I’ve always read it as a common expectation given her class. None of her family sees any value in the kind of education Rita wants; their definition of happiness is work that pays enough to sustain a family, and the joy of “eight different kinds of beer” at the local pub.

This last time, however, I saw the situation with more clarity. It’s not so much that her family believes that once Rita has a baby she’ll realize the happiness to be found in that, and abandon the fruitless search for a kind of happiness they can’t understand. Rather, it’s a form of control. The relentless pressure to have a baby her family exerts is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that having one will tie her down and so take up her time and energies that she will have no choice but to give up her studies. It’s a threat Rita understands, which is why she secretly continues taking birth control pills months after she’s told her husband, Denny, that she’s stopped.

Maybe my new, darker reading of this situation was colored by having coincidentally seen Life Happens, which I mentioned in my speech, more or less around the same time. As I said in the talk, it’s the story of two young women, one of whom has a baby. The entire conflict of the film is the struggle of the new mother, Kim, to keep some semblance of her former, pre-baby life intact while still being able to be a mother, even though she seems to be blessed in a variety of ways many new mothers are not. For one thing, the baby is unusually quiet, well-behaved, and healthy. She carries him around on one of those papoose contraptions, and he doesn’t so much as squirm. I’ve seen chihuahuas who put up more of a transportation challenge than this kid does. Furthermore, she has a job, and doesn’t seem to be in any sort of dire economic struggle. Finally, she lives with two roommates, who could potentially help her with her son.

The problem is that no one wants to help her. Her roommates are resentful of any time she asks that they take care of her son, and the message of the film is that Kim must learn to “take responsibility” for her child herself. Her boss is such a total witch that she pitches a fit when Kim arrives at work with her baby strapped to her back. She threatens to fire her if she ever does it again, and refuses to support her in her idea for a new business.

Kim’s story might have been Rita’s story had Rita caved in to the pressure to have a child. The message young women are getting is not that they have choice, but that they must choose, which is not quite the same. An ultimatum is not a choice, and the message of a film such as Life Happens is that if you “choose” to be a mother, every other choice is off the table: dating, friends, work—whoosh! Gone.

It’s a severe punishment, to say the least. I had another relevant experience around the same time, during the first week of classes. I was already about fifteen minutes into class when a woman walked in with two children, a girl about seven and a boy about four. She did not ask if she could bring them with her—she just sat down in the back of the class with them. I was a little miffed at the lack of courtesy, but I regularly allow my students to bring their children to class as long as they ask first and the children behave, and so I let it go. These kids were louder than any I had allowed before, however. You could hear them all throughout my lecture, talking to each other as they colored some pictures they had brought.

One never realizes how much one talks about sex until one is in front of a couple of kids. I was introducing the concept of cultural studies to my students, and I found myself embroiled in a discussion of Twilight. I wanted to make the point that although it isn’t “great literature,” it is nevertheless a text that reveals a lot about us from a cultural studies perspective, especially about the sexuality of teenagers. Every time I would have said “Edward and Bella having sex,” I substituted “Edward and Bella making whoopee.” Other times I have had children in my class, I’ve warned the adult that I won’t censor myself on their account, and that has been part of the agreement. This time, however, there was no such previous agreement, and damned if the little girl wasn’t paying attention, which had also never happened before. I was trying to get my students to understand the concept of the canon, and when I asked whom they thought was the greatest writer who ever lived (hoping they’d say Shakespeare, which would lead to a discussion of Dead [white, male] Poets), the little girl shot her hand up and yelled “Me!”

I never saw that woman again, or her kids. By the next class meeting the class had been canceled due to low enrollment (alas, if only the kids had registered . . .). I admit I breathed a sigh of relief even while bemoaning the loss of $2K. She’d been late, she’d made a huge breach in classroom protocol without so much as an apology, and she’d spent the entire class with one ear on me and another on those kids. What kind of a student could she possibly be? Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t enjoy flunking students or being demanding. I had foreseen a semester-long struggle with a fraught woman and a pair of rowdy kids in the back of the class I wouldn’t have the heart to throw out.

