Difference Feminism: June Cleaver with an M.B.A. or a New Brand of Women?

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Difference Feminism: June Cleaver with an M.B.A. or a New Brand of Women?

Nancy Evans


The notion of difference among the sexes has been studied extensively in terms of cognition and brain activity. An MRI can back these claims, showing male and female brains 'lighting up' in different locations based upon different stimuli. Anyone with a close relationship to a child can attest to the fact that they were born with certain traits. Perhaps their nephew is very shy, while their niece has never met s stranger. In other words, some difference among individuals is innate, fundamental. This notion has been applied to studies in the animal world. Susan Allport, author of A Natural History of Parenting,, notes that "Males provide direct childcare in less than 5 percent of mammalian species, but in over 90 percent of bird species both male and female tend to their young." While researchers have focused on other species, they have been hesitant to apply this sort of lens to human families, largely because this sort of biological inherency does not directly align with the push for equality and equal rights that have been so important in recent history in the United States. Fundamentally, to state that biology creates difference in humans and that this sort of difference has the ability to manifest itself in divergent capabilities carries political and social risk for minority and oppressed groups.

This has been a main tenet of the argument against difference feminism, yet even some of the most socially radical women have yet to abandon the importance of difference. This paper will examine the limitations of difference feminism, applying a critical lens to the discussion both for and against, with special attention to current political implications. The devaluation of care work in the United States will figure prominently, as well as policy solutions that are pro-women on both sides of the debate.

Many women, despite their views of difference feminism, hold varying expectations for the behavior of women. In her article "What Abu Ghraib Taught Me", Barbara Ehrenreich recounts her the process by which she became disillusioned with the notion of female moral superiority. Despite claiming that she "never believed that women were inherently gentler and less aggressive than men", Ehrenreich divulges her shock at the images of Spc.s Megan Ambuhl, Sabrina Harman, and Lynndie England, stating "secretly, I hoped that the presence of women would over time change the military, making it more respectful...but I don't think that anymore." Ehrenreich lays the foundation for a concise argument for gender equality; namely, if women want to achieve equality, they must let go of the notions of higher moral existence. In other words, if women are as good as men, they are also as bad as men. The message becomes somewhat convoluted as Ehrenreich seems unable to let go of the idea that women may still be able to change corrupt, male-dominated systems. She proves herself an optimist in favor of the difference feminism she previously decried, qualifying her argument with the belief that "women do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them, only by consciously deciding to fight for change. We need a feminism that teaches women to say no."

While Ehrenreich's remarks seem highly contradictory, within them lies an inherent paradox of the role of women in male-dominated systems. Perhaps women are no stronger in character, no more inclined to do the morally right or just thing than men. Women may partake in the same questionable or punishable behavior as men, but this is contingent upon women buying into the male-centric and male-created systems that afford these opportunities. The fact that a uterus may be "no substitute for a conscience" is lamentable, but valuable in that the recognition leads Ehrenreich to a seemingly brightpanacea: the idea of opt-out feminism. Biological differences and moral inherency aside, women have the unique opportunity to remove themselves from a system that is not built or upon their values, decisions or input or contingent upon their
participation.

"Just say no" feminism is an appropriate summation of the thoughts and concerns expressed in Lisa Belkin's now-famous article in the New York Times, "The Opt-Out Revolution". In her article, published in November 2003, Belkin brings to light the voice of the highly-educated woman who has chosen to reject the ideal of gender equality in favor of a more care-centered, female-specific ideology. Of the women cited in the article, all attended Princeton, most are members of an Atlanta book club, about half are not working at all, very few work part-time or do free-lance work, and only one has a full-time job (but no children). Interestingly, the women in Belkin's study received a prestigious education (all have at least an undergraduate education, with most
having received an MBA) but came from different socio-economic backgrounds, had differing histories of parental involvement and work outside the home, and in some cases belonged to different generations of feminist thought, yet all shared an appreciation for the ethic of care. These women "[were] recruited by the top firms in all fields. They start strong out of the gate. And then, suddenly, they stop" to attempt to redefine success outside of the workplace. Belkin provides a logical continuation of Ehrenreich's hesitant tapping at the door of opting-out. While Ehrenreich might imagine women to stay within the system and work in a top-down manner to bring about change, Belkin takes a more grassroots approach, noting that "it's not just that the workplace has failed women, it is also that women are rejecting the workplace."

