Patriarchal Catch-22

My wife and I are getting to the point in our shared life where we are beginning to think seriously about children. If we can swing the finances for it, one of us is probably going to stay home with the little buggers and be a full-time parent, at least for the first three or four years. That parent is almost certainly going to be me. Now, you’re probably all thinking “Oh, he’s such a good feminist! Taking on a traditionally female role and subverting the Patriarchy like that.” And it does feel good to contemplate giving the middle finger to normative gender roles. But here’s the thing: the decision for me to be the stay-at-home parent has very little to do with screwing with gender stereotypes. Simply put, I want to be heavily involved in my future kids’ lives, and I have a better temperament for child-raising than does my wife. So I get to take credit for making a “feminist choice”. But let’s say our positions were reversed. Would my wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom be a feminist choice? Obviously not – I may be a third-wave feminist, but I don’t buy into the “empowerful” bullshit. “My choice to conform to and reinforce this patriarchal trope is a feminist choice because I’m doing exactly what I want” doesn’t cut it. The problem is that being the breadwinner for the family when you’d much rather be (and can afford to be) the primary caregiver isn’t exactly a feminist choice either. In this sort of situation, there IS no feminist choice. We just have to make our own way as best we can, deciding for ourselves how much suffering a given feminist ideal is worth. The trick is not to castigate ourselves for the compromises we inevitably make, but at the same time, not to fool ourselves into thinking that a choice is feminist, just because we really want it to be.

On a related note, I think that this sort of catch-22 is the reason the phrase “I’m not a feminist but . . .” is so common. The “but” is inevitably followed by opinions that indicate that the speaker is, in fact, a feminist, but is reluctant to call herself that. Part of the reason for this reluctance to own the feminist label is the social stigma attached to feminism (the feminazi effect), but I think part of it is also the perception that feminists reject and vilify any woman (or man) who makes an unfeminist choice. This isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – true, and we ought to take every opportunity we can to remind people of that. If you’d like a little more justice in this world, then you’re a feminist, and you don’t get your feminist card confiscated just because you decided not to be a martyr for the cause.

7 responses to “Patriarchal Catch-22

  1. I’m not entirely sure that I agree with you on that one. The 21st century has definitely brought some interesting problems into feminist discourse concerning what really counts as “feminist.” I think that brushing off family and motherhood issues as having “no feminist” solution is too simplistic and denies the vast possibility for women’s feminism in the family. I don’t think that there is anything inherently anti-feminist to being a stay-at-home mom, just like there really isn’t anything inherently feminist about being a stay-at-home dad; it is the context in which these decisions are made, and the consciousness of both the mother and father, that matters. I’ve known a few stay-at-home and single dads who were far from feminists! Plus, it seems like some weird kind of reverse sexism to praise stay-at-home dads for being such good feminists and then to turn around and condemn stay-at-home moms for being traitors to the cause.

    I am an outspoken, educated, dedicated feminist who aspires to one day have children. I don’t know yet if I’ll be a stay-at-home mom, but I’m certainly not opposed to the idea. And if I am someday faced with that choice, I can pretty much guarantee that my feminist consciousness will be fully implicated in my decision making process. Feminism should be about the freedom to make whatever choices bring you the most happiness, and for many women, that will be raising children – and for many women it won’t be. For me, as long as the choice is still there – and as long as the women making that choice are educated and truly aware of all of their options – then it still falls within the realm of a feminist decision. The act of becoming a stay-at-home mom may be, in a literal sense, the same for every woman – but the meaning of that act differs depending on the consciousness of the woman at hand. Generalizing the act as inherently anti-feminist completely ignores womens’ agency. Making the decision to be a stay-at-home mom can be a very powerful choice – and who’s to say that being a stay-at-home mom can’t become an act of feminist resistance? One of the beauties of feminism, in my opinion, is the way that it touches each and every aspect of our lives. If I choose to stay at home and ensure that my children are raised with feminist ideals, aware of all their choices in life, isn’t that a subversion of the patriarchal norm?