I am deeply ashamed now of my selfish reaction.

Who was that poor woman? She seemed older—I wouldn’t be surprised if those had been her grandchildren instead of her children, which means there are two fraught and beleaguered women in this story. Or maybe she was just one of those women who bought into the idea of having children late in life, when she’s “established,” so that it will be “easier” to take care of them.

What a crock of shit.

The truth is she, or her daughter, had no place for those children. The public schools were out for a “teacher workday,” and so these kids had no place to be. Whose responsibility were they? Let’s first look at this question from our current point of view. They are the mother’s, no? She should have arranged for appropriate childcare. If she couldn’t, then she should have stayed home and taken care of them, instead of burdening us with them, impinging on our rights as child-free people to live freely and quietly. And, if she could neither arrange for adequate childcare nor staying home, then maybe she shouldn’t have had them in the first place.

One of the great ironies of the widespread use of effective birth control and the legalization of abortion is that it has made the “choice” to have a child seem downright ornery. Though these developments may have somewhat freed women from the unfair double standard and allowed them to have sexual lives outside of marriage without the threat of unwanted pregnancy, they have burdened those women who “choose” to have children with an unusual notion of responsibility. You’ve made your crib, now lie in it, we seem to think.

Well, if it takes a village to raise a child, then the whole village should be responsible for him or her as well. Why do schools let out hours before offices and factories and other workplaces do, while we bemoan the fact that children aren’t learning enough and need to spend more time in school? Why must workplaces have ramps and elevators and special parking spaces for the disabled, but not so much as a small room with a nanny for the mothers who work there? The other day on Facebook someone was circulating a story about companies who are now including “nap rooms” for their sleep-deprived employees. This is yet another effort to squeeze out the last drop of a worker’s lifeblood on the job, something that’s already anti-family, anti-woman, but also a slap in the face. Now you can nap at work, but your baby can’t.

Another stupid irony. If mothers could have their children cared for safely, preferably somewhere close enough to check in on them when they wanted, they’d be the most productive workers in the world. There should be babies in boardrooms, in offices, and, yes, in classrooms. Looking back on that first day of class, how bad was it having those kids there? My students actually strained to listen to me. Hell, that’s never happened before! I’ve lectured through furniture being moved on the floor above, through construction outside the window, through the sound of a movie being played next door. I’ve had my students distracted by their laptops, their phones, and each other. I’ve had grown students I’ve had to silence for happily chatting in the back of the classroom as if they were in third grade. Maybe if they’d been taught to behave in public with adults, instead of constantly being sequestered with other children, they’d have known better by the time they got to college.

We all need to take responsibility for the care and raising of children. We all need to adjust our behaviors to suit them, to include them, as much as possible, in our world. To allow anyone who wants to the freedom to have a child without getting the leper treatment. Yet another irony is how much lip service we pay to the wonders of children. Ask anyone about children and gold stars will shoot out of their mouths. They’re our future, our hope, blah, blah, blah. But when it comes to the crying, the squirming, the running around, the endless questions—you know, the hard part—well, then, that’s the mother’s job.

Maybe mom wants other jobs, too, and we have to free her up, not by making her “choose” one way or another, but by supporting her and sharing some of the burdens of childcare. If anyone should start the ball rolling, it should be women. To go back to Life Happens, it’s horrible that Kim’s boss, the one who threatens to fire her for bringing her baby to work, is a woman. We need to support one another, as women, for all that women can and choose to do, not divide into castes like some horrible nightmare out of a Margaret Atwood novel.

