Mother Discrimination and the Importance of Children

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Technically, a woman can’t be denied employment or be fired because she’s a woman. But it’s okay to discriminate against a woman in the workplace because she’s married or has children. Men’s higher salaries are often justified because they have families to support. So why don’t single mothers also get paid more? Because it is assumed that it is her fault that there isn’t a man in the picture taking care of her. She doesn’t deserve a break because she screwed up. It doesn’t matter if she was abused or deserted. She’s seen as a liability not an asset.

Supposedly when men have wives or children they are more responsible, not less. But women are seen as unreliable and less committed. They use more sick and family leave, they hate to stay late to finish work or attend meetings, they don’t like to take work home with them, they’re not as willing to relocate. And that’s not even taking into consideration the women who never make it into the workplace–or only work part-time–because they’re the ones who are primarily responsible for child care.

People who want to deny the existence of mother discrimination are always pulling the house husband out of the hat, as if there are that many of them. But because a man usually makes more money than his wife, it makes more sense for her to be the one who stays home with the children. (If anyone does.) House husbands are few and far between. Then there are those who say that mothers chose to have children, therefore they have to accept what goes with the territory. Why do they have to accept it? Men don’t have to.

And so we come around the circle again. Why can’t we just agree that any family that has children in it, whether headed by a man or a woman, deserves all the support it can get: flexible work hours, the right to refuse extra (uncompensated) work, quality and affordable child care, health insurance coverage for the children? Those who don’t have children complain about this proposal, because they figure they shouldn’t have to pay for those who do. But what they don’t realize is, if they don’t make allowances now for families with children, they’re not as likely to have healthy, well-adjusted, productive people to run our country and our institutions and to support and take care of them.

When we’re relatively young, all we can see is what we’re doing, as if we’re responsible for everything. We think that we run the world. Our parents are too old and children are too young. We’re the ones upon which everything hinges. Well, guess what? Sooner or later we’re going to be the ones who need taken care of, in one way or another. Those former children are going to be our doctors and health care providers, our politicians and legislators, our policemen and firemen and on and on. If too few of them become competent, caring, and responsible, our lives are going to be hell.

Most of us take the time to plan for our retirements, but short-sightedly we don’t plan for our future. Children are investments. They will mature when we are old. We need them and we need them to be in as good a shape as possible. So why do so many of us balk at doing what it takes to make sure that they are? Let’s make sure that all parents have the support they need to raise their children to be healthy, mentally and physically. It shouldn’t matter if the parent is male or female: it’s the well-being of the children that is the ultimate goal.

Purity Balls and Promiscuity

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The July 28th issue of Time magazine contains a story about Purity Balls. These are formal dress occasions primarily for fathers and daughters where daughters pledge their purity and fathers pledge their protection. That’s a little simplistic, but it’s close enough. These balls have plenty of critics, mainly those who are against abstinence-only sex education and the message that girls are under a man’s tutelage, but others argue that they bring fathers and daughters closer and give girls a strong sense of their own value.

As in most debates, there is truth on both sides. As a feminist, I recoil against a ritual that positions Dad (and then husband) as the most important male in a woman’s life. Doesn’t that perpetuate patriarchy and further the idea that the female sex is weak and in need of male protection and guidance? And do we really need a ball to strengthen father-daughter ties? (We didn’t in my household.) But there are plenty of studies that suggest that girls with absent or detached fathers tend to suffer from self-esteem issues and to be promiscuous. What’s wrong with a father stepping in to ease his daughter’s transition into womanhood?

I have two objections to the charge that girls become promiscuous when they don’t have good relationships with their fathers. One is, who defines promiscuity? Could it be that–horrors!!–a girl is just practicing sexual self-determination? How many partners constitute promiscuity? Five? Twenty? What ages are the daughters the studies are referring to? Twelve? Eighteen? Thirty-five? Second, I think it’s simplistic to say that a father’s noninvolvement causes promiscuity. There are many reasons that play into an out-of-control sex life. Researchers have even made the same claim for ADHD. Not to mention drug and alcohol use. And what about a girl’s relationship with her mother? Is it possible that a girl’s primary model for her own sexuality has less bearing on her sex life than her relationship with her father?