The logic behind Ehrenreich's hesitance is easily understandable: she worries that opting out based on sex differences will rewind the feminist movement while fighting the system from within can keep up the struggle for equality among the sexes. Belkin provides an answer to the main tenet of this concern. Yet before proceeding to Belkin, it is important to understand the way in which feminists address-- and have addressed-- women with regard to work and family. The first public stirrings of women moving out of the home and into the workplace came with the publishing of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. The problem with Friedan's argument, a problem that has carried women through the fight for equal rights, was that Friedan attempted to impose as strict a command to work outside the home as previously existed for women to stay in the home. According to Friedan, women should, and indeed must, work outside the home. This sentiment is all too similar to the claim that women should, and indeed must, play the role of housewife and mother. Both claims are inflexible and assume that women are an invariant bloc and can be treated as so policy-wise.

Belkin attempts to resolve the aforementioned problem by making room for free will. She avoids Ehrenreich's fear of feminist backsliding by discarding the collective notion of feminism in favor of a rational-choice model. Women are not under any obligation, real or imagined, to opt-out, yet the choice exists. In many lights, this seems a forward movement in the feminist movement as it provides room for differentiation and choice. She makes the statement several times in the article, noting that women who have opted-out are not "something out of The Bell Jar. She is not trapped. This is a choice." Belkin further concedes that her thoughts are not for all women as she "understand[s] that there are ambitious, achieving women out there who are the emotional and professional equals of men...and climbed the work ladder without pause."

Secondly, Belkin leaves room for a logical follow-up to "The Opt-Out Revolution" as a non-gender specific policy. Upon close examination, there is little about the revolution that depends upon some inherent myth of a collective nature of femininity. Opting-out is less about women, men, and sex differences and more about resuscitating the value of care and caregiving. Women who opt-out are not giving up work and success altogether, they are "redefining success. And in doing so, they are redefining work." There seems no reason why men, should they choose to leave male-centric systems, should be excluded.

The emphasis on care is an important one. Previous to Friedan's call for women to move outside the home, women's devalued status and their synonymity with caregiving aided in the devaluation of care. Friedan's assertions did little to protect the importance of care, depreciating its value all the more by making it seem essentially trapping and undesirable. The fight for gender equality, in these terms, became a fight to, as Belkin puts is, "become men." Many of the women Belkin interviewed expressed a fulfillment gained from caring for their children that they never received from their work outside the home. One woman (who graduated from Princeton and received her PhD from Harvard) states, "I don't want to be famous; I don't want to conquer the world...maternity provides an escape hatch." Another of the women recounts a moment of doubt concerning her choice to opt-out. She says,

"Sometimes I worry that we're really just a bit lazier. But in my heart of hearts, I think it's really that we're smarter. Maybe evolution has endowed us with the ability to turn back our rheostat faster, to not always charge ahead after one all-consuming thing. To
prefer a life not with one pot boiling but with a lot of pots simmering; to prefer the patchwork quilt, not the down comforter. Oh, God, will you listen to these domestic analogies? Are they really coming out of my mouth?"

A central problem of difference feminism or opt-out style difference is how to restore value to what is traditionally considered 'women's work' without pigeonholing women as the 1950's style housewife-and-mother. The above account is a testament to this worry. This woman, analogizing her life to dishes, quilts, and other clichés of domesticity, may just as easily be June Cleaver as an opted-out corporate lawyer. What are the implications of this? Does the mindset with which women re-approach domesticity matter? The answer may depend upon the location of the idea. Within the sphere of feminism, an opt-out and forward-thinking view of women's roles can be highly valuable. Or it can be seen as not revolutionary in the least, especially by women who choose to remain in the career world, either by choice or necessity. Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist at Princeton, views opting-out as copping-out saying, "Have these young women really internalized the idea that women really do not lead? There was a time when that kind of thinking would have inspired outrage." Belkin herself begins the article with a challenge to the reader: "Walk into any Starbucks in any Starbucks kind of neighborhood in the hours after the commuters are gone. See all those mothers
drinking coffee and watching their toddlers at play? If you look past the lycra gym clothes and the Internet-access cell phones the scene could be the 50's, but for the fact that the coffee is more expensive and the mothers have M.B.A.s." This is another example of the June Cleaver/opt-out lawyer dilemma and a poignant example of how these women may be construed as "lazier".

