Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On "Having it All": Feminism, Work and the Family

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, recently penned a piece for The Atlantic which has already broken all the records for page-views at the Atlantic's website. It has clearly touched a raw nerve. Succinctly put, Slaughter's argument is that women definitely can't "have it all" in the contemporary U.S. By reflecting on the dilemmas she personally encountered trying to build a family and a high-powered Washington D.C. career at the same time, Slaughter lashes out against "feminism" for propagating the false promise of having both. "Feminism has sold young women a fiction", she claims.

The article has already elicited a wealth of critical responses. All of them strike me as more or less correct: First of all, feminism never claimed that "women can have it all" in the first place. This is an invention of advertising executives, not feminist activists. Moreover, "having it all" is an extremely high standard, so its unfair to blame feminism when it isn't satisfied. Also, it's not fair to assume that all women want children and families. Neither is it reasonable to assume that everyone wants to fight her way into a high-powered job at the top--many people reject these conventional (capitalist) criteria of success. This is a class-specific dilemma, some have claimed, specific to the "joyless experience of life at the top", and as such it is not clear how relevant it is to the experiences of working-class women.

Although these criticisms basically strike me as correct, Slaughter still manages to say a number of things that, while not necessarily ground-breaking or original, raise interesting questions.

For example, she is correct to say that sheer determination and commitment--contra prevailing ideologies about personal responsibility and social mobility--are not enough to break out of the gendered contradictions of work and life in contemporary capitalist societies. And while I don't agree with her recommendations for reform, Slaughter is--despite herself--right on the money when she says that "I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured." This is the crux of the issue: it is infeasible (and unjust) to demand that individual women--through sheer will-power and life-style choices--fix what is, in fact, a basic problem with they way our society is structured.

There are, to be sure, prudential questions all women today face given that they have to find a way to navigate things the way they are in the here and now. But no amount of prudential advice or individual maneuvering will change the basic contradictions that generate these dilemmas for women in the first place.

Plenty has been said about what's wrong with Slaughter's argument. But what would a reasonable alternative look like? I am inclined to say that the basic structural problems here are rooted deeply enough in capitalism that only a radical transformation from the ground up could solve them fully. But, short of a social revolution, what kinds of "transitional demands" in the here and now could we put on the table to start to undermine the gender inequalities that prevent women from "having it all"? What demands are most likely to pave the way for even more ambitious gains?

The radical political philosopher Nancy Fraser has done some really interesting work on just these kinds of questions, and I'd like to bring her arguments to bear on this widely discussed issue.

The first thing to say is that the dilemma described by Slaughter is a relatively new one, historically speaking. The emergence of industrial capitalism brought with it the idea of a "family wage" which assumed that people "were supposed to be organized into heterosexual, male-headed nuclear families, which lived principally from the man's labor-market earnings. the male head of the household would be paid a family wage, sufficient to support children and a full-time wife-and-mother, who performed domestic labor without pay. Of course, countless lives never fit this pattern. Still, it provided the normative picture of a proper family."

Thanks in no small part to struggles of the women's and lesbian/gay liberation movements, this model is today more and more contested and is no longer the norm. But the undoing of the "family wage" model wasn't simply the work of progressive movements fighting for an egalitarian alternative. As capitalism became more and more "neoliberal" from the 70s onward, the idea of a family wage was also being undermined by large-scale economic processes as real wages stagnated and part-time, precarious employment became the norm. Also, "women's employment became more and more common (although far less well paid than men's), post-industrial families less conventional and more diverse... Heterosexuals are marrying less and later and divorcing more and sooner, and gays and lesbians are pioneering new kinds of domestic arrangements." This is the backdrop for the issues raised in Slaughter's article.

How do we respond to this state of affairs? Fraser examines two main ways that feminists have attempted to respond: 1) the universal breadwinner model, and 2) the caregiver parity model. On the first, the idea is to secure equity by promoting women's employment (e.g. by instituting anti-discrimination laws, by securing subsidies for child-care to free women from compulsory domestic labor, etc.). According to the second model, the goal is to promote equity by supporting informal carework (e.g. the state provides allowances/stipends to dependent caregivers, etc.). As we will see, Fraser finds both approaches wanting and argues, instead, for a "universal caregiver" model that lifts advantages from both models while adding the requirement that men "become more like women are now" by doing more primary carework.

