Woman, the New Social Problem

Maureen Dowd. Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide. Putnam. November 2005.

Caitlin Flanagan. To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. Little, Brown & Company. April 2006.

Linda R. Hirshman. Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. Viking. June 2006.

Laura Kipnis. Against Love: A Polemic. Pantheon. August 2003.

A spate of recent books and articles and counter-articles and letters about the articles has declared that American women are in crisis. They’ve been dropping out of prestigious jobs and taking on all the housework; the accomplished ones can’t get a date; and then there are the kids, those black holes of endless need. The authors accuse women of abandoning their children for work, abandoning public life for their children, acting too feminine or too feminist, confusing their sexuality with pornography, and generally failing to make their lives run smoothly. Woven through these concerns, too, has been a distinct thread of anxiety about what academic social science is pleased to call “affective life,” which most people call love.

This persistent litany made me wonder what other anxieties lay behind the malaise attributed to women (and somehow never to men, who apparently live without conflict, or kids). Gender seems to leave an awful lot unexplained. All these books by successful, educated professional women harp on “transformations” in mating, child rearing, and women’s role in the workplace, at a time when a radically changing labor market threatens the security of everyone—not just women.

Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary expanded a New York Times column into a full-blown cartoon (minus pictures) of straight women’s romantic travails. The book’s vignettes—culled largely from coworkers, friends, and of course Dowd’s own life—recite pure cliché: If your date buys you dinner, do you pay him back with sex? Isn’t going dutch confusing? Even when Dowd describes the new age of Googling prospective dates and indulging in wanton collegiate hookups, the past is on her mind. Her mother’s copy of How to Catch and Hold a Man may have morphed into chick lit, but the old rules still hold. Dowd’s popularity suggests that we are loath to relinquish them.

The best-known parts of her complaint come down to an insistence that attraction and courtship thrive on the substantial social differences between the genders. A successful woman cannot be happy with a less successful man, nor a successful man happy with a more successful woman. It couldn’t be otherwise, we’re told, because Dowd’s mind is under control from elsewhere—from somewhere in her DNA: “Evolution is still lagging behind equality. So females are still programmed to look for older men with resources while males are still programmed to look for younger women with adoring gazes.” Women’s subordinate status, in other words, is the motor of love. But Dowd reassures us that women’s achievements need not spoil their love lives—as long as they downplay their wits and résumés and indulge men’s need for soothing deference. Feminism opened up opportunities for women to flourish, and flourish they should—but only at work. Over dinner, they’ll get better results with feminine incapacity. Dowd lodges a book-length brief, masked as a complaint, about how a smart woman won’t get her romantic due until she learns to play dumb.

Dowd’s dating manual is a panegyric to the past; Caitlin Flanagan’s domestic chronicle, To Hell with All That, is an epic of sanctimonious self-congratulation. Like Phyllis Schlafly, the self-described “anti-feminist” Flanagan makes a career out of insisting on the irreplaceable importance of full-time mothering. Stay-at-home mothers, she writes, “ensure that their kids get the very best of them.” Flanagan’s own children get the best of both their mother and a nanny. Once in a while, she’ll feel the old Schlaflian moral fervor, as when she admonishes women to pay into their nannies’ FICA taxes. Otherwise, her tone is flippant—as if to prevent us from noticing how serious she is when she treats her atypical prosperity as universal.

Like Dowd, Flanagan is comfortable with categorical gender differences from an earlier era. All women, she says, share a natural homemaking expertise and high standards of cleanliness (Flanagan employs a housekeeper, too), and are attuned like sensitive radar equipment to children’s needs. Men, though, had best stay in the office making more money. Even when they can be coaxed into housework, they’re hard-pressed to approach womanly precision, and they’re incapable of giving their kids a mother’s intuitive care.

Flanagan’s book, for those who take it seriously, is supposed to reopen the schism between mothers who work in the formal labor market (particularly those elites rich enough to do so for satisfaction as well as income) and those who work as full-time caregivers. This is an old fight that, once people start swinging, manages to produce a doubly bad result: alternately idealizing and denigrating caring labor, then doing the same to professional achievement. Each option’s effects on the children’s well-being are parsed in degrees so minute they may require a new unit of measure.

