post-gender: on having it all and happiness, too

by Amelia

in the introduction to the most recent edition of the feminine mystique, betty friedan argues that women’s progress will essentially halt until our society makes changes in men’s gender roles.  i couldn’t agree more.  but i’d like to focus my discussion of male gender roles on the possibility of women’s happiness, just for a moment.

recently, mfranti over at feminist Mormon housewives called attention to a little article in the mormon times which begins by asserting that feminism tacitly implies “that in order for women to have worth they had to be just like men” and ends with the pithy statement that “it’s interesting, important stuff, feminism, i’m just not sure why anybody ever believed it was the ticket to happiness.”  let’s start with these two lovely points and work from there.  first, i–a staunch (some would say flaming), long-time feminist–i have no desire to be “just like men.”  i’m a woman, thank you very much.  and i’m perfectly happy being a woman, even if i engage in a little gender bending on occasion.  feminism has never claimed that women will only have worth if they’re just like men, even if it has claimed for women the same rights men have.  perhaps this subtle distinction is lost on palmer.  and then there’s the question of feminism and happiness.  i’m not sure anyone has ever claimed that feminism was a “ticket to happiness,” either, though i’m sure most feminists would argue that feminism has very clearly allowed for more equal access to things that generate happiness.  but more on that in a moment.

aside from earning my scorn for its rather superficial and inaccurate treatment of feminism, palmer’s article got me thinking about the question of having it all.  contemplating the question of why it is, after 40 years of feminism, women are reportedly unhappy, palmer proposes that said unhappiness “is a product of the crashing reality that, no matter what we may have heard, and despite all our options, we still can’t have it all. No matter what we choose, it will inescapably come at the cost of something else.”  now, i’m not going to argue with the fact that making choices involves cost.  if i choose to work full time, i clearly will not be with my (hypothetical) children full time and vice versa.  but i maintain that there is a way for women to have it all–including happiness.  and that’s where men’s gender roles come in.

and to continue.  so what does women’s happiness have to do with male gender roles?  everything.  in a recent article examining gender roles in the workplace in the american prospect, courtney martin argues that “we have to stop using ‘work/life balance’ as coded language for ‘working-mom stress.’ despite ample evidence that men are served by investing more time and energy outside the workplace and ‘coming out’ as fathers while in it, there are very few men who are taking on this issue in a substantive, political way.”  according to martin (and i agree with her), questions of balancing the demands of work and the demands of life have too often been framed in terms of women’s needs, which ignores that men, too, are human beings with lives outside of the workplace.  so long as we equate masculinity with earning capacity and the ability to provide (coughcough–i’m looking at you, mormons), we’ll perpetuate a situation in which women (even working women) carry the burden of making the home function while men just fund it. (aside: i know this is changing because i’ve witnessed it; part of the change is simply generational; but part of the change also needs to be conscious and proactive on the part of both men and women.)

but this brings me to a point martin made in another recent piece in the american prospect: it’s not enough for us to identify what men should not (and, if my experience is in any way indicative, do not) want to be.  we (and by “we” i mostly mean men) need to develop a positive image of what a progressive, enlightened, post-gender man is.  it’s not enough to want to get rid of machismo and entitlement and patriarchy; we need to have some sense of what will take their place.

it’s tempting to simply say that men should be free to be themselves.  but is that enough?  simple freedom?  is that what the feminist movement earned for women?  in some ways yes.  we’re now free to educate ourselves and earn for ourselves and become what we want to be.  we’re free to make the attempt at having it all, while accepting the costs that come with it.  perhaps the answer is that we need to open to men what has been traditionally available to women: nurturing, educating, caring for children; maintaining and designing and operating a peaceful, productive living environment; being the primary caregiver rather than the primary breadwinner.  these things need to be options for men–real options that don’t come with social condemnation attached.  

perhaps most importantly we need a society in which individuals make choices for themselves about what works best for themselves in their own individual circumstances.  if we can reach a place where both women AND men AS INDIVIDUALS are free of gender constraints, i have no doubt that we can have it all and happiness, too.  because, as martin points out, “neither heterosexuality nor fatherhood is a prerequisite for wanting a more flexible, healthy workplace. anyone who hopes to be a balanced person with relationships and passions outside of work has a stake”–specifically a stake in policy issues that allow for balancing all of the demands of life, not just those of work.  

in my mind this will take two radical (radical, as in ‘of roots’ implying a return to roots) changes (especially radical for mormons): 1. the breakdown of traditional male gender roles; and 2. seeing people as individuals first rather than members of a couple.  perhaps i’ll leave you there, with the intention of following up on number two next month.  thoughts?

Amelia

Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

You may also like...

