Choice feminism & compulsory gender roles
So hey, why else do I have a blog but to write impromptu non-fiction personal essays about gender and feminist theory?
1. The Value of Domestic Skills
I believe there’s nothing inherently unfeminist about keeping a home, doing domestic things, taking care of people you love, cooking, cleaning, decorating. Those are important, learned skills and talents, often very complicated arts, time consuming, and things which make a big difference in the quality of life.
There’s been quite a bit of reclamation around “women’s work” throughout the second wave and third wave feminist movements, which has revisioned and revalued the work that goes into domesticity as complex, learned skills, difficult, and often incredible works of art.
(See, for example, the art of Judy Chicago, in particular – The Dinner Party in particular, but there’s lots more in that vein. Also see the book Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgartner & Amy Richards. Anyone else have examples? Leave ‘em in the comments.)
Domesticity & housewifery can go against feminist principles when it is compulsory: not optional, expected, unrewarded, and unrecognized as hard work or valuable. The problems come in being forced into this role, when you’re only doing that if what you’re doing feels like what you’re “supposed” to do and not what you really want to do. Figuring out what actually suits you best, your particular talents and personality and inclinations – that is subversive, and empowering.
2. Choice Feminism
Recently, there’s been a rise of this idea of choice feminism, which claims that being a housewife or househusband, staying home to raise the kids and keep the house, is an option available to people if they so choose, and that there is nothing inherently wrong with this choice.
Makes sense, right? Some people – men or women or butches or femmes or genderqueers or whomever – think it would be great to have the luxury of having a partnership (or triad, or whatever) where enough income was being generated by another person (or another source) that someone could stay home and prepare good food and take care of their living space, take care of the kids or plants or animals. To others, this sounds like nothing they’d want to do themselves, they’d hate to be cooped up all day and would much rather go out into the world and socialize, feel like a ‘productive member of society.’
So in theory, it would be great if someone was able to say, hey, I’d really like to be at home, and their partner would say, that’s great, because I’d like to go to work and make enough money to support our family. And then the negotiation of details would happen, and wow, everyone has a great time with their lives, yay.
There are so many factors that go into building this as an option to begin with. For one, it takes a certain amount of education (and therefore access to education), economic capability, and stature in order to be in a relationship that can rely on a single income (and/or a lot of thriftiness!). The folks who have the ability to stay home and take care of their domestic life have to have a certain amount of economic privilege, by definition – they are able to survive without having a traditional, typical 40 hour a week job.
Point being, this isn’t an option everyone has, so it can’t be a “choice” for everyone. Some people cannot ever choose this choice, because of the ways we have been set up inside of economic systems. (If I had more time to research, I would include : all sorts of things on credit card theory, loan sharks, economic poverty, the working poor. Got specific resources for this? Links, books, documentaries? Leave ‘em in the comments.)
I bet someone staying home and claiming the housewife/househusband/etc role works really well in some relationships, and that those choices are totally legit and based in love and care and self-knowledge for the relationship, family, themselves, and their partners.
Problem is, there are still real social consequences to choosing the socially unacceptable, rarer, less compulsory choice. And it isn’t until both options are empowered with equal weight that we’ll be able to actually make these choices fully, and as long as society still deems one choice over the other, presenting it as an “option” sometimes feel so me as more one more way to force people into it compulsorily.
I think it is possible for these particular choices to have equal weight. Both should be equally valued, in my opinion, and it is possible for them to be in the current culture.
Whether or not they do actually have equal weight, however, would largely depend on a person’s perspective, family, culture, friends, and social status. Some people would experience rejection, marginalization, othering, belittling, or outcasting, if they decided to stay at home and “only” take care of their family’s domestic life. Others would experience peer pressure and gender policing for not doing so, for attempting to say that housewifery is valuable, especially when saying this to someone for whom housewifery was compulsory, and whom resents the lack of choice that she herself had.
A) Mona Lisa Smile
The film Mona Lisa Smile, set in the 1950’s at a women’s college, has a major theme of choice feminism throughout, as Joan, a student, struggles between pursuing law at Yale or getting married and starting a family. Her art teacher, Katherine, tries to encourage her to examine both options equally, even saying she doesn’t have to choose, she can have both.