    I know that our implicit socialization into certain prescribed social and gender roles makes it difficult to ascertain who is actually making a conscious, feminist decision and who just THINKS that they are but are actually playing right into the patriarchy’s hands. But given that this distinction cannot really be made (unless you want to generalize all women making the stay-at-home mom choice as being uniformly unaware of their oppression) I think it really comes down to the woman’s perception of her decision.

    Now, whether or not the ladies from Sex and the City are actually empowered feminists is something I’m still iffy about. But I fully believe that at least some moms are feminists – my mom being a prime example! – and that making the choice to be a stay-at-home mom is not inherently anti-feminist.vI’ve got a bit of a head cold, so I hope that was at least semi-coherent!

    But anyway, from the second half of your post it seems like you wouldn’t be the type to vilify stay-at-home moms anyway, which is probably the most important thing. Unfortunately, there are some feminists out there who DO routinely condemn women for making the “wrong” decision, and I think those feminists ultimately do more harm than good.

  2. I think you and I are about 95+% in agreement; I think we’re mostly focusing on different levels of the issue. In retrospect, I should have made it clearer that I don’t thing stay-at-home moms are inherently anti-feminist or that stay-at-home dads are inherently pro-feminist. My mom too was a feminist SAHM.

    “I know that our implicit socialization into certain prescribed social and gender roles makes it difficult to ascertain who is actually making a conscious, feminist decision and who just THINKS that they are but are actually playing right into the patriarchy’s hands.”

    Here I agree with you completely, but I don’t think this distinction is actually relevant. As you point out, it’s irrelevant on the individual level, because we can’t fully know another person’s thought process (and even if we could, freedom of choice means freedom to make bad choices, or good choices for bad reasons). My point is that it’s also irrelevant from a societal standpoint. Whatever the political orientation of an individual SAHM, society in general will see a generic woman making a choice that conforms to patriarchal expectations – each woman who chooses to be a SAHM makes it just a little more difficult for the next woman to choose something different (by the same token, being a SAHD, regardless of political orientation, defies the patriarchal pattern and adds just a little more strain to our rigid gender roles).

    As you rightly point out, though, none of this means that an individual SAHM mom is not a feminist, or that a SAHD is. There are plenty of things a SAHM can do to subvert the patriarchy – not least of all by raising feminist daughters and sons. And it doesn’t take much of that feminist work to “counterbalance” the slight negative social effect of choosing to be a SAHM – but that still doesn’t make the choice in and of itself feminist.

    “For me, as long as the choice is still there – and as long as the women making that choice are educated and truly aware of all of their options – then it still falls within the realm of a feminist decision.”

    I think this is the only point where you and I really disagree. For me, a feminist decision is defined by its consequences – a feminist decision is one that helps advance equality of the sexes, counteracts sexism, helps dismantle gender constructs, etc. For you, a feminist decision seems to be defined by freedom of choice and consciousness of that freedom. By that metric, being a SAHM could certainly be a feminist choice. But I’m not convinced that this definition makes sense. To use an extreme example, Phyllis Schlafly has made a career out of speaking out against women’s equality. She certainly had a choice about whether or not to do so, and she was aware of that freedom. But it doesn’t make sense to call her decision to attack feminism a feminist choice. Now, I’m not saying in any way, shape, or form that being a SAHM mom is by any means equivalent to being Phyllis Schlafly (or that Schlafly should be denied her freedom of speech, for that matter). I’m just trying to think about the logical consequences of your definition if you apply it to extreme cases.

    Finally, while there are certainly some feminists who condemn other women for making un-feminist choices, I suspect they’re a bit like the “feminazis”. They exist, but in such small numbers as to be inconsequential (except for writing sensational news headlines, or, if you’re a tool of the patriarchy, finding reasons to oppose feminism without sounding like the total tool you are). But then again, maybe I just hang in the wrong feminist circles. In any case, a feminist woman (or man) who makes an un-feminist decision deserves neither censure nor condescension, but sympathy – we’ve all been there in one way or another.