The absurdity of the debate is that it’s basically about rich people. Perhaps the “opting-out” option says only this about our current moment of feminism: that a well-off, professional woman (a product of earlier feminisms) possesses a culturally approved script for exiting work—she can simply declare that she’s dedicating her energies to an upscale, artisanal version of unpaid child rearing. Poorer women are far less likely to have this option—and if they do, they can’t tell their story in the same self-serving way. When it comes to the freedom to choose whether to work for a living or not, gender is hardly the most important variable. Middle-class women and middle-class men have much more in common with each other, in this regard­, than middle-class women and poor women.

The caveat is that as long as women are the primary bearers of the burden of child care, being a woman will have a profoundly detrimental effect on your access to work and pay. Linda Hirshman has this hazard in mind as she lectures young women in her American Prospect essay “Homeward Bound.” Incited by tales of an “opt-out revolution”—massed columns of women leaving work for child rearing—Hirshman denounces stay-at-home moms for letting down the sex by reducing the number of women in influential, high-status jobs. Such a claim requires substantial supporting data, which Hirshman collected by flipping through the Sunday Times—her argument rests on an analysis of women wealthy (and vain) enough to have their weddings featured in the Styles section.

Hirshman addresses college-bound women, assuming, for some reason, that they consider love the arena of their greatest ambition. She argues that they should instead be looking out for their financial security, majoring in a practical subject that will lead to a well-paid occupational niche. Career ambition should guide the search for a spouse, too. A useful husband will be older and already secure; otherwise he should be low-status enough to defer to your career imperatives. (This latter good husband sounds a lot like the “good wife” of the past.) Finally, a woman should never jeopardize her ability to compete at work by having more than one child. So Hirshman, on her way to reorganizing the world via women’s role in the workplace, accepts the androcentric models according to which professional life is still organized. Her program, as a feminist, is to encourage individual women to bring their lives into closer adherence to that model: in other words, to be more “like men.” So much for collective action: progress will only come if it’s every man for herself.

A few months after Hirshman’s essay appeared, the economist Claudia Goldin published an op-ed in the Times describing her study of 10,000 women college graduates, the majority of whom neither left their careers after having children nor forwent childbearing for work.

Then there’s Laura Kipnis, video artist, academic, and newly minted polemicist. Polemic, like all forms of demolition, is an irresistible spectacle. Less so, admittedly, when the target no longer exists. Kipnis’s jeremiad Against Love is waged against domestic monogamy of longue durée—what Kipnis calls “coupledom,” as though it were a despotic kingdom and she the leader of a populist uprising. To be half of a couple is to be harrowed by surveillance (“You’re home late”) and drained by mundane demands (“You don’t want to eat dinner now?”). Your inner life is flushed like prey from protective cover to sustain the ideal of intimacy. Then there’s the rote quality of the sex you’ll rarely have. In these circumstances, cheating constitutes a rebellion and even a critique of the organization of love. Defiance restores our self-sovereignty.

If Dowd’s concerns seem about eighty years old in one tradition, going back to the earliest days of the “new woman,” Kipnis’s distaste is about eighty years old in the rival line. It reminds me of nothing so much as the debates of Ursula, Gudrun, Crich, and above all Birkin, D. H. Lawrence’s mouthpiece, in Women in Love: “Marriage is a pis aller. . . . It’s a sort of tacit hunting in couples: the world all in couples, each couple in its own little house, watching its own little interests, and stewing in its own little privacy—it’s the most repulsive thing on earth.” Lawrence’s heated tone reflected the power of the inflexible constraints of his times. Kipnis attacks the routinized “prison” of monogamy as though she, too, wrote nearly a century ago. She seems not to notice that the bars of Lawrence’s cage have long been sawed through, and that romantic commitment is now eminently revocable. You just break up or separate or get divorced. To speculate about the future of a romance is to acknowledge (even if only to oneself) that it has slender odds of permanence. When insecurity is endemic, it seems pointless to celebrate the “transformative” riskiness of cheating. What does it mean to cheat when you can just as easily move on?

It’s when Kipnis tries to imply a link between contemporary social arrangements of love and arrangements of work that we see what she’s really getting at. Kipnis claims that we’re alienated from our work because it, like marriage, is routinized in the style of Henry Ford’s production system. She tells us that the miserable drudgery of monogamy aids employers because it acclimates workers to the miserable drudgery of work. Cheating, Kipnis glibly suggests, questions the necessity of monogamy—might not the critique spill over into the workday?

