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