Archive | April, 2012

What is a working mother?

19 Apr

In the past two weeks a media firestorm has erupted over the predicament, culture and job description of “working moms.” Though the term was likely created as a description of a mother who worked outside of the home, in the past couple of decades it has become a descriptor for all moms, generally. It has now become a no-brainer that any woman who has children works–whether it be outside of the home or within it.

So, Democratic opionizer Hillary Rosen created a shitstorm when she opined that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.” The Obama campaign ran itself into circles decrying her statements, disassociating itself from Rosen at all costs, and the Romney campaign gleefully grabbed at the only real potentially incendiary anti-woman position that has availed itself from the other side, during this Republican War on Women.

Pundits of all (2) sides clamored over themselves to decry Rosen and her anti-feminist statements. Last Sunday, Frank Bruni dedicated his op-ed piece to his mother, “who didn’t punch a clock or get a paycheck or any of that”:

The following day the NYTimes ran a front page article on the demographics of the stay-at-home mother, citing the statistic that 65% of mothers who stay-at-home are in households earning less than $75,000 a year, with 18% of these women lacking a high school diploma:

These are all to suggest that Rosen, whatever feminist, lesbian, elitist drug she be smoking, is not “one of us.” Not a Democrat, not a NYTimes staffer, not one of those feminist who understands.

This seemed suspicious to me. Granted, Rosen undoubtedly stepped in it here, but her point makes sense. To me, Rosen is not attempting to suggest that she is familiar with Ann Romney’s quotidian mothering, or even that she is qualified to judge the quality of Romney’s mothering; instead, Rosen is asserting that, because of the Romney family’s status in the millionaires’ club, Ann Romney could not possibly understand, sympathize or align herself with mothers who live, belong, and work in a daily world comprised of constant financial hardships and struggles. These women may have jobs outside of the home, or they may not; they may have chosen to stay at home because the cost of day care overrides any benefits that a job outside the home could provide; they may stay at home because the emotional and intellectual costs of sending their children to substandard public schools are too great, necessitating the home-schooling of their children; they may stay at home because their time of pregnancy and maternity leave produced too difficult a hurdle for re-entry into the workforce; or, they may have stayed at home because they have chosen to bring up their children, deciding that it is their most important task.

Whatever the choice may be, all must be considered, supported and provided for within a feminist, humanist and democratic society. Rosen was not suggesting that Ann Romney is a substandard woman, nor is Rosen anti-woman; instead, Rosen was attempting (albeit inarticulately) to highlight the dramatically disparate, contradictory and cynical pathways that all women who are mothers must navigate upon giving birth.

It is not that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” it is instead that it appears that Ann Romney has lived a charmed life free of the very hard choices that the majority of other American women who choose to become mothers are forced to make. In the clamor to decry Rosen’s words, there has not been one comment attempting to critique the extravagant costs of daycare and lack of support for parental leave that prevail in this country. The average maternal leave granted to mothers in this country is 2 months, with one of those months paid at most. The average costs of day care in this country run from $500 to $1000 monthly. The average blue collar, working-class wages do not cover health insurance. In many states, women make 75 cents to the dollar of their working male counterparts. Shouldn’t these be the issues we are talking about?


The female pen

7 Apr

The other day I went to my local big box bookstore, I had felt the urge to take a look at Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. I couldn’t find it, so I asked a worker for help. Her first question was “Alexander?” Her second, upon hearing the writer in question was a woman,  was “Is it a romance?”

Several years ago, at my favorite Bay Area independent bookseller, I was in search of a particular Luce Irigaray title. I looked all over the philosophy section, but to no avail. When I asked as to where her many books, with their varied foci on philosophy, critical theory and psychoanalysis might be located, I was directed to the women’s studies section. Don’t misinterpret me here, I am a vociferous supporter of women’s studies. However, if every philosophy title written by a woman is housed in women’s studies there will be zero titles by women in the philosophy section.

I bring up these two divergent anecdotes because I was reminded of both while reading the recent essay by Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times Book Review last weekend:

Wolitzer begins “The Second Shelf” by considering the marketing of and cover art decisions regarding books written by women; specifically, she arrives at some pretty dire conclusions concerning how works of fiction written by women are considered by reviewers, readers and awards committees. Drawing on the Francine Prose essay published in Harper‘s in the late 90’s, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” Wolitzer finds that, too often, assumptions are made about female-written texts that often have little to do with the works themselves.

What matters is the sex of the author. Prose goes so far as to provide several examples of pieces that, when first provided as anonymous examples, are rarely written by the assumed sex. Further, when the sex of the author is revealed, reconsiderations concerning its literary, emotional and stylistic weight are nearly immediately made. In light of Prose’s study, Wolitzer’s declares that while a drawing of a wedding ring adorning the cover of a fiction by a woman will likely be relegated to the pink ghetto of rom-com, chick lit or mass-market, this very same circle covers the award-winning recent fiction by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot.

Are these issues merely literary quibbles on my part? I think not. Here’s another example: several months ago, I was listening to a literary critic on NPR’s “All Things Considered” review the very postmodern, streamlined and sardonic novel by Ben Lerner, Leaving Atocha Station. In her conclusion, she states:

“It also, I must say, feels very much like a ‘boy book’ to me — all this thinking about thinking; all this meditation on language. Maybe women — so socialized into constantly scribbling ‘to do’ lists — don’t tend to write meditations like this on the instability of words.”

Really?!? Lydia Davis anyone? Siri Hustvedt? The great Helene Cixous?

I could go on, but then I would be succumbing to the very condition with which I have a problem. In both the Prose and the Wolitzer pieces, the writers attempt to ameliorate the chauvinistic structures of literary culture with examples upon examples of women writers who don’t fit the stereotypical “feminine” model, and who also can be described within the much larger categories found within the “masculine” model. For each speculative reason as to why fiction written by women might be less acclaimed, have fewer male readers, is generally more pigeonholed, Wolitzer cites authors that do not fit within these norms.

But how do these “exceptions” work with or against these norms? Might they instead beg their destruction? Might not the lists of exceptions and great women writers generate a tiny feeling of desperation, reaction, too much protestation, or even a conformity to the ridiculous way of thinking that forced all these lists and feelings?

As Prose describes, readers turn to or reject gendered generalities of the writer according to their preconceived positions. (“Oh yes, I thought her sentences looked feminine/Her sentences are not feminine, that is why I like her.”) Setting up lists and exceptions and examples does not tear down or successfully critique these myopic ways of reading and reviewing; by providing exceptions, the rules remain intact, the generalizations stay general.