This is exactly backward. You don’t need to have read much political economy to know that the contemporary postindustrial service economy’s dominant model of flexible specialization relies on quick changes, not predictability. Companies keep up by modifying their goods and services, and shuffling or shedding workers accordingly. Routines at work, in many cases, are likely to be fleeting.

For workers, this means that more jobs, at all levels of pay, require them continuously to work on themselves. Free agents—a euphemism for people with no guarantees—must never stop learning. Indeed, what you’ve already learned becomes outdated, a liability to be forgotten—employers would prefer a blank slate. Never forget that you are a salable commodity: CEO of brand You!

In our private lives, the transformation is just as profound. Our default serial monogamy, our noncommitment and obsession with self-refashioning—these resemble nothing so much as casualized employment. Economic and romantic life converge, in a register of profound insecurity defined by constant movement—in and out of capital markets, jobs, relationships. The increasing contingency of work creates a labor force of insecurely employed “consultants,” freelancers, and part-time salesclerks, and something similar could be said about the romantic market. As long as a relationship (between boss and employee, between spouses) conforms to the utilitarian ideal of mutual benefit, the relationship will continue. If not, nothing much prevents it from ending. You’ll find someone who will make better use of what you bring to the table, says your former lover, or the head of HR, as you pack your things.

These authors counsel changes in individual behavior. Dowd and Flanagan, tongue-in-cheek or not, encourage women to retreat into “womanly” roles. Hirshman and Kipnis encourage masculinist individualism. Neither strategy seems likely to ease the tension between the demands of contemporary work and love, or to address the persistent gender inequality that cripples women’s material security.

Though written exclusively by rich women, the women-in-crisis books nonetheless reveal a genuine panic about the ever heightening tensions between private life and the work demands of contemporary capitalism. Women are a logical surrogate for these concerns, because of the persistence of a sexual division of labor that assigns them primary responsibility for child care. Jobs simply weren’t designed to mesh with what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls a “second shift” at home. The more prestigious professions (and, really, any job with the chance of promotion) lean especially hard on young workers, who are supposed to build reputations, not families. In this context, caring for children becomes a flash-point that reveals the impasse between the demands of work and private life.

So while the behavior of women—at home, at work, at dinner—is not the genuine issue, it is feminism that offers the best solution. For feminism’s most important unfinished work lies precisely here: in a redefinition of our attitude toward care and care workers, and in securing for them social recognition and material support—full rights of social citizenship, in academic feminist parlance.

Debates about “opting out” reflect an unresolved ambivalence about the value of care. The second-wave feminist movement tended to reject the domestic in favor of public life. Housework was rote drudgery, and when did kids ever make for stimulating intellectual company? Pay some other, poorer woman and get a life. More recent feminists, though, have argued for a revaluation of care as an essential contribution to the social good. A combination of paid work and caregiving already characterizes many women’s lives—pro-care groups like the Women’s Committee of One Hundred aim to secure state support to make this mix the norm for men and women. The key point of this program is that care workers (part- or full-time, parents or nannies) themselves should be supported: with good wages, health care, and paid time off, funded by the state with tax revenue. It may sound impossibly ambitious, but what are our other options? Not Dowdism, not Flanaganism. Not, surely, the Bush administration’s marriage-promotion programs.

Care of others hampers self-development—at least, development of the kind employers require. Care is long-term, it strives to create security, and it requires personal sacrifice. Thus caring labor marks the most visible point of strain between private life and the lability required to prevent free agency from turning into free fall. As long as women continue to bear primary responsibility for child care, they are at a disadvantage in playing by a flexible economy’s rules. But giving and receiving care is universal. Everyone is a potential candidate for major care; and all romantic relationships, even childless ones, eventually require it. Your partner gets laid off, you become chronically ill. Care complicates moving on: you might be through with someone, but what if they can’t choose to be through with their need of you?

The pis aller these days isn’t about gender or love at all: it’s about staying loose and agile—i.e., employable, desirable—enough to withstand the next round of change, whether romantic or professional. Intimacy may be an impediment to the economic necessity to make ourselves the center of our own lives; love often seems like it may only prove a period of mutual hobbling. In a bid for control and security, we deploy an absurd logic that forces us to compare the value of incommensurable goods: Do we trade love for success? Children for ambition? Care of others for our responsibility to ourselves? There’s no reason love should be the hook on which to hang the meaning of our lives; but, these days, wanting or having it at all provokes anxiety. Under such circumstances, who wouldn’t look askance at love? What’s it going to cost, after all? Can we possibly afford it?

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