Saturday, September 23, 2006

Feminist: it's wrong to stay home

Gretchen Ritter, a feminist academic, doesn't like the idea of women staying at home to look after their children. She tells us that it's actually wrong for women to do so, for the following reasons.

It denies men the chance to be involved fathers ... What does it mean when fathers are denied the opportunity to nurture their kids in ways that are as important as their work? What do the children miss when they don't have fathers changing their diapers, picking them up from school ... On both sides, the answer is too much.

There are three flaws in this opening argument. First, men in traditional families don't miss out on the chance to be involved fathers. A recent major survey found that in more traditional households where men are the main breadwinners, fathers spend an average of 9.7 hours a week with their children. In contrast, in feminist type arrangements where women earn a larger percentage of the income, men spent fewer hours (8.7) with their children.

Second, Gretchen Ritter falls into the usual trap of trying to persuade men that child-care is an important and rewarding task to commit to, whilst arguing that women should be doing something else. There's an inconsistency in her message about the value of nurturing children.

Third, children are most sensitive to the absence of their mothers. There are many young women rejecting feminism because they grew up missing their mums.

Women who stay at home also lose out - they lose a chance to contribute as professionals and community activists ... we need women in medicine, law, education, politics and the arts.

Gretchen Ritter ignores the vast majority of women who are not going to be lawyers, doctors, teachers, politicians, artists and community activists. Ritter assumes that the word "women" refers to upper middle-class feminist women.

Obviously, a large number of women work in jobs they don't find rewarding (according to the survey linked to above, only 31% of young British women find their job fulfilling). Why should such women give up on stay-at-home motherhood to continue in relatively mundane and menial paid work?

Nor is it impossible for women to value stay-at-home motherhood, whilst later contributing to society as teachers or lawyers. This is, in fact, what a considerable number of professional women choose to do.

There's one other thing to mention here. Motherhood is at the centre of life in a way that careers can never be. It is a more intensely personal role, more embedded in women instinctively, and more a part of the inner world of emotions and spirit.

In the book The Bitch in the House there is a letter from a 1950s mum to her feminist daughter, explaining why she did not feel oppressed to be a housewife. The mother writes:

When you and your sister were growing up, I was what your generation calls a "stay-at-home mom" ... I can say now that those were some of the happiest years of my life. I was enchanted by my daughters, and watching them grow up from little helpless blobs into wonderful people was the most rewarding experience I ever had. I didn't then and still didn't consider it a job. It was joy.

This woman had worked prior to having children, and she became a teacher when her children were older. Yet, she doesn't sacrifice the idea of motherhood to her professional work, and, better yet, she doesn't even regard the two in the same way. There is a significance to the motherhood role that can't be reproduced in mundane work, not even in a professional career.

Full-time mothering is also bad for children. It teaches them that the world is divided by gender.

I had to laugh at this one. This is a case of a liberal panicking at the idea that gender differences might be thought to matter.

This movement also privileges certain kinds of families, making it harder for others. The more stay-at-home mothers there are, the more schools and libraries will neglect the needs of working parents, and the more professional mothers, single mothers, working-class mothers and lesbian mothers will feel judged for their failure to be in a traditional family and stay home with their children.

Interesting. Gretchen Ritter wants to "privilege" her own preferred family model by making the traditional family seem illegitimate. And yet her closing argument is that she doesn't like the privileging of certain kinds of families!

She makes her case by arguing that traditional women create inequity by setting a motherhood standard which makes other women feel bad. The problem with this argument, though, is that it undermines Ritter's previous claims of how inferior the traditional family is. If the previous claims were right, then you would think that traditional women would be glumly contemplating their more fortunate not-at-home sisters.

Instead, we are told that it is the non-traditional women who are feeling insecure about what they are doing, so much so that only by abolishing the traditional family will they recover their self-confidence.

(Gretchen Ritter's article "The messages we send when moms stay home" was first published in July 2004 in the Austin-American Statesman. The only link to the original article I could find is here.)

1 comment:

  1. As a man who actually does spend the majority of my time caring for my children because my wife and I largely do the role swap thing (she is a Music teacher). I can verify that watching your children grow into people is a wonderful experience. But to my mind the fundamental fault with the feminist position is to believe that we live to work rather than work to live.