The problem with purity balls is that they send mixed messages. One is that a girl belongs to herself and has the right to determine her own future, free of the pressures put on her by the boys in her life. But the other is that she belongs to her father and, later to her husband, and that she can’t remain “pure” without their protection.

What a lot of people object to with the purity balls is their religious content. They were thought up in 1998 by Randy Wilson and his wife, Lisa, who are members of the evangelical Christian ministry Generations of Light, and the pledges made by father and daughter both are made not just to each other but to God. In the ball that the Time’s reporter witnessed, the girls lay white roses at the foot of a large wooden cross crowned with thorns while their fathers uttered blessings upon them This may not be part of every purity ball, but it is what the balls were originally based on. (Theoretically, you don’t have to be Christian to have or attend one.)

The feminist writer, Eve Ensler, had this response: “When you sign a pledge to your father to preserve your virginity, your sexuality is basically being taken away from you until you sign another contract, a marital one…It makes you feel like you’re the least important person in the equation. It makes you feel invisible.” (From an in-depth article about purity balls in Glamour.)

Then there is the issue of incest, one not usually discussed. These girls in their make-up and ball gowns look an awful lot like wives. And the balls themselves strongly resemble weddings. Fathers may be pledging to protect, but they’re also pledging to love. What kind of love might some fathers be led to interpret this as? (Obviously sick ones, but they are out there.) Is it really healthy to put so much emphasis on their daughters’ sexuality?

In spite of my concerns, I do see the appeal. I had a rough adolescence, not the least of which was due to a series of bad sexual relationships (including date rape–if you can call that a “relationship”)–that made me feel tremendous guilt well into my adulthood. Would a purity ball–or at the least a purity pledge–kept me from becoming sexually involved? Maybe.

But I can’t help but think that there is much more involved in the development of healthy sexual relationships than promises to remain abstinent. And the other side of the coin is that such promises would probably have exacerbated the guilt I already felt when I did get into those relationships. Maybe a better solution is to teach our daughters to take responsibility for their own actions and then help build the self-esteem and strength they need to do so. Somehow I don’t think going to a purity ball is going to do all that.

Weddings, Part 5

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The other day I asked my newly married daughter how it felt to be married. She replied, “Sometimes I forget that I am married. I’m not used to calling Jeremy my husband. But I guess I’ll get used to it.”

Is it a good or bad thing that she doesn’t feel that different? It’s not surprising, that’s for sure: they’ve lived together for several years. But should we feel different when we become husbands or wives? Does marriage really make a difference?

There’s no definitive answer to that question. But it does call into question the concept of marital roles. How do these differ from other roles, like mother or father, daughter or son, employee, citizen, church member, etc. ? When you act like a wife, what are you doing? This used to be clear-cut: you kept up the home and took care of the kids. You were supportive of your husband. You followed him anywhere. You didn’t have sex with other men (or women). As the old adage says: Marriage makes you one, and that one is the husband.

At first glance it might seem that a wife’s role has changed dramatically. Some husbands stay home with the kids. Women go out of the home to work. A wife may even make more money than her husband. Sometimes the couple follows her job, not his. A woman’s career might be the most important thing in her life.

But have things really changed all that much? It’s still rare for a woman to make more than her husband. Many wives still “take orders” from their husbands. They live where he wants to live, vote the way he votes, keep his house and raise his kids. There may be some semblance of egalitarianism, but especially once kids enter the picture, the woman’s life is less autonomous.