To return to myself, I should have been more supportive of that poor woman who had to drag those kids along to her first day of class, instead of rolling my eyes and thinking only about myself and my hardship, which amounted to projecting my voice a little more and making a few clever substitutions in my language. In fact, looking back, some of my best students have been mothers. Young women who for one reason or another had children while in college, and, far from having that cripple them, were thriving. They knew, better than the slew of Hello-Kitty-iPhone-cover toting princesses who spend more time on their hair than on their papers, what it takes to succeed. They organized their time and knew what was important. They got it done.

But at what cost?

After that first day of class, the woman with the kids told the little girl to show the teacher what she had done. She came up to me and handed me her coloring, a jumble of blue and red I couldn’t really make out. “It’s beautiful,” I said, “A+!” She left the classroom skipping.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

On Women's Empowerment

It's been a long time since I've posted on this blog, and I thought I'd take this opportunity to try to reinvigorate it. Below is the text of a speech I gave last Friday at a women's empowerment luncheon hosted by the Student Government Association at St. Thomas University. I was asked to speak on the subject of balancing work and family, and it brought on some serious soul-searching.

I would like to begin by thanking Ashley Perez & Laura Safstrom and all the members of the SGA for asking me to be here today. I must admit I’m surprised to have been asked—although anyone who has been my student knows that I am a self-described feminist and I care deeply about women’s issues, I don’t see myself as someone who has managed to balance work and family life in a successful way. How can I speak to you on this topic?

At 40, I suppose I now have the experience and credibility to be called a “successful woman.” I have been teaching for two decades, and in my classes I always try to confront women’s issues as much as possible, even if that means creating hostility in a generation that by and large sees itself as having gone beyond the gender struggles that defined the 1970’s and 80’s, when I grew up. I have a long list of publications—some of which could be described as feminist—that make me seem like a successful writer. As many of you know, I have a successful marriage to an equal partner who also would call himself a feminist if he were here, instead at home taking care of our sick dog. Moreover, I have achieved all of these achievements as a first-generation immigrant Latina, a feat in and of itself.

The truth, however, as the great philosopher Obi-Wan Kenobi put it, depends greatly on your point of view. From a less optimistic viewpoint, the successes I have just enumerated are a product of creative presentation, the kind one often does on résumés. If someone had told me, when I was a college student, that at 40 I’d be working part-time and relying on my husband’s salary for survival, I’d have died of mortification. The plan was different. My goal was to marry, yes, but always to be economically independent. That demanded a stable, economically viable career, but I also wanted one that would give me the time to pursue writing, and that is how I came up with teaching. In other words, I wanted it all: a successful career, personal fulfillment, and a rich family life.

That was the ideal, but the reality was that I made a series of choices that prioritized family and emotional life over career development. I use the word choice deliberately, because it is descriptive of the brand of feminism that became the legacy of my generation, women who reached adulthood in the late 80s and early 90s. Though the idea of choice feminismbasically, the notion that women should be free to choose whatever lifestyle they wish, whether that means staying at home and being a mother, pursuing a career, or some combination thereof, without being told which choice is “best” by a prescriptive social agendahas been in circulation for some time. It is a carryover from the discourse of abortion, which began to use the term “pro-choice” to avoid the use of the more negative “pro-abortion.” Yet, it was not until 2005, in Linda Hirshman’s American Prospect article, “Homeward Bound,” that the term “choice feminism” became a commonplace of feminist lingo. Ironically, in that article, Hirshman bemoans the choices women were making at the time, women who had reached the pinnacles of education and privilege only to quit working as soon as they became mothers. According to Hirshman, women were making terrible mistakes, abandoning the hard-won rights of earlier feminists in their retreat to the home. These were the same women who, two years earlier, had been dubbed the vanguard of the “opt-out revolution,” the term used by Lisa Belkin in her New York Times article of the same name to describe this phenomenon. While Belkin ended her article on a positive note, suggesting that women would transform the workplace with their point of view into a less demanding structure that would eventually allow both men and women to lead more balanced lives between work and family, Hirshman sounded a note of alarmwomen were going backwards, abandoning the public sphere and losing the political and economic clout that had enabled choice feminism in the first place.