12 Responses

  1. Christian says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head on two specific things:
    1. That the male role in feminism really needs to be clarified and addressed. So often feminism has been seen as a women-only movement, and any movement needs people from both sides on board to get very far (think of abolitionism, civil rights, etc. where it was important that non-slaves, white people, etc., also recognized the problems and that they were the ones who needed to change and who could better speak to the people on the other side). But as a male feminist, I’ve often felt the lack of inclusion or other people having any idea what my role might be in all this. This idea of the image of the progressive post-gender man is something I think I’ve been looking for for a long time, and I have a pretty good idea, but we need that to be spread around society in a substantive way.
    2. Workplace flexibility. The problem being: as long as workplaces know they can bend the rules, e.g. having people stay late w/ no overtime (which many men with careers are frequently required to do, etc.), they will, because they get more from it. One huge step, I think, would be legislation for a sliding scale of benefits for part-time workers. This would vastly, VASTLY improve flexibility, allowing any number of combinations of husband and wife trading off working and tending the household, as well as any one else with pressing outside needs. Because two people working part time, doing the exact same amount of work as one full time person, do not get anything resembling the pay or benefits of the full-timer. That would be one way to up the flexibility and allow for individual situations. Other ideas, anyone?

  2. A.Y. Siu says:

    these things need to be options for men–real options that don’t come with social condemnation attached.

    I think we need to go a step further than this. A simple lack of social condemnation isn’t enough. There should be social approval and encouragement.

    I’m not a fan of supposedly “nice guys” thinking they’re entitled to female romantic or sexual attention for acting “nice,” but het women need to recognize (in the tradition of Lysistrata) how much power they have to effect change simply by dating men who buck the trend and finding sexy a man who would like to be a stay-at-home dad or a man who isn’t traditionally masculine.

    I see a lot of feminists love to be able to bend gender as a female—who then find men hot who fit into the traditional masculine model (tall, handsome, accomplished or ambitious, rich, intelligent, funny, deep in voice, crying only very rarely).

    I’m not saying het women should use sexuality as a some kind of manipulative tool, but a lot of het men are very simplistically practical, unfortunately. If being a traditional male garners social approval and a lot of female romantic attention, those men are more likely to be traditional. And if being non-traditional garners social approval and a lot of female romantic attention, those men are more likely to be non-traditional.

    Some of the lucky and the strong maintain being the freedom to “be themselves” regardless of how others react. That is not the majority, though.

  3. Alisa says:

    amelia, I abolutely agree that men’s roles should have room for growth into areas that aren’t traditionally masculine, such as nurturing, eduction, homemaking, etc. I am fortunate to be in a marriage relationship where my husband and I feel comfortable stepping up to do what is required, even if it’s non-traditional. Getting society’s (and the Church’s) approval of that would be oh-so-wonderful. I think that the new generation (late gen Xers and emerging gen Yers) is facing a different kind of society and economy, and we are trying to adapt to the best ways to do that.

    I read this recent book review in the New Yorker over the weekend that talked about how no matter what rights and liberties you grant to women, unless you change how childcare is managed, women won’t be able to take full advantage of those rights. (Best quote illustrating this concept: “Revolutions are supposed to devour their young; in the case of feminism, it has been the other way around.”) I think providing opportunities for men to be fathers who are more often present at home and in their children’s lives is one of the best ways that society can shift to allow for everyone to have a little more balance and happiness.

  4. jks says:

    I think male parenting roles is perhaps key to making the kind of changes you are talking about.
    Unfortunately, I don’t really want these changes (to the extent you do). Trying to imagine them makes my “decision” to be a SAHM less viable. It makes having a lot of children less doable.
    I can imagine the equal parenting and equal working ideas if I had just one child. I can’t, however, imagine it for 4.
    It makes me nervous because while I like the idea of men being involved fathers, I don’t like the idea of fathers expecting mothers to be primary caregivers.
    How do you not scare people like me off? People who see the benefit of specialization and have multiple children so the practicalities of trying to job sharing parenting to the extent you are talking about seems impossible.
    I have daughters and sons and wonder how they will have to deal with these types of situations. I want them to be happy and successful in their marriages and their parenting and supporting their families.

  5. jks says:

    Sorry, poor proofreading.
    t makes me nervous because while I like the idea of men being involved fathers, I don’t like the idea of fathers expecting mothers to NOT be primary caregivers.

  6. Amelia says:

    christian–

    thanks for your thoughts. i’d love to hear some specifics about what you have concluded about who/what the progressive post-gender man looks like. and i love your suggestions about a sliding scale for benefits for part-time work. i couldn’t agree more with your assessment of how important such reforms are.

    A.Y.–

    again, thanks for interesting comments. i agree that we need more than simple absence of condemnation; there should be encouragement and approval, as you note. and i don’t read your comment as reducing women to their sexuality, at least not in intent. i certainly agree that men’s gender roles won’t change until people’s expectations of what it means to be a man change, and those expectations include women’s romantic/sexual expectations. for what it’s worth, i’m one gender bending woman who’s attracted to all kinds of non-traditional men.

