The Reality and Benefits of Doing Something for Nothing

Who does most of the unpaid labor in the world? This includes child care, housekeeping, taking care of and  nursing those in ill health, running errands,  transportation and volunteer work. The chart below is from an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development working paper titled “Cooking, Caring and Volunteering: Unpaid Work Around the World.”

Is this a bad thing or a good thing? Are women just naturally more willing to work for no pay? Do women feel pressured to do all the unpaid work that they do?

It might be more accurate to say that men are less willing to work for no pay, partly because of economic necessity (especially if they’re a family’s sole provider). Obviously if a woman does not work outside of the home, she’s going to be the one “tagged” to do all the things in a family’s life that no one gets paid to do. But even when both spouses work, women spend a disproportionate amount of time on these activities compared to men. For example, take child care:

On average, working fathers spend only 10 minutes more per day on child care when they are not working, whereas working mothers spend nearly twice as much time (144 minutes vs. 74) when not working.

I know that many women do these things willingly and wouldn’t have it any other way. But in many cases the woman isn’t given any choice; it’s just assumed that she will be the one to take off work to care for a sick relative, for instance.

This is certainly one of the factors that account for the wage gap. If women are the ones who are more likely to take off time to do unpaid labor, they are less likely to be promoted.

There’s nothing wrong with giving of one’s time to do things for others. You could even argue that it’s good for one’s soul.

So why not encourage men to do more unpaid labor? They might learn something that women have known for centuries: there’s more to life than a paycheck.

 

The Breakdown of the Family

There are a lot of people who blame feminism for the breakdown of the family. They see feminists as essentially selfish people, who don’t care who they hurt in their quests to get what they want. They divorce their husbands, leave their children in the care of strangers and let ambition take over their lives. What critics of feminism won’t admit is that it is not just feminists who are doing these things. Any woman can be guilty of putting themselves before their families, as can any man.

familyRather, feminism is a corrective measure for what’s wrong with our society.

When a relationship is unhealthy or abusive, feminism gives a woman the courage to leave. When an employer is cheating female employees out of pay or benefits, feminism inspires them to speak up for themselves. When a woman has to support herself and her children, feminism looks out for her interests in the courts and the workplace. When young girls and women are trying to find themselves, feminism gives them models and mentors.

Emotional, physical and financial security do not contribute to the breakdown of the family.

What does?

The economy. It’s the rare family that can exist on one income. Most women go to work outside of the home at some point in their marriages. (And that’s not even counting the ones who have to work because of divorce or the death of their spouses.) Children get more expensive, college needs to be paid for, retirement plans need to be funded, health care costs rise.

Materialism. More families might be able to get by with less if they didn’t want so damn much. The rate at which technology is changing means that there is always some new improved products that consumers feel they just have to have. Many people overspend on houses, cars and vacations. Cable, cell phones and Internet access are seen as necessities.

The workplace. When the world became industrialized, women left their homes to work in sweatshops and mills. When WWII came along they went to work in the factories. Now the service industry is growing exponentially and women obviously have to work outside of the home when they have those kinds of jobs. Not only that, but the workplace usually makes it more difficult for a woman to fulfill her wifely and motherly duties because of inflexibility.

Divorce. I include divorce in this list, but the truth is, divorce doesn’t break down the family, it just creates different family formations. A single parent with children is a family. An adult child living with parents is a family. The only form of family that gets hit hard by divorce is the nuclear family. And it’s never been as prominent as people would like to believe. Parents used to have to send their children to relatives or children’s homes when they couldn’t afford to keep them. Now they at least try to maintain some kind of family unit. It just doesn’t look like some people want it to look.

The reason that feminism is blamed for the breakdown of the family is because women are blamed for the breakdown of the family. What about the man who abandons or doesn’t support his family? Is that feminism’s fault, too? Let’s put the blame where it really belongs and start looking to feminism for solutions.

The Happiness Index

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers released a paper in May of this year for the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) about “the paradox of declining female happiness. ” Soon after, op-ed columnist for the New York Times  Ross Douthat wrote a column about the paper titled “Liberated and Unhappy.” And now we have Maureen Dowd, another NYT columnist, weighing in on the same topic in “Blue is the New Black.” (I don’t understand the title, but maybe that’s just me.)