Another problem with Belkin's notion is its inherent bias towards well-educated, well-off women. The lives of many women, whether they believe in opt-out feminism or not, do not afford them the chance to leave a paid profession. In many cases, financial stability is more of an important factor of family well-being than having a parent at home.
Belkin addresses this concern solely under the umbrella of her 'this is not for everyone' sentiment, but never truly faces the fact that her philosophy is inherently a privileged one. This critique was picked up by Stephanie McCurry of Bryn Mawr, Pa (coincidentally) in a response memo she left on the New York Times website regarding "The Opt-Out
Revolution". McCurry says, "If there is, as Belkin says something revolutionary in the decision by privileged women to opt out of paid work, it looks anything but revolutionary from the perspective of the family. Combining professional work and motherhood over the long haul-- now that's something new." Indeed, this may be the shared expression of many women who, because opting-out is not a viable option for their families, discard the idea either out of frustration or genuine concern for its implications for women.

As poorly as 'enlightened domesticity' may fare in the all-female world, relocate it to the male dominated world, especially the political realm, and this brand of feminism runs the high-risk of becoming markedly anti-feminist. With regard to the current political culture of the country, women opting-out means less women in policy determining positions. Of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 62 are women and of the 100 member Senate, only 14 members are women. A lack of strong female representation coupled with an opt-out movement (especially one very easily mistaken as an embrace of more conservative and traditional values) may result in a cultural shift back towards more masculine centered policy and political thought. Compounded with the fact that countries in crisis (like war, for example) tend to see a more conservative value shift, the mindset women hold regarding their own opting-out may be of no importance when located in a larger and potentially manipulative system.

How, then, can the government play a role in the revaluation of care giving and opting-out? Current policy suggestions for families tend to fall into three ideological categories: the non-parental care schema, the dual-earner dual-carer schema, and the compensated care schema. FAMILIES THAT WORK BY GORNICK AND MEYERS. The moral and value implications of these policies range in opt-out compatibility. The non-parental care schema, code for universal day care, values a highly stable environment for children but not necessarily parental care. The program, supported by social liberals such as Hillary Clinton, would free both parents to work and remove the child care burden. This
policy, while family-friendly, does not mesh well with the components of difference feminism. The dual-earner dual-carer schema, coined by Gornick and Meyers, takes a step in the opt-out direction and obliterates sex differences. Gornick and Meyers believe maternity and paternity leave, as well as options for shifting to part time work are essential for productive families. Their approach allows both men and women to opt-out in a scaled-down manner, as both work and care in nearly equal amounts. While this policy aids in adding value to care by making it a gender neutral issue, it will treats care giving a distraction from "real work"

It is the compensated care giving schema that is most attractive to women who choose to opt-out, those who are concerned with building the image of care giving, and arguably even to those like Stephanie McCurry, who may need financial incentive to even consider leaving the professional world. Compensated care is, by definition, receiving a wage for work done inside the home. It is also a policy suggestion likely to garner bipartisan support. One argument for compensated care holds that if anyone outside of the female head of family were to perform her duties (cleaning, cooking, child care) they would receive a wage for their time. In order to stop the pattern of being a society
in which women's unpaid and undervalued work inside the home allows for men's work outside the home, care should be valued as a paid profession. Social and political conservatives, eager to see a return to more traditional values, would likely be in support of such a program, as would many feminists who see the potential for such systematic changes to affect the legitimacy of care giving. Offering wages for care is problematic in many senses. How to fund such a policy is as unclear as how the government would regulate one. For example, in "The Second Shift" Arlie Hochschild found that women
(albeit women who work a full-time job) work so much around the home as to account for an extra month of hours each year. Under a compensated care economy, would a mother who wakes up at three in the morning with a colicky baby 'clock in' the hours spent tending to the child? Obviously, this is implausible, but compensated care has many unknowns. For example, imagine compensated care required a minimum number of hours, 40 let's say, spent working inside the home each week. How would this time be monitored? Who would oversee the legions of opt-out women? Could women be fired from their 'jobs'? How many would abuse the system?

These questions, while problematic, are not enough to abandon a discussion of the potential usefulness of a compensated care system. In terms of adding value to care, making it a paid profession seems the fastest route to a main problem of opting-out: it makes one financially dependent upon someone else, usually a woman upon a man. It would be foolish to declare that money does not have political sway in the United States, or that one's importance is based at least in part by their income. Opting-out for pay also allows the system to be more compatible with other brands of feminism. In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf insists upon the importance of financial independence. It also seems to be an indirect route to Ehrenreich's belief that women should not mindlessly assimilate into corrupt systems, rather they should work to change them. Compensation for care seems to resolve the notions of Belkin, Ehrenreich and Woolf. Such a policy helps bring the chance to opt-out down from the upper echelons of working women and into the mainstream, it allows women to "fight for change" with very little assimilation, and it allows for the financial security that allows women to remain free from "unreal loyalties" and the aid of men.