  7. Amelia says:

    alisa–

    that review looks really interesting. i do think there needs to be a real change in how we think about childcare in terms of gender. i in no way intend to devalue or undervalue the work women do as caregivers; i simply think that men have much to offer as caregivers also.

    jks–

    i don’t really understand how encouraging the option of men being caregivers makes your “decision” to be a SAHM less viable. could you explain that a bit?

    i’m also not sure why having multiple children would not be an option with a different scenario for caregiving. i not only can imagine but actually know of families with multiple children in which both parents work and both parents caregive and nurture.

    i’m not proposing that rather than teaching the current father-works-mother-stays-home scenario we teach an equal-provide-equal-nurture scenario. i’m suggesting that we do away with prescriptions for gender roles and instead allow individuals to choose what works best for them in their particular situation. if separating out the responsibilities of providing and caring for a family between husband and wife works best, that’s great. i have absolutely no problem with that. so long as it’s a real, viable, encouraged, accepted option for wife to provide and husband to caregive; or for husband and wife to share in both providing and caregiving; or whatever combination works best for a particular couple.

    i suppose that’s how i propose to convince those who are hesitant. by validating their choices while maintaining my right and everyone else’s right to make different choices and expecting our society to accommodate a wide variety of arrangements.

  8. Beatrice says:

    I am certainly excited about the idea of there being more flexible options for individuals and couples as far as work-life balance issues.

    One thing I have thought about with regards to this is if there really were no gender expectations as far as these roles go it would vastly change how individuals prepare for their future. Once you get married I see a variety of scenarios happening. 1-Both people want to work 2-One person wants to stay at home and one person wants to work. 3-Both people want to stay at home. While there would probably be many, many variations of these scenarios, most individuals would not necessarily know what their future partner would want so they would have to train themselves to work and provide for the family full-time (which wouldn’t be a bad thing). I guess my point is that you really can’t approach this problem as an individual. Instead you have to approach it as a couple. If I really wanted to work full-time and planned for that my whole life, and then I ended up marrying someone with the same desires we would both have to adjust our plans in order to find a solution that was best for the couple and for the individuals. Just some food for thought.

  9. orange says:

    I am kind of new to reading blogs, and I usually just read. But I do have a couple of thoughts here.

    jks – My husband and I have been equal parent/providers for our 4 children for 16 years now. It can be done. And I think the benefits of the close relationship that both of us as parents have with all of our teens now has been well worth it. (Not saying that one can’t be close to your kids doing it another way, of course. But this is a key benefit that has born fruit in our family.)

    The downsides that we have faced have mostly been the societal issues addressed by the post.
    1. A lack of workplace flexibility has been a challenge. We get by, but are by no means wealthy. In part, this is because neither of us is in the traditional “ambitious, road warrior” mode that society expects in order to climb the corporate ladder. However, we do have resiliency as a team because both of our resumes and job skill sets are up to date and used recently.

    2. Lack of support for my husband’s “nurturing”. This has gotten better in recent years… but from playgroups to PTA, he has been seen as an odd novelty, and there is real no support or appreciation (expect from me, I hope :)). Most people assumed that he is there because he is unemployed and between jobs, not because he is “parenting” his children. And, don’t even get me started on EQ at church. Absolutely no support whatsoever is the kindest thing I can say there.

    I completely agree with the Amelia and Christian. It is very heartening to read these kinds of thoughts coming from LDS people. Thanks for the post.

  10. Amelia says:

    beatrice–

    thanks for your comment. the idea of having no gender expectations is exactly what i’m after. i’ve always maintained that the church tries to have its cake and eat it too where gender roles are concerned. they want to say that gender is innate and eternal, but then they want to train us in how to be men and women (mostly women). doesn’t work that way–either it’s innate or we need to be taught, but not both. anyway, i digress. the point is that i think every individual should be themselves, no prescriptions.

    i think the fact that people would not know what their future partner would want is precisely the right thing. because we are individuals first before we are couples. and there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever be anything but a couple. and if we are ill-prepared or unwilling to provide for ourselves emotionally and financially, well i’ll tell you as one who is single *long* after she thought she would be married and have children–it’s a real disaster to not be prepared to stand on your own emotionally and financially.

    once someone actually is a part of a couple, their individual circumstances change. they’ve chosen not to think of themselves first as individual but instead first as part of a couple. at which time they can determine what kind of balance is best for them in terms of providing for and nurturing their family.

    i just don’t think there would be too much of a problem with individual desires clashing.

    orange–

    welcome. i’m glad you’ve found some acceptance here for the life you and your husband have built for yourselves. i know it’s not something that’s easily found in the LDS world. i hope you’ll keep reading and contributing.

  11. CatherineWO says:

    Amelia,
    Thank you so much for this inciteful post and to those who have made comment. I defintely agree with your two final points and look forward to more discussion on #2. Attitudes are changing, even within the Church. I am encouraged when I see the way my son and three sons-in-law share parenting with their wives and are so nurturing of my grandchildren. My husband grew up in a home with very traditional parental roles (I did not), and he struggled to be nurturing with our own children. He did learn over the years, however, and as a grandparent, he has done a complete role reversal (much to the delight and surprise of his adult children). So I believe there is hope.

  12. Caroline says:

    I love this post. LOVE it. Thanks Amelia.

Leave a Reply