We feminists are used to being blamed for all of society’s ills. In fact, women in general ought to be used to that, especially the ones who are uppity enough to sound off about their complaints. Look at parenting: which parent comes under the most fire when it comes to the success of their children? Apparently all the dad has to do is be there to be effective. (How many times have you heard it said that single-parent–read “mother” –households would be better off if there were a man in the house?) But the mother has to do far more than just be there. And God help her, if she doesn’t fulfill all her roles, she will be blamed for the problems her children have, as well as for all the ills of society.

This could be part of the reason women are unhappy. But does it account for their greater unhappiness which has coincidentally occurred since the feminist revolution? Douthat writes:

“In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of “the problem with no name,” American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.”

Dowd goes a step further:

“When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.”

And yet how many of today’s women would want to trade their lives for the lives their mothers lived? And is it really all the choices that are making women unhappy?

I have compiled what I call “The Happiness Index.” What it does is list several factors that can contribute to a sense of well-being (or the reverse) and asks a woman to rate where she stands on a scale from 1 to 5, or “very unhappy, “unhappy,” “neutral (neither happy or unhappy),” “happy” or “very happy.”

  1. If you are in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  2. If you are not in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  3. How do you feel about your marital status (single, divorced, married)? (Indicate what your status is.)
  4. How do you feel about being a parent, if you are one?
  5. If you are not a parent, how do you feel about being childless?
  6. If you have a career outside of your parenting and household duties, how do you feel about it?
  7. How do you feel about the work you do outside of the home?
  8. How do you feel about the work you do inside of the home?
  9. How do you feel about how appreciated you are (by partner, child(ren), friends, employer, co-workers)? (Answer for each category.)
  10. How do you feel about your economic status?
  11. How do you feel about where you live (the neighborhood, city, country or your actual home)?
  12. If you have a religious affiliation or a spiritual life, how happy are you with either/both?
  13. How happy are you with the part politics and government play in your life?
  14. No matter what you do, how do you feel about the amount of autonomy you have? (Do you wish you had more or less?)
  15. What is your attitude about your looks?
  16. Are you happy with how you are aging?
  17. How do you feel about your health?
  18. How do you feel about your sex life?

Now add up your scores. The higher the score, the happier you are (and the lower, the unhappier, of course). Pretty simple.

Blaming–or crediting–the feminist movement alone for your unhappiness or happiness is pointless. It’s not the degree of choice that stresses women out, it’s whether or not they have choices. It’s not what your marital status is that makes you happy or unhappy–it’s how you feel about your status, not to mention the quality of the relationships you do have. In fact, what you make of all these situations is the greatest factor of all.

And then there’s the question of the effect feminism itself has had on all of these areas. To what degree can you blame feminism for your looks, how you’re aging and and your health? Does feminism aid or hinder your parenting or relationship skills? Has feminism made your economic situation better or worse (or are there other factors that have contributed to your economic stability or instability? If you are divorced, has feminism given you more power in the negotiations? Do you think you would have gotten that promotion, salary, admission or career without feminism? Has feminism made it more or less likely that you will be stuck in a low-paying job? Would you have had enough courage to ask for sexual satisfaction or to seek out birth control if this were the ’50s?

I deplore knee-jerk reactions in either direction when it comes to the debate about what feminism has done for women–and men–in our society. What is really called for is a thoughtful consideration of all the factors that can influence happiness levels. The pursuit of happiness is a tricky thing, but important enough to be mentioned in our constitution along with life and liberty. What part does feminism play in your life satisfaction? Only you can decide.

The Femagination Book Store

If you’re looking for books specifically by and for women, look no further! I’m in the process of building a Femagination Book Store. Topics (so far) include:

  1. DVDs
  2. Finances
  3. First Wave Literature
  4. Memoirs
  5. Motherhood
  6. Multicultural Feminism
  7. Politics
  8. Reproductive Rights
  9. Second Wave Literature
  10. Sexuality
  11. Spirituality
  12. Third Wave Literature
  13. Women Writers
  14. Women’s History
  15. Workplace

Click on the title of this post and it will take you there.