What criteria does Fraser use to evaluate the different models? She uses seven different principles--all aimed at securing equality--which are worth examining closely in their own right as "transitional demands" that we need to advance the struggle:

  1. Anti-Poverty. As is well-known, rates of poverty are disproportionately high in solo-mother families. This requires immediate relief--in a world of plenty, people should not go without having their basic needs met. But, this principle is not enough, since there are lots of different ways that poverty could be addressed, not all of them acceptable from a socialist/feminist perspective. 
  2. Anti-Exploitation. One reason that anti-poverty measures are important is that they undermine the conditions that render women vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, dependency and violence. As Fraser points out, "needy women with no other way to feed themselves and their children are liable to exploitation--by abusive husbands, by sweatshop foremen, and by pimps." Fraser adds, however, that it isn't enough to simply allocate aid to needy women--it also matters how the aid is given. For instance, if it is highly stigmatized or discretionary, women may simply trade "the exploitable dependence on a husband or a boss for the exploitable dependence of a caseworker's whim." Rather than shuffle women back and forth between these dependencies, we need to get rid of all three. 
  3. Income-Equality. Given that women earn 70 cents for every dollar earned by men, there is reason to press for the leveling of the real per capita income gap. This requires, among other things, requiring that much of the unpaid labor performed by women be compensated. It also means doing away with arrangements where, as is true in the US today, women's income decline by half after divorce, whereas men's tend to double. It also requires, Fraser argues, that we reverse the "wholesale undervaluation of women's labor and skills." 
  4. Leisure-Time Equality. This is central to the questions raised by the Slaughter article. The problem is that women are often compelled to work a "double shift", doing both paid and unpaid carework which leads women to suffer disproportionately from "time poverty". Fraser cites a recent survey in which 52% of women--as opposed to only 21% of men--complained that they "felt tired most of the time." This criterion requires that we fight for equal leisure time between men and women. 
  5. Equality of Respect. Even if we win all of the previous demands, Fraser claims, there is still a need to fight against a culture which "routinely represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of male subjects". Thus, we have to actively fight against cultural configurations--in film, TV, music, news media, and so on--which objectify, deprecate, and trivialize the achievements of women. These tropes combine with the vulnerabilities caused by poverty to consolidate problems of sexual violence. 9 
  6. Anti-Marginalization. Still, even if we won equality of respect, Fraser still thinks it would be possible for women to be marginalized and enclaved in certain spheres. Thus, we should also fight for women's full participation on par with men in all areas of social life--in employment, in formal politics, within social movements, in associations in civil society, etc. This requires, among other things, provision for childcare and the striking down of bans on public breast-feeding. It also requires "dismantling masculinist work cultures and woman-hostile political environments." 
  7. Anti-Androcentrism. Finally, Fraser argues that we also need to fight against the idea that "men's current life patterns represent the human norm and that women ought to assimilate to them." We should not demand that women "simply become more like men in order to fit into social institutions designed for men." Instead, we should fundamentally restructure the androcentric institutions themselves. 
Now, you might worry that these principles overlap in many ways and aren't wholly distinct. I would agree and, I think, so would Fraser. They are best interpreted, I think, as a set of "transitional demands" addressed to activists today, given a certain balance of forces and set of concrete social conditions.

Having gone through these demands, however, how do the two standard models--Universal Breadwinner versus Caregiver Parity--hold up? Fraser's assessment is that both get different things right and different things wrong. Both do a reasonable job of undermining poverty and exploitation, although neither give us a good way to address the wage gap between men and women. Worse still, however, both seem to be on relatively bad footing when it comes to addressing leisure-time equality, respect, anti-marginalization, and anti-androcentrism.

What we need instead, Fraser argues, is a new model, what she calls the "universal caregiver" model. What does this model look like? Fraser is explicit that she isn't in the business of giving proposals to "policy-making elites." Rather, she sees herself as doing something that is "political in a broader sense", which aims to put forward general transitional demands--not pie-in-the-sky ideal arrangements that fail to come to grips with existing conditions--whose content can be filled in by the people struggling to achieve them.

Still, though she hesitates to give us a detailed blueprint, she does put forward a sketch of what a different model would look like. The main feature of the Universal Caregiver model is that it makes women's current life-patterns the norm for everyone. It demands, in a sense, that men become more like women. Under such a model, we should demand that all jobs be designed for caregivers just as we should also demand a shortening of the work week (without decreasing pay).

These kinds of demands, Fraser argues, could help break down the gendered division between breadwinning and caregiving, which undergirds the present gendered order. This would also mean "subverting the gendered division of labor and reducing the salience of gender as a structural principle of social organization."

As a transitional demand, then, Fraser's Universal Caregiver model speaks directly to some of the questions raised by Slaughter's piece. Fraser isn't demanding that women simply "marry well" so as to avoid the objectionable forms of dependence endured by women locked into marriage with an abusive or overtly sexist husband. She's arguing that we should--through collective struggle--fight to transform the institutional structure that places many women in the dilemmas discussed by Slaughter. It's the system that places women in these contradictory situations, so it's the system that has got to change.

