Monday, February 13, 2006

# Posted 9:13 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AN OXBLOG VALENTINE TO THE FEMINISTS OF THE WORLD (AND THE CHAUVINISTS): Just in time for tomorrow's celebration of love a new round seems to have begun in the battle of the sexes. Rather than taking sides, this post aspires to launch a volley of Cupid's arrows in all directions, in the hope of reconciling the warring armies.

Now here's how it all started. In the Feb. 8 edition of the New York "Behind a Firewall" Times, gender pundit Judith Warner wrote in her tribute to Betty Friedan that recently she
...went through a pile of boxes and dug up my old copy of Ms. Friedan's book. This time, as it had for many of the homemakers who read it when it was published in 1963, "The Feminine Mystique" felt horribly familiar. Looking back convinced me that we needed to start working toward a different future...

The fact is, no matter how time- or sleep-deprived they are, working women today do upwards of 70 percent of household chores for their families. The gender caste system is still alive and well in most of our households.
Sensing an imminent rant against the "patriarchy", John Podhoretz ungraciously summed up Warner's argument as follows:
Judith Warner sez: I am a robot housewife drudge just like Betty Friedan's suburban housewife of 1963 -- even though I write books that get on the cover of Newsweek and get a blog on the New York Times website and publish op-eds on the Times editorial page like this one today!
Like a sensitive knight in shining armor, Matt Yglesias then rode to the rescue with a denunciation of J.Pod's condescension and miscomprehension. Yet surprisingly, Sir Matthew was lanced from behind by some of his own readers.

Then, in a charming reversal of gender roles, Belle Waring rode to Matt's rescue by fisking the commentary thread attached to Matt's post. Always gracious, Matt blew a kiss in Belle's direction as his way of saying 'thank you'.

With an eye toward restoring domestic tranquility in blogland, I hope to show that each side in this joust represents one side in a classical debate about political theory, a debate that often divides liberals from conservatives.

The broader issue at stake is the degree to which individuals are responsible for their own behavior. The specific manifestation of this timeless dilemma is the degree to which women, as opposed to entrenched social norms, are responsible for the disproportionate share of housework they must shoulder even in this progressive day and age.

Although housework itself is somewhat trivial, the burden of such labor may have a profound impact on a woman's prospects for professional success. Thus, I think that this issue is well worth engaging.

In his initial response to J.Pod, Sir Matthew writes that
A deeply entrenched set of social expectations winds up assigning a disproportionate share of the housework to mothers. Specifically because this set of social expectations is deeply entrenched, most women find conforming to those expectations to be the rational thing to do given the options available which serves to further entrench them and to give the unequal outcomes a veneer of having been freely chosen.
From where I stand, this dismissal of choice as a veneer -- even in the absence of any form of overt coercion -- is the critical turn in Matt's argument. As we all know, social expectation, no matter how entrenched, cannot literally assign a disproportionate share of the housework to anyone. Rather, it must invisibly and subconsciously infiltrate the negotations responsible for the division of housework in any given household.

The challenge for Matt and Belle is to demonstrate that this invisible force can be held responsible for the social outcomes they condemn. Hence Matt's argument that it is rational for women to conform to entrenched social expectations.

I find this statement somewhat curious. How can it be rational to do something so inimical to one's own interests? In the short term, conformism may have the potential to preserve domestic tranquility. Yet surely the smart and savvy women of today understand that there is a long-term price to pay for such short-term gains?

Some years ago, while reading some extraordinarily esoteric essays about the influence of culture on politics, I came to the provisional conclusion that culture has its greatest impact on politics when the inhabitants of that culture are unaware of its influence. Thus, what made male domination viable for so long, to a considerable extent, was a set of expectations that made it impossible to think that society could be organized any other way.

Of course, this is a much harder argument to sustain nowadays, when every educated woman in America is aware of her potential for equality. At the same time, it is hard to deny that the habit of so many women of accepting the lead role at home and/or sacrificing their careers for the benefit of their husband's reduces the social cost for each additional woman who considers doing so.

