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Our Feminism, Ourselves

My husband doesn’t cook. I do. When feminists—particularly older feminists—learn these facts, they frequently give Ted shit. If I’m in earshot, I issue my standard defense: Ted doesn’t like to cook. He doesn’t know how to cook. I do know how, and I do like it. His kitchen contribution is doing the dishes. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly piqued, I add that, as the primary wage-earner in our family, Ted puts food on the table in the figurative sense. What I never say is, “Really, it’s none of your damn business,” although I often think it.

This, I believe, is the fundamental issue at the heart of the ongoing controversy over “choice” feminism: To what extent is the personal political? Even when I want nothing more than to be left in peace by my more doctrinaire sisters, I cannot deny the validity of this question. If I think about my own domestic arrangements, for example, I feel that Ted and I have pretty much worked things out to our own satisfaction. (Well, my own satisfaction: Ted is significantly more filth-averse than I am, so he ends up doing most of the cleaning; perhaps this state of affairs will look more equitable when we add childcare to the mix.) But am I being a bad feminist by assuming the traditionally feminine chore of cooking? Will I be setting a bad example for my child? I am not asking these questions facetiously; I really do feel that they are worthy of consideration. Is feminism fulfilled when a woman does whatever she wants to do—whether that’s become a stockbroker, an astronaut, or a housewife—or does it require that we organize our own lives in such a way that we help make such choices possible for all women? What do we owe to ourselves, and what do we owe to each other?

I ask these questions of myself a lot, and I’m asking them today because of a piece in yesterday’s New York Times. In it, Patricia Cohen discusses the ongoing debate sparked by Linda Hirshman’s American Prospect article, “Homeward Bound”. This piece is, of course, old news in the blogosphere, but the conversation it has generated is hardly over. The crux of the argument is whether or not participants in the “opt-out revolution” can call themselves feminists, or whether their decision to leave the public sphere in favor of private life is a sign of the end of feminism.

Underscoring this question is a more fundamental question about feminism itself: What, exactly, has it achieved. Cohen points out that women have made significant strides over the past 50 years, and that’s undeniable. But she also highlights the fact that feminists are still agitating over the same issues that got them exercised and mobilized half a century ago. This suggests a real lack of progress to me, and I think the anxiety that “choice” feminism generates is fear that, as long as a substantial number of women are happily opting out of the workplace, it’s harder for women who want a career—a more public life—to opt in. This is, certainly, something that I worry about while I’m staying at home.

My biggest issue with “choice” feminism, though, has nothing do with the decisions I’ve made in my own life. It is, rather, that “choice” feminism implies options that remain unrealistic for a large numbers of women. Very few single mothers can choose to stay at home with their kids—in fact, welfare reform has made that a near-impossibility. In an unfortunate little twist, many of these women forced into work are the same low-wage workers who make it possible for other, more fortunate women to pursue their careers. That is to say, feminism has hardly succeeded in changing our collective, cultural idea of women’s work. Women haven’t relinquished their domestic duties; at best, they’ve simply outsourced them.

It’s all very complicated. On the one hand, I want to be able to live my own life and to afford other women that same right. On the other hand I’m always a little shocked and disappointed when a woman of my age, education, and coolness-level takes her husband’s name. The reasons why my husband is the member of our family with a fulltime job have everything to do with geography and our differing vocations, but I still feel kind of weird about our seemingly traditional arrangement. I will soon be a stay-at-home mom, but I can’t imagine that I will ever think of myself as one. What does all this say about me, and what does it say about my commitment to feminism?

I don’t have any answers. I will offer this, for whatever it’s worth: While I was relaxing in the recliner, drinking tea and reading Cohen’s article, my husband was vacuuming cat hair off the sofa.

January 16, 2006 | Permalink


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