Creating wages for second shift type work does not just help women who opt-out. Unmarried and gay couples can also reap benefits from compensated care, especially as there are few governmental policies in place to protect their rights within and after a relationship. Aside from insuring financial stability within a relationship, providing wages for care supports women post-relationship. One might make the argument that marriage provides some security to protect women who choose not to participate in the outside labor force. To some extent, this is true. However, the support systems in place usually do not take effect until the couple divorces. For instance, in commonwealth states, women who provided care or worked inside the home are entitled to fifty-percent of the collective belongings as well as a continuation of insurance and other similar benefits. Although their are risks for any individual who makes a career out of uncompensated care, these risks are highly magnified for couples who do not marry or cannot marry.

Specifically, creation of a "traditional" one partner in the home, one partner in the work force schema is particularly risky for gay couples as there are currently no supports in place to protect or provide for the opted-out partner. In his article "Domesticity and the political economy of lesbigay families" Christopher Carrington presents the case
of Henry and Joe, a gay couple he first interviewed in 1996 then again in 1999. When Carrington first interviewed the couple, who had been together for fourteen years, he found that they led a highly 'specialized' lifestyle. Henry worked part time outside the home as a nursing assistant while Joe worked as an attorney for a prominent
financial services company in San Francisco. In their own words, Henry "tend[ed] to hold down the fort" while Joe "[Brought] home more of the kill." Henry's $28,000 a year salary did not compare to Joe's $110,000 income, so Joe financially supported most of their life and Henry handled the details of the money and the responsibilities of the home.

Despite sharing their home, it was Joe who made the house payments and Joe who actually owned the home. This became problematic when the couple separated. Clearly having never been married, Henry was offered no financial settlement. As the couple had planned to retire together, Henry had no savings to speak of and very few personal belongings. Joe, on the other hand, had saved 10% of his yearly income for retirement. Henry took very little when he moved from "their" home to a small apartment in the Castro district of San Francisco, stating that "much of [their possessions] belonged to Joe, He did buy [them] after all." Although in the eyes of the law, Henry and Joe's separation is equitable-- after all, no one forced Henry to work part-time or to fulfill a more domestic role and Joe was under no legal obligation to provide for Henry. Perhaps Henry made a bad choice in pursuing domesticity. Of course, this critique still assumes that providing care is not of value. It presumes that individuals who choose a domestic life should be forced to rely solely on the continuation of their relationship for their livelihood. This is neither a fair nor useful supposition as it merely reinforces the claim that caring for a family or home is not a worthwhile profession and those who choose it
should reconcile their choice with the risks associated with it. This situation becomes even more complex for unmarried or gay couples with children, as one partner often takes on a domestic role or opts-out.

A main component of the argument for compensated care is the treatment of children as a social good. This idea, that well-rounded and healthy children are the well-rounded and healthy workers, civic leaders, and citizens of tomorrow, is a large selling point for many conservatives and liberals alike. If women have the chance to opt-out and be financially secure in their own right, they will arguably produce a generation of high-quality children. A few of the women in Belkin's article attest to this. Jeannie Tarkenton, a mother who opted-out of her job as a respected reporter for a local news station, asserts that she "assumes her daughter will work. And I want to give her an some example of working women as she grows up. I plan for this example to come from me somehow." In this light, the women of Belkin's article nearly echo Ehrenreich. They do not want to quit the system, they are merely out for the meantime, so that their children can re-enter with a
different set of expectations and standards. This seems highly analogous to Ehrenreich's claim that women should "consciously fight for change rather than assimilate"

It seems opt-out women are fighting for change, but they are doing it in a way that subverts the system even further by fighting a different style fight. Belkin's opt-out women are not giving up entirely on the system of work or the potential for a balance between work and family life (perhaps one similar Gornick and Meyer's dual-earner dual-carer proposal). These women seem to know that the mindset of the workplace is not currently conducive to this type of sharing between the sexes. Opting-out gives them the unique ability to directly affect the way in which their children view work and family. They may produce a new generation of "opt-in" women and an equally fair-minded generation of compatible men.

Clearly, a division among women as to whether opting-out is revolutionary or limiting means that a shared sentiment within the discussion, and most likely policy solutions, still have a long time before they can be realized. It may be that the changes to the workplace that opt-out women desire may have to wait until this next generation, or perhaps longer. In the meantime, it would be careless to imagine that women who opt-out are simply incapable of participation and success in male-dominated spheres. Belkin poignantly addresses the element of rational choice, asking, "Why don't women run the world?"
and answering, "perhaps it's because they don't want to."


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