Consider the following thought experiment: What would prevent a man with an Ivy League degree from deciding to take five or ten years off to raise the kids? As the holder of such a degree, let me take a stab at that quesiton.

I could never give up five or ten years of my working life. I believe in the importance of family, but I would feel unacceptably reduced as a person if I had to break away from my career just as I am about to enter my prime. It would be an assault on my self-image, my self-esteem and even my masculinity. I would be ashamed.

Yet it would not be an assault on a woman's femininity. Only the most overzealous feminist would impose the punishment of shame on a woman who decided to take time out from her career to devote to her children.

Now imagine a professional couple, both with impressive degrees, who believe it is necessary for one parent to stay home with the children, at least for a few years. In theory, each parent has a fully equal say in this decision. From a conservative/libertarian perspective, the playing field here is balanced. Yet as Matt counters,
Liberals are not normally in the habit of saying that the fact that some state of affairs is in some sense attributable to individual choices puts either the state of affairs or the choices that led to it beyond criticism.
In other words, if the outcome is unjust, it is impossible to conclude that the process is just.

This argument seems to leave us at a crossroads. If conservatives assign moral significance to process whereas liberals assign such status to outcomes, how it is possible to adjudicate between the two?

I'm not sure that it is. Of course, there is one way out of this dilemma that Judith Warner notes in passing in her op-ed: pay for a nanny and a babysitter. This really is an ideal sort of free-market solution to the problem at hand, although not terribly plausible except for the upper-middle class.

So then what? Perhaps one might propose a compromise. Men should recognize the tough decisions women must confront and help them work out better solutions. Women (and Matt) should recognize that they have a responsibility to overcome history rather than blaming it.

Is it realistic to hope for such compromise? I believe that the answer is yes. With Iran and North Korea, the odds aren't good. But on the homefront, where we all want the best, I don't think it's wrong to have some faith this Valentine's Day in the power of love.
(10) opinions -- Add your opinion

heh -- the most overzealous feminists must be almost entirely concentrated in higher academia. Otherwise why such panic and anger and frustration and cries (that make it into the NYTimes) of, "why did we fight to give girls education?" whenever a grad student mentions staying home until kids reach preschool?

Said antagonism's much of why I left, first Harvard and then universities entirely; it's what's currently driving the Kid Sister out as well. It may be overzealous, but it's certainly not in the least rare...
I absolutely love this argument: "I could never give up five or ten years of my working life. I believe in the importance of family, but I would feel unacceptably reduced as a person if I had to break away from my career just as I am about to enter my prime. It would be an assault on my self-image, my self-esteem and even my masculinity. I would be ashamed." Full stop. When coupled with the implication that the situation is not so dire for women -- and that the use of the word "never" by a woman would be unreasonable, for historical and other reasons, in this context -- it becomes fun to contemplate the sort of "compromises" that are possible.

The truth is, of course, that all sorts of people have been muddling along over the past 40 years, finding their own solutions to this problem, and we didn’t need either the New York Times or you to help us figure out how. My wife managed to graduate from a bastion of liberal thought (Stanford) without getting her panties in a bunch over "overzealous" feminism. We managed to raise two kids while we both worked (one of us in academia), as did many other couples our age. (In Silicon Valley, the idea that one of the two members of a newly-minted marriage could stay home from work and still afford a house is precious.) In fact, the toughest problem that we had to solve was what is usually called the "two-body problem:" finding geographically co-located, rewarding careers/jobs for both partners. Besides that, all I had to learn to do was get off my butt and do half the house-cleaning, change diapers, etc. Big deal.

In short, keep your arrows in your quiver. Those of us who are in their mid-forties and are still on their first marriage figured this stuff out long ago, and we're passing this not-particularly-hard-won know-how on to our kids. We're just not writing newspaper articles about it, because we don't think that it's particularly complicated.
In reading the whole thing, an imaginary conversation went through my mind:

She: This kitchen floor is FILTHY!
He: You wanna watch some tv?
She: You just DON'T CARE.
He: [shrugs] Looks ok to me. "24 hours" is coming on...
She: You NEVER help with housework.
He: [shrugs again, walks off to watch tv, thinking to himself: floor looks ok to me.]
She: [Curses him under her breath, proceeds to clean the floor until she can see herself smile in the reflection. Mother would be pleased.]
Just to save everyone a bit of time with regard to the imaginary conversation above. The exact issue it raises is the subject of a couple of posts by Ross Douthat of The American Scene. Also, Belle W. provides something of a pre-emptive response in the post to which I linked above.

