Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Are women superhuman?

In my arrogant imagination, I tend to imagine my undergraduate college is a darker place these days. No more do my friends haunt its staircases and quads (well, a couple of them still do, including my college husband, but he hardly counts); no more the evening gatherings outside the dining hall trying desperately to put off late-night library trips, or having indoor curry picnics whilst watching the latest episode of Doctor Who. The Staircase of Feminine Awesomeness is now likely lived in by men of all people, its true members scattered to the four corners of the world: Beijing, Vienna, North London and South London. To be fair, I am talking about part of what is literally the oldest university in the English-speaking world, which does not usually approve of frivolous modern things like “change”, so I imagine that the rooms still look the same and the staff are still mostly recognisable and the cafeteria still serves the same Mystery Fish with Inappropriate Vegetables every Wednesday. But all the people who really made it awesome are now off living in the Real World, and it’s a depressing thing to think about.

There is one exception to my pessimism, however, and that’s the fact that in the year since the Staircase of Feminine Awesomeness disbanded and my presence in the Class of 2008 ended, my college now has its very own feminist discussion group, complete with Facebook presence! I am only tentatively familiar with the exact reasons for its creation (although I’m definitely familiar with the general ones!), but it’s heartening to know that I come from a place where these things are becoming more institutionalised. And having access to the Facebook group means I get another regular feed of interesting news from back home.

One thing which turned up a few days back and got me thinking was the Union’s first Women Forum, the theme for which was the latest tired rehash of that tired feminist debate, “Can women have it all?” Well-read people will remember that Princeton Academic Anne-Marie Slaughterdecided to “reignite” this in the Atlantic a few months back. The fact that this was being brought up again intrigued me, although sadly the events page itself is completely devoid of anybody taking apart how silly this question is as the basis for a gender debate, especially one that’s supposed to introduce freshers’ to women’s issues and campaigns at university.

Because, I’m sorry, but anybody who expends more than 5 seconds cogitating on the problem of “Can women have it all?” needs to have a serious little think about their life choices. If you don’t agree, try de-gendering it: “Can people have it all?” The answer is pretty obviously no. You cannot have an incredibly high-flying career and hang around with your family as much as you want and watch enough telly to be a hardcore pop culture reference guru and speak twenty languages and read all the super-important news sites in your bookmarks every day and play accordion in a punk ceilidh band every weekend and write a novel a month and go drinking with your friends every night and still find time to eat and sleep and wash and have soulful technicolour Naomi Wolf orgasms on a twice-daily basis. Believe me, if I could make the above life work, I would. But I can’t, and it’s not because I would have to learn the accordion and the other seventeen languages and live on the same continent as my family. It’s also got nothing to do with being lazy, compulsively negative about my own abilities or, most importantly, female. What restricts me most, alas, is the fundamental limits of human capacity!

If you need more evidence, just try playing the Sims- maybe you can get your Sim to the top of their career path, or to have indoor firework shows with 20 other people, or get abducted by aliens and have weird green babies, but if you try to do all of those things the game just falls apart. You end up getting exhausted, wetting yourself, crying and then refusing to do anything but sit on the sofa watching the same thirty seconds of cartoons on a loop whilst burglars steal all of the priceless art out of your house. And this is in a universe where hired help is affordable to all income levels! What hope do those of us who actually do have to do our own washing up have for living ultimately fulfilled lives?

Of course, this broad definition of “having it all” is not what Slaughter is referring to- to her, the big juggling act is between career and family, which is understandable as I suppose not many people make aspirations to accordion playing stardom one of their unattainable life goals. She talks about the difficulty of going to work in government for two years when her teenage sons were growing up in a different state, and how despite believing beforehand that her position, under Hilary Clinton, would be her dream job, after two years she realised that she was quite happy to give it up in order to be with her children. Ergo, women cannot have it all, despite the fact that an amorphous blob of older feminists told an amorphous blob of younger feminists that this would be the case. Now Slaughter reports that the amorphous blob of younger feminists are incredibly betrayed because apparently they have not played the Sims enough to know that “having it all” is ridiculous.

I’m actually being unfair on Slaughter herself. Buried deep inside this article (which is twelve hundred words long) is the analysis which I think really matters- that Slaughter decided to stop doing her “dream job” after two years and go back to her tenure at Princeton because that’s what actually made her happier. Turns out that when you make judgements about what your dream job would be before you’ve tried that job out, it is quite possible that when doing said job you might change your mind! Despite our collective inability as a species to process that prestige does not always equal fulfilment, the case that this article is predicated on is one in which a person realised that having a very prestigious job in politics was not actually what she wanted to do with her life. So she stopped.** End of story.