Hirshman urged women to remember what Betty Friedan called the feminine mystique, the syndrome she explains in the seminal 1963 work that explored the limitations of an exclusively domestic life for women. While crediting the feminist movement for having opened the doors of the workplace to women, Hirshman condemned it for quitting before it successfully redesigned family life. Women weren’t quitting the workplace because they were freely “choosing” the domestic sphere, but rather because they were too exhausted by the now-proverbial second shift. The egalitarian home, where both men and women shared the responsibilities of keeping house and raising children equally, had failed to happen, and in validating the choice to stay at home, the philosophy of choice feminism had preempted the discussion over whether the unequal division of labor was fair or not.

To address this situation, Hirshman offered 3 very concise recommendations: “Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don't put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.”

What this meant was, first of all, that women should stop fooling around with liberal arts curriculums that only led to low-paying, limited opportunities in academic and artistic fields. Instead, women should use their college experience to prepare for work. She wrote, “Feminist organizations should produce each year a survey of the most common job opportunities for people with college degrees, along with the average lifetime earnings from each job category and the characteristics such jobs require. . . . The survey would ask young women to select what they are best suited for and give guidance on the appropriate course of study.”

Second, once ready to pursue work, women should stop prioritizing fulfillment or meaningful social service in favor of jobs that make money. She wrote, “Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family.”

This leads to her third point, family. Here, she was also very specific, recommending that a woman should marry not just someone who has an egalitarian view of gender, but ideally a much younger or older man. Why? A much younger man, or perhaps an artistic type, will not have a competing work agenda. If it comes to choosing one career to put on the chopping block for the sake of home and family, a woman in a superior economic positionthat is, married to a younger man who has not yet established himself as much as she has or an artistic type who doesn’t have economic supremacy over herwill get to keep her career while the man gives up his. Conversely, a well-established, older man will have enough money to pay for help, maids and nannies who can free the woman to continue working. The worst bet is an equal partner: “If you both are going through the elite-job hazing rituals simultaneously while having children, someone is going to have to give,” she wrote. Once done finding the ideal partner, she finally recommended having only one child, to ease the burden of child-rearing without missing out entirely.

Practical advice, to be sure, but no way to live, if you ask me. Except for the single-child policy, I broke all her rules, relentlessly pursuing a career in the dire liberal arts, despite at one point having been a well-rounded student who I’m sure could have succeeded in a more lucrative field. The scant four years that separate my husband and I meant, nevertheless, that when I met him he was at the end of his studies while I was only at the beginning of mine, and so he got his degree and his job before I did, making the development of my own career at first economically secondary and then eventually simply economically irrelevant. Though we never got around to having that first child, much less a second, we did have one, then two, then three, and eventually four elderly parents whose care demands that we stay in Miami, where my choices, so to speak, have been limited to either part-time work or switching careers altogether.

What was I to have done instead? Joined the ranks of the millions, both men and women, who make good money but hate their jobs? Passed on the rare opportunity of sharing my life with someone who loves me, understands me, and shares my interests and values because he posed too much of a threat in the competitive job market?

Perhaps I didn’t have the necessary mettle to martyr myself to the feminist cause, to make inroads or at least toe the line for the women who followed. I prefer to think, however, that among the limited field of choices at my disposal, I made those choices that would make me happy not as a woman, but as a human being. I believe that if I had been faced with a wider field of choices, I would have chosen differently. Both Hirshman and Belkin were right on one note: the working world is not only at odds with family life, it is hostile to it. Where both of these writers were shortsighted is in assuming that only one of these spheres is in need of revision, when in reality it’s both.