Some would argue that a husband’s role is just as restricting. I don’t disagree. And there is also a whole world of difference between men of my generation (Baby Boomers) and young men today that I’m probably not taking into account. But women still have lower-paying jobs, less prestige, discrimination for being female, especially mothers, and less ability to shed their homemaking and care-taking responsibilities. They still have clear-cut roles they must conform to. The question is: will this ever change?

That’s a question that must be answered by succeeding generations of women. The feminist movement can only do so much; individuals must decide for themselves what roles they want to play and which they want to reshape or reject. The roles need to fit them, not the other way around.

Feminist Power

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There are all kinds of feminists today: liberal feminists, traditional feminists, eco-feminists, radical feminists, etc. This implies that these feminists know that their feminism gives them more power as they work for other causes. It’s not feminism or, it’s feminism and. Being a feminist helps a woman to stand on her own two feet and hold her own in every other venue. A woman who is in politics but is not a feminist needs her consciousness raised. She is acting like a feminist whether she wants to acknowledge it or not. A mother who is not a feminist is at the mercy of a patriarchal society. She won’t get what she wants for her kids—what they need—as long as a man doesn’t want to give it to her. Feminism means doing it for yourself. Not waiting for the men in power to give it to you.


About the men in power. There are more women in power than there used to be, it’s true, but they are still operating in a male-dominated system. The system is rigged to favor the boys. Feminists aren’t asking that they be favored instead; they just want equal opportunities. That was Second Wave Feminism’s battle cry. But today we need more than equal opportunities. Today we need restructuring. The feminine viewpoint has to be incorporated into society, on equal footing with the masculine viewpoint. There are some who would argue that there is no such thing—or there should be no such thing—as masculine and feminine viewpoints. I disagree. Or maybe I should clarify: there are other viewpoints than the white upper-class male viewpoint. And they should all be considered. Women have the power to bring about more inclusion in this society. White upper-class men are more about exclusion. They seek to exclude women, people of color, the middle and lower classes. For feminism to be powerful today it should seek to unite all those that WUCMs exclude and bring them together in a power bloc.


The political scene this year is a good case in point. There are far fewer women than men in politics. Why would that be? Because WUCMs have the game all sewed up. No one gets to play unless the WUCMs let them. Obama is allowed because he at least is a male—and an upper-class male at that. Of course, no one without money or “class” has a chance in hell of becoming president. You have to own something substantial to get ahead in this world. Nothing has really changed. This country was founded by WUCMs and it is still being run by them.


Imagine a society in which all groups have an equal say; whose agendas are all taken seriously. The poor, the elderly, the children, the women, the various races and nationalities. As it is now, they all vie for the WUCMs’ approval. What if the game plan were changed and WUCMs were just one group among many? Now that’s the ticket.

Taking Motherhood Seriously

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I’ve been reading The Maternal is Political and it’s filling my head with all kinds of ideas. It’s basically about how being a mother both informs and heightens one’s political awareness. And the potential power of mothers as a group. I think there’s been a disconnect between mothers and feminism since the 60s—or maybe always—when it seemed that the feminists were saying that motherhood was the height of enslavement. And in a way it is. But that enslavement can politicize a woman by making her chafe under its constrictions and get mad enough to fight her way out and for other “slaves.”

Any service job has the potential to enslave the person who’s doing the serving. And motherhood is the quintessential serving job. Why else does the motherhood job description include chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning, money management, activity scheduling, child care, nursing, laundering, home renovation, grocery shopping, menu planning and on and on ad nauseum? (Is there an end to this list?) And I’m not just talking about SAHMs (Stay At Home Mothers); even mothers who work for wages are expected to fulfill all these roles. It goes with the territory.

 

Anyone who thinks that SAHMs have it easy—they don’t have to punch a time clock, answer to a boss, get along with other employees, commute, do menial work for little pay—has never been a mother of any kind, let alone a SAHM. Children are the ultimate taskmasters and the most challenging people in the world to get along with. You have to be on the job 24/7, most of the work is menial and the pay is not just negligible, it’s non-existent. None of this is news to a mother. That other people—even sometimes fathers—don’t seem to know this about motherhood is one indication that its concerns need to be politicized. Consciousnesses need to be raised, action needs to be taken. Mothers deserve all the help they can get. Not because they are enslaved—most mothers don’t describe themselves as such—but because of what makes them mothers: their children.