Quote from the scene where Joan tells her art teacher that she’s going to choose to be a housewife:
Joan Brandwyn: It was my choice… not to go. He would have supported it [if I'd chosen to go].
Katherine Watson: But you don’t have to choose.
Joan Brandwyn: No, I have to. I want a home; I want a family, that’s not something I’ll sacrifice.
Katherine Watson: No-one’s asking you to sacrifice that, Joan, I just want you to understand you can do both.
Joan Brandwyn: Do you think I’ll wake up one morning and regret not being a lawyer?
Katherine Watson: Yes, I’m afraid that you will.
Joan Brandwyn: Not as much as I regret not having a family, not being there to raise them. I know exactly what I’m doing and it doesn’t make me any less smart.
[Katherine looks down]
Joan Brandwyn: This must seem terrible to you.
Katherine Watson: I didn’t say that.
Joan Brandwyn: Sure you did. You always do. You stand in class and tell us to look beyond the image, but you don’t. To you a housewife is someone who sold her soul for a center hall colonial. She has no depth, no intellect, no interests. You’re the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want.
Katherine Watson: [hugs Joan] Congratulations. Be happy.
It seems Joan is attempting to make the major point of choice feminism, that Katherine does not think housewifery is a legitimate choice for women. But I’m skeptical of this, because we don’t ever see Joan go through an awakening out of the compulsory gender role, realizing and fully understanding the limitations of her socially prescribed feminine/wife/mother role. Without really knowing that, is it possible for her to consider rejecting it as a legitimate option?
B) Sex and the City, season 4 episode 7, Time and Punishment
In the episode Time and Punishment from the fourth season of Sex and the City, Charlotte is newly married, and informs the girls that she’s thinking about quitting her job so she can begin her domestic duties. They react with significant glances at each other, though nobody says anything overly disagreeing with Charlotte’s news. The next day, Charlotte calls Miranda.
Charlotte: You were so judgmental at the coffee shop yesterday.
Miranda: Excuse me?
Charlotte: You think I’m one of those women.
Miranda: What? One of what women?
Charlotte: One of those women we hate who just works until she gets married. … The women’s movement is supposed to be about choice. And if I choose to quit my job, that is my choice.
Miranda: “The women’s movement”? Jesus Christ, I haven’t even had coffee yet.
Charlotte: It’s my life and my choice.
Miranda: Okay, Charlotte? This isn’t about me, this is your stuff.
Charlotte: Admit it! You were being very judgmental.
Miranda: I’m dripping all over my bathroom and you’re calling me judgmental. lf you have a problem with quitting your job…maybe you should take it up with your husband.
Charlotte: See, there it is, “your husband.” There’s nothing wrong with having a husband!
Miranda: Charlotte, I’m hanging up.
Charlotte: Don’t you dare hang up! And stop saying Charlotte like that. I am quitting my job to make my life better… and do something worthwhile like have a baby and cure AIDS.
Miranda: Oh! You’re gonna cure AlDS? Good for you. Just don’t be too disappointed if all you wind up with is a pretty ceramic mug with Trey’s name on it.
Charlotte: Take that back!
Miranda: I’m hanging up.
Charlotte: Don’t hang up! I’m interviewing girls to replace me… and I really need you to get behind my choice.
Miranda: You get behind your choice.
Charlotte: I am behind my choice. I choose my choice.
Miranda: I don’t have time for this. I have to go to work. Some of us still have to go to work.
Charlotte: I choose my choice!
(quoted from script of Time & Punishment.)
Problem for me here is that Charlotte is “the traditional one.” The most conservative, the one who blushes at the slightest of sex talk, the one who, throughout the series, is in serious husband-hunting mode. Has she really examined all her choices? Is she buying into the gender role that she’s presenting because she “chooses” it, or because it is compulsory for her?
But even though I am skeptical and questioning these women’s ability to make their own choices, I do come from the perspective that everyone has their own agency. I try – very hard – to let go of my own judgment about what would or wouldn’t be a good choice, and to really believe that another person is the only one who will really know what is in her own best interest.
But while I believe in agency, I also believe in things like laws of self-protection – seat belt laws, helmet laws, fast food regulation laws – because society has proved that people are susceptible, that we do not always make the choice that is in our best interest because of social, political, advertising, or any other number of pressures, and that educators, policy makers, and activists have the responsibility to protect and look out for others. That we are all interdependent, if you will – and that when everyone does better, everyone does better.