Today I hear my women students say things like “I really want to be a doctor, but nursing is a better career for women,” or “I really wanted to be a plastic surgeon like my father, but he says nursing is a better career for a woman,” or “a woman should have the right to pursue her career in her twenties, but give it up in her thirties, because children need their mother.” They are already compromising, and who can blame them? The way we have come to think of work is exclusive of any other aspect of life. No sacrifice seems too great to offer at the altar of The Career. Relocate to Uzbekistan today and back to Wyoming tomorrow? Sure, no problem. Put in a 60-hour work week to impress your boss and get a promotion so you can work an extra 5 or 10 hours more? Sure, no problem. Drive for two hours every day or maybe even spend the work-week in a hotel in a different city and then drive home on the weekends? Sure, no problem.

This concept of success and dedication demands the turning over of your entire life, a proposition that should be unacceptable to both men and women. We bemoan the loss of community and family life, of spirituality, and even of our health in this society, and all these losses are directly attributable to a concept of work that demands a slavish dedication to ever-diminishing wages. It’s a trap. For every stay-at-home mom baking cupcakes and going mad trying to unleash her creativity by decoupaging the diaper pail, there is a leave-the-home dad putting in 60+ hours a week at work who barely knows his children and is beginning to wonder why he ever got married in the first place.

Conversely, we need to stop pretending that home and family are a separate planet where only women belong. The 2011 film Life Happens is a wonderful example of what we are doing to young women. The film opens on one fateful night where two women in their early twenties have a fight over the last condom in their apartment. Sure enough, in the next scene, one of themthe loserhas a baby. The rest of the film is about how the new mother, Kim, adjusts to life with a baby. Her relationship to her friend, the winner of the fateful condom who continues to live the life of a twentysomething party girl, is compromised, because no one wants to date a girl with a baby and so she can’t participate in the party scene anymore. She nearly gets fired one day when she can’t find anyone to take care of her son and takes him with her to work. Her boss, a middle-aged woman intent on appearing younger, hates children and threatens to fire her if she ever does it again. The father of the baby leaves her because, as a surfer, a baby doesn’t fit his lifestyle.

The film ends with the typical happy Hollywood resolutions, but in between it shows what happens to young women who dare to have children: they must give up their lives in exchange. No one wants to deal with babies, and so they become the sole responsibility of the mother. We don’t want babies in restaurants, even though between the big-screens and the drunken screaming, no one has been able to have a conversation in a restaurant since TGI Friday’s first opened in 1965. We don’t want babies at church or at the movies, because if they cry they might interrupt the ringing cell phones. And we certainly don’t want babies at work or in classrooms, because they might distract us from Facebook and Twitter. We just don’t seem to want babies anywhere, and no wonder: to have a baby is to exit the world, to become an outcast. You can hang out only with other mothers, and in designated spaces. This isn’t choice; it’s segregation.

The aphorism holds that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. One way to address this issue is with education. We need to reinvigorate women’s studies programs, to study women’s history, women’s literature, and even women’s biology. We need to teach a new generation of women why Woolf wanted a room of her own, why Nora leaves Torvald, and how it is that Minnie Wright wound up strangling her husband.

Had I not studied these women’s lives myself, I might not be able to understand what my parents are going through right now. My mother was a pioneer of the so-called mommy-track. She received an Ed. D. from the University of Havana and worked as an educator in Cuba until she left in 1969, at the age of 40. She had me late, at 43, and since my birth coincided with the move to the US, she gave up working to raise me. Try as I could to keep her employed, however, I was fully grown by the time she was just 63. She’s 83 now, and it’s been 20 years and counting since her most intellectually challenging task has been what to make my father for dinner. She still tears up when she talks about her work in Cuba. Meanwhile, my father has just retired, finally, at 80. He spends his days in bed. Just last week he cried in front of me for the first time. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said. He had been working since he was 14.

These are not women’s issues; these are human issues. What we need as women is no different from what we all need as human beings: balanced, integrated lives, where we have the opportunity to develop every aspect of ourselves and live complete lives. It is only then that we will feel truly empowered.
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