I don't think these are utopia demands by any stretch. Given the increasing severity of the global economic crisis--and the increasingly brutal austerity cuts being instituted the world over--many of these demands will become only more urgent to growing anti-austerity movements. And, as we saw with the explosive international ascendancy of "Slut Walk" mass marches, just as we've seen with the wide readership (and criticism) of Slaughter's piece, there is massive discontent bubbling beneath the surface which could form the basis for a renewed and unapologetic womens' movement. Such a movement would have to see its aims as inseparably linked with (global) struggles to defeat austerity and the political/economic dominance of the 1%.


-sf said...

So how would we achieve these aims? It seems that much of these "transitional demands" require a broad change in the culture and there seems little that can be done from a policy perspective. For instance, how do we achieve equality of respect through collective mass action? I guess we could call for legislation banning super-skinny models in fashion mags, like the Israelis did recently, but that seems like a piecemeal solution to a broader problem (and the legislation itself stems from a society that is concerned about the overt sexuality and objectification of women... an ironic convergence of religious fundamentalists and feminists).

I think this question largely applies to demands 3-7 (an equal pay act would help demand 3, but still wouldn't address the undervaluing of "women's work"), and I think is important to consider so as to develop strategies for achieving these transitional demands.

RichGibson said...

Your points are good about the issues of working women, but I don't really see how they respond to the issues which Anne-Marie Slaughter raises.

She was an academic, and then in government service, and now back in academia. The idea of a family-wage does not seem to have any particular relevance to her career goals and decisions. Ms. Slaughter is writing about highly educated women who are employed at high levels.

Her job in Washington involved her being away from home from Monday morning until Friday evening.

At a basic level, life in the 'highest levels' of business, academia, or government, involves an absurd time commitment. From the article ""Secretary Clinton deliberately came in around 8 a.m. and left around 7 p.m., to allow her close staff to have morning and evening time with their families (although of course she worked earlier and later, from home)"

In addition to an 11 hour day, 'of course Secretary Clinton worked earlier and later.'

t said...

@Rich Gibson: So, I agree with you that the "family wage" model doesn't really have any relevance to the questions raised by Slaughter. That is because the family wage model applied to an earlier phase of capitalism which, as I say, has been eroded by neoliberalism and challenged by progressive movements.

I wonder, though, whether Slaughter's article is really meant to apply only to women in the specific conditions in which she finds herself. That might be the right way to read her, but it isn't what she says in the piece. Her article casts a much wider net and attempts to generalize about the conditions of women outside the highest rungs of government or corporations. To the extent that that is true, I think it makes sense to critically engage with the institutional basis on which women find themselves faced with contradictions men seem to encounter less often. Slaughter's piece wouldn't have made sense (or been so widely read) if it had simply been about why "people in high powered jobs can't have it all". The fact that women are faced with particular dilemmas here is significant, and in the post I attempt to examine some of the structural forces underlying those dilemmas.

The demands Fraser puts foward attempt to undermine the institutional basis for these contradictions. The universal caregiver model, as I understand it, does apply to Slaughter's situation, since it recommends a general lessening of the workday accross the board, increased leisure and vacation time, and a generalized expectation that all workers--and not just women--may take on the role of caretaker. There are certainly things to say here about the work/life divide in contemporary capitalist scoieties, the fetishization of productivity, etc. but the focus of the post (and the debate aronud Slaughter's piece) is mostly on the gender dimensions at work.

Richard said...

It might be useful to go back and look at the "wages for housework" campaigns of the 1970s. They might provide some interesting insight into this situation, especially in relation to the extent that industrial capitalism relied uopn the unpaid wage labor of women in the home to facilitate the creation of the male proletariat in the factory. We are living through the unraveling of these gender identities created during the Industrial Revolution, with the notion of "having it all" serving as a fall back position for the preservation of contemporary capitalist values.

t said...

@Richard: Yes, this would be worth taking a look at. I do, however, think that one has to be careful with wages for housework since can easily be contorted into the idea that commodification is synonymous with liberation. Of course, as a merely transitional demand, some limited forms of commodification can, in specific circumstances, perhaps create space for oppressed groups to advance their struggle. So I don't want to be abstract in saying that wages for housework might be bad because it commodifies. Neither would I want to say that we couldn't learn a lot from the strategic and tactical experiences of movements that fought for wages for housework. And, certainly any compensation--and public recognition that it is, in fact, socially necessary labor--is better than none. Still, I think it's worth making very clear that commodification comes with problems of its own and these need to be paid close attention by those struggling to overcome the gendered division of labor.