So how do we figure out how to have more agency in these complex situations of choice? How do we assure that all options do have equal weight for ourselves, in our own personal lives, even if they do not have equal weight in the eyes of society? How do we take a decision that used to be compulsory – like being a stay at home mom (SAHM, or Shit Ass Ho Motherfucker, if you’re a dooce reader) or, to connect it further to the Sugarbutch Chronicles subjects, adopting an exaggerated presentation of gender like butch or femme – and legitimately choose it?
3. Knowledge & Education
How can we make these choices have more equal weight?
Educate yourself. Study feminism. Study the history of compulsory gender roles, compulsory gender presentation, compulsory heterosexuality.
We can’t make any of these choices without understanding of where they came from, what they mean, what cultural, historical, and political contexts the choices sit within.
In a society that still has so much compulsory roles for men and women, it’s never just as simple as “I choose to be a housewife” or “I choose to work a full-time job outside the home.” There are so many factors – economic status, cultural and familial expectations, personal interests and pursuits, background, education, community.
I guess this is the part where we’re on our own, where we have to figure out the solution to our own gender problems, where we have to take responsibility for our own enlightenment.
One of my favorite quotes about gender is “femme is knowing what you’re doing.” My take on that is not that “all femmes know what they’re doing all the time,” but more like the implications that femme – or femininity, or gender expression in general – becomes an active choice, something that has a context and a history and a cultural understanding for the choices we’re making.
And it is possible to learn those things. Read into the history of gender studies, of compulsory gender roles and gender “deviance,” gender activism, butch/femme culture and society, the women’s and gay liberation movements. Get a sense of yourself & your gender in a larger sociological, historical, political, cultural, geographical context.
I see feminism as quite similar to how I am beginning to understand Buddhism: as philosophies, as world views. That it is a container, a baseline of explanation and understanding for how you see the world, interactions, social hierarchies, marginalized communities, value.
And as such, I really believe that everyone has a place within feminism. That everyone is affected by compulsory gender, by gender policing, by gender roles which oppress and restrict and encourage us to be less than full, open people, with access to the entire range of human experience. And therefore, everyone has the possibility to be liberated by studying the ways that these unspoken rules operate on the very personal, private aspects of our lives.
Here’s some suggestions of tools that have helped me along this search for knowledge and understanding. Add your own in the comments if you have further resources that significantly helped your perspective.
Feminism is For Everybody, bell hooks – amazing basic course in what feminism is, what it means, and where else to start looking. I’ve bought this for various people over the years. Completely accessible and wonderfully written.
The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan – the classic feminist text about compulsory domesticity. Though it’s dated, if this isn’t something that you’ve examined overtly, it might be time to read it.
Creating a Life Worth Living, Carol Lloyd – an artist workbook that guides you through figuring out what kind of life you want to live, what your values are, how you want to be spending your time, and helps you set goals to do that. Might be helpful & empowering in this particular issue of choosing to be a housewife, in that it might help you see where you particular strengths are, and what ways of spending your day will make you the happiest.
Manifesta, Jennifer Baumgardner & Amy Richards – I’ve already mentioned this, but if you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. Very accessible and fun to read.
The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago – is an art exhibit currently housed at the Brooklyn Museum in the feminist art wing. Problematic and highly criticized for it’s white and western-centric focus, but still an amazing piece of art which elevates traditional female domestic duties such as table settings, needlepoint, and ceramics and presents them in the context of a long history of powerful, strong, capable women.
It’s all a long process, right? Of getting to know oneself, of examining the world around us and seeing where we fit in, where we don’t, what we like, what we don’t. Of becoming self-aware. And, ultimately, of finding the bliss that makes our own lives uniquely worthwhile.
4. Let The Soft Animal of Your Body Love What It Loves
Eventually, this is the integrated goal of this process, I think: to “let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
It comes from one of my favorite poems of all time, and is a line I often quote. With care and consciousness, I believe this concept of letting myself love what I love to be at the core of my feminist beliefs. And I believe it’s possible to operate from this place, and within a feminist context, with feminist philosophies and outlooks on life.
It isn’t until I unpack all the societal gunk that I can really see, really understand, what it is that the soft animal of my body loves, and what it is that I should do with my wild and precious life.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.