 

It’s not just that mothers care about their children; it’s that they care more than others do. I’m not denigrating fathers or non-parents, but there’s something different about being a mother. The adage that a mother would save her child if she had to choose between saving her husband and her child is, for the most part, a true one. Fathers would, more often than not, save their spouses first. Of course, I’m generalizing here, but the evidence speaks for itself: mothers have different priorities. Society has a vested interest in protecting and nurturing its children, but mothers are doing it, every single hour of every single day. Instead of penalizing women because they have children, they should be supported, in any way possible, to make it easier for them to raise our future generations.

 

One thing that feminism has achieved has been a universalizing of the importance of parenthood. Fathers have benefited from the privileges that women have been awarded. Time off for new parenthood is now available to both sexes. (Even though, in most instances, it is not paid time off—America’s record in this area is abysmal compared to other countries.) Ideally, both sexes would always benefit from things like quality and affordable day care, decent pay, flexible hours, and family leave. But as long as women are the primary caregivers—not just of children, but of the ill and the elderly as well—they deserve special dispensations that men may not get. If we’re not going to pay mothers for the services they provide, then let’s at least take them seriously and give them what they need to do the job.

Second and Third Wave Feminists

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If anything typifies the modern young woman it is her ability to take her rights as a woman for granted. This is even true of young feminists. They may acknowledge, if pressed, that there are still issues that need to be addressed, but they don’t seem to have any personal misgivings about whether or not they will be. If anything, they are critical of earlier incarnations of feminists (usually the Second Wave feminists) for being too pessimistic about society. They feel that SW fems are trying to make a tempest in a teapot. Women’s problems have largely been solved. Society has seen the error of its ways. End of story.

When I took Women’s Studies courses a year ago, I was struck by the past tense status of SW feminism. It was as if we were merely an entry in a history book. I suppose to young people we are. But I usually don’t think of someone’s life as “history” until she’s dead. I’m not dead yet, although I may seem to be ancient to the 20 and 30-year-olds of today.

I’m not exactly sure where the lines of demarcation are for Second and Third Wave feminists, but surely anyone born after the ’60s would qualify for Third Wave status. That puts all my daughters in that category. I think they would all identify themselves as feminists, but they don’t talk about it much. Maybe that’s one difference between Second and Third Wave feminists. SW feminists talked, wrote, and protested openly and constantly. Third Wave feminism is almost an underground movement. There are leaders out there, but they don’t have the visibility that leaders in SW feminism had.

That could be a mistaken perception on my part. There is the generation gap to consider. I may not see the leaders and the things that are being done for the sake of feminism today because I’m out of touch with the younger generation. But I don’t think that accounts for all of it. During the Democratic campaign for presidential candidate, whenever there was a discussion about feminist principles, it was always SW feminists who were quoted and reported on. Whenever the discussion came up, it was about SW feminists who were for Clinton. I never heard a young woman say, “I’m for Obama because I’m a feminist.” I’m not saying that no young woman ever said that, but it certainly didn’t seem to be newsworthy. Is that because TW feminists are so low-key about their feminism?

It seems to me that TW feminists treat their feminism the way many people treat their religion. They say that they’re religious but they never go to church, synagogue, or mosque. They don’t read and write and speak about their religions. And they certainly don’t go out and protest as representatives of their religions. It’s as if feminism is a personal decision which has nothing to do with society and the world at large. And yet I realize that it does have to be personal first, just as religious belief should be (ideally). Institutionalized feminism just isn’t going to be as passionate as the grassroots movement was during the 60s and 70s.

What do I mean by institutionalized feminism? More about that in a later post.