I hope in the future you will have an opportunity to reexamine your conclusion that "I could never give up five or ten years of my working life" because you would be "unacceptably reduced as a person."

I think the only way to reconcile this statement with "I believe in the importance of family" is to infer that you believe that work is more important than family, and that your work life and family life are so separate that dedicating time to one cannot improve the quality of the other.

The world will be a better place when more people are willing to affirm that our families are of premier importance. It's one thing to say you can't afford the financial cost of taking off several years from your career, but the self-esteem cost? Why isn't there a similar self-esteem cost simply from recognizing that your self-esteem is entirely dependent on success in your professional life?
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This essay started out focussing on chores to the exclusion of child-rearing and switched to child-rearing to the exclusion of chores. I think part of the problem is the arbitrary labeling of chores as demeaning--if you drop that indefensible assumption, then most of the problem reveals itself as...invented, imaginary, not a problem. I also think choice matters even if the motives are uneven--so even if I agreed that a problem has been identified, I disagree with Matthew's analysis.

This whole thing reminds me of the movie "Mr. Mom", with Michael Keaton and Terri Garr, which was supposed to be about how emasculating it is for the husband to stay at home and the wife to go be the breadwinner. Except for one thing--every guy I knew in my Columbus, Ohio, suburb, regardless of personal background, training, career, or job, saw that movie and thought, "yeah, that's what I want." Every guy, bar none, would have liked the opportunity to be a stay at home dad. Unfortunately, economics almost always precludes it.
What, exactly, are the household and family chores?

One study discovered that, in keeping a record, the wife would say, "Drove the family to grandma's." The husband would say, "We went to grandma's.", not thinking to add it to his numbers.

Recently, my wife was working on some of her schoolwork. We live in Michigan, so it was nice to be indoors. Due to a snowstorm, some branches had come down. I spent an hour hauling them around, cutting them up for firewood--a Girl Scout summer camp gets our prunings--and stacking them and the light stuff. The latter will have to be hauled out of the back yard when I get the city to send the chipper around.

Was that hour equal to one of my wife's hours? Maybe. I was hardly using my brain and I needed the exercise and the air was refreshing. But I did have some risk with ax and chainsaw, possibly slipping on the snow while one or the other was in motion, and it was getting dark. No big deal. Normal guy stuff, not worth remarking on. Perhaps we should start whining about it. Whining gets respect. Gary Cooper's dead.

One of my clients lost a finger and part of a thumb recently doing some remodeling. His wife, at the time, was dusting. Let's weight some variables here, just for fun.

As to career: Career, pride, and self-fulfillment come second to family. You do what you have to do. Besides, if it costs you some income, at least you won't have to pop for bail money or drug rehab or something. Works out.

I am puzzled by the folks who point out that hubby makes more money than the wife. So. Is there a point here? What does he do with it? He puts it in the pot is what he does with it.

There is also an inference that men's jobs start with a power breakfast, followed by a really keen downsizing (of somebody else) and then lunch catered by a five-star restaurant and a management retreat to Tahoe. You will note that the recent mine disasters in West Virginia have killed only men. Some discrepancy here.

Nope. Time for guys to whine. The cultural expectations are that we must, for only then will we be worthy of attention. Or something.
"Liberals are not normally in the habit of saying that the fact that some state of affairs is in some sense attributable to individual choices puts either the state of affairs or the choices that led to it beyond criticism."

Yup, that's exactly what makes the use of the phrase, "liberal", to denote Fabian socialists so oxymoronic. What is liberty worth, if people aren't allowed to make the choices THEY want?
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