Except not end of story, for one simple reason: as a woman, and especially a woman in a prestigious position where gender imbalances still exist, Slaughter’s experiences are not just the stories of one person trying to live a balanced and fulfilling life based on the constraints of keeping the real world equivalents of those little hunger and hygiene and toilet meters high enough to not collapse or wet yourself at inappropriate times. Instead, they are a Tale of Woman, a view from the top that demonstrates to the rest of us lady-people that if this super successful, eloquent, fertile woman cannot find a balance between a family and an extremely demanding job, then the rest of us losers are highly unlikely to have a universally fulfilling life either. Therefore, critics of Slaughter’s piece, and some of her friends whose words she reports in the article, are able to believe that by giving up her job and then telling people about how it made her feel, Slaughter has betrayed the entirety of womankind- as a successful woman, her life experience should be constantly reinforcing a particular view of liberal feminist empowerment, and by living her life as her own rather than living up to this, feminism suffers.

But it’s just too demanding for us to think this way; as if every single action of our lives is keyed into this big woman empowerment scale whereby actions either advance or hold back a single feminist cause. For one thing, there isn’t just one scale. Slaughter’s tale of hard choices at the top is a totally relevant story, but it’s the story of one high-flying middle-aged white woman. At the time of writing, the New Statesman has just run a piece by Vagenda about what a waste of time “intersectionality” is (inexplicably their argument is that it makes feminism too elitist!) which is quite rightly causing an enormous stir on both my Twitter and my Tumblr. The unfortunate idea that feminism can be reduced to the struggle of white middle class educated women is probably the movement's greatest flaw, but it's one that every half decent feminist is trying to confront. However, even aside from the webs of discrimination that come with race and sexual orientation and ability, plenty of women live extremely demanding lives juggling work and family without any of the fulfilment which Slaughter can obtain from her jobs. Real people, unlike Sims, cannot hire a maid in a sexy outfit for 10 simoleons per hour to look after their children, and when they do have domestic workers they are also real women facing a very different economic reality from that of their employers. Whilst stories at the top should still be told, postulating on whether women can “have it all” at this level when so many women are striving for fulfilment with so much less seems a little blinkered, to say the least.

However, I think a wider problem is that framing these questions as if “Can women ever be optimally successful and fulfilled in their lives” as if that is a meaningful line of enquiry hides the actual gendered issues going on here. One thing that confused me immensely in the first page was the way in which Slaughter’s husband, Andrew Moravscik, is discussed. During her time in Washington, he was primarily responsible for caring for the children, for which Slaughter professes extreme gratitude and fortuitousness. I actually had to look the guy up on Wikipedia to see if he was actually the biological father of her children, as he’s never referred to as “my sons’ father”. He is, but the idea that he is willing to act as a primary caregiver is seen as a great, almost selfless act. This would be unimaginable the other way around- in fact, the male equivalent of “having it all” seems to be “being the provider”, which manages to conflate work and family into one single question of economic productivity, at the cost of having a larger presence in actual family life***. Over here in China, UNRISD has just released the first long-term gendered time use survey, which shows that women spend three times as much time as men in unpaid work, and almost half of their proportional working time in unpaid as opposed to paid labour; for men the ratio is about twenty percent. The fact that being a woman still comes with this bundle of “background labour” in almost all societies puts fulfilment that much further out of our grasp. It’s worth noting that almost all of this discrepancy is in housework, rather than childcare (largely because childcare timings across the population were pretty negligible, likely thanks to the one child policy!), which suggests that for so many women, having time to genuinely pursue fulfilment is still further out of reach than for their male equivalents.

I do feel that in terms of time use, and childcare, and what constitutes fulfilling family choices for men, women of my generation, and the generation who just sat through “Can women have it all” in freshers’ week at my university, do live in a different world. None of the men I consider my peers have particular gendered expectations about housework or childcare****, so I am optimistic that we are moving at least somewhat to a world where women can make their own choices about fulfilment without the fact of “being a woman” getting in the way. What does get in the way is the idea that our ideology could ever take away the fact that there will have to be choices, and they may be difficult. Spending time at university wondering whether your gender means you can do everything just detracts from the real point of university- figuring out what you want to do, trying to make it happen, and being able to learn from your mistakes without worrying that you are proving some grand point about the Limits of Woman.


*Not direct ones, alas, my college children never college-married (although one did real-world-marry so I guess that’s something?)

**Then she wrote a 12,000 word piece on it. Which sure puts my wordiness into perspective!

***Though this is of course a grand morally excellent sacrifice, rather than a state of affairs which should cause us to wonder if men can have it all. That question would just be silly!

****To be fair this is probably because I don’t consider sexists to be my peers, but I honestly don’t know guys who are openly like this at all. Incompetent men, yes. But actually just as many incompetent women too. It’s a whole new incompetent world out there!