    Hmm, reading back over the last couple of paragraphs, I’m afraid that I might be coming across as too hostile. I really was thrilled by your comments, and by the opportunity for discussion provided by your disagreement. If you still think I’m off-base in my thinking, please share your thoughts. I’ve held wrong-headed opinions before, and I’m almost certainly holding some of them now. I’d welcome the opportunity to be disabused of them.

  3. You didn’t come off as hostile in the least! In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the maturity and thoughtfulness of your response. So many people utilize the anonymity of the internet to turn into assholes, but you clearly are not one of them. And touche with the Phyllis Schlafly argument; I’m going to have to think that one over a bit and get back to you. Part of me still feels like there is some kind of feminism there even amidst the staunch anti-feminist rhetoric, but I’m not quite sure of how to justify my train of thought yet.

  4. “For you, a feminist decision seems to be defined by freedom of choice and consciousness of that freedom. By that metric, being a SAHM could certainly be a feminist choice. But I’m not convinced that this definition makes sense. To use an extreme example, Phyllis Schlafly has made a career out of speaking out against women’s equality. She certainly had a choice about whether or not to do so, and she was aware of that freedom. But it doesn’t make sense to call her decision to attack feminism a feminist choice.”

    I think that the point that Autumn was trying to make is not necessarily that being aware of the freedom to make your own decisions is what defines a feminist decision; rather, a feminist decision is one that is made with full knowledge of the consequences it may incur (including potentially detrimental effects to the feminist cause) by someone who has the capability to understand the ramifications of said decision and has the ability to make the decision. By ability to make the decision I do not just mean the mental facilities required to make a choice, but also the education, economic opportunities, and societal support (not just society in general, but also in a smaller sense of the society we travel in on a daily basis – family, friends, colleagues, etc.) of all options presented. A non-feminist choice would be a choice made by someone lacking in any of the capabilities required to make this decision.

    For example, a SAHM who chooses to do so because she has the economic opportunity to do so, understands that her choice is mildly detrimental to the feminist cause yet is able to offset this effect in other ways (raising feminist children, volunteering for feminist organizations, etc.), desires to and has the education necessary in order to raise feminist children, lives in a society that accepts being a SAHM as a valid life choice, and has family and/or friends who support her choice is making a feminist decision.

    A woman who chooses to enter the workforce because she cannot afford to be a SAHM, does not understand the ramifications her decision has on the feminist cause, does not have the desire or education needed to raise feminist children, does not live in a society that accepts being a SAHM as a valid life choice, AND/OR lacks family/friends who support her decision is not making a feminist choice. Any one of these qualities can change what society may view as a stereotypically feminist choice into a non-feminist choice.

    As far as Phyllis Schlafly is concerned, it can only be assumed that she is lacking in one or more of the capabilities necessary to make a feminist choice; therefore even though she may be aware of the freedom to decide whether or not to actively campaign against feminism, her decision to do so is most decidedly not a feminist decision.

    It is not necessarily the opportunity to make the choice that matters, but possessing all of the capabilities necessary to make it.

  5. Also, reading through my comment again I realized that it might be helpful to note that I subscribe to Martha Nussbaum’s theory of human rights as rights to capabilities (vs. the theory of rights to a benefit or rights to non-interference). It’s difficult to explain in a short amount of time, but the premise is that having the opportunity to make a choice doesn’t matter – it is having sufficient capabilities to make said choice that is of the utmost importance. If you can do something legally but do not actually possess the capabilities needed to do so then it doesn’t matter whether or not you have the legal right. Therefore, human rights are not rights to choices, but rights the capabilities necessary to make choices.

  6. That’s a really interesting idea regarding freedom/choice. I think the right to capabilities is a more meaningful concept than a legal right to a (theoretical) choice. It reminds me of Dworkin’s argument that consent can’t truly be meaningful if coercion is an acceptable alternative.

    If I understand your correctly, though (always a questionable assumption when a physical scientist enters the realm of social science debate), I have some minor quibbles about using it to define what makes a choice feminist. On one hand, I think your definition makes sense as a social metric: we can measure the progression of feminism by the extent to which women have the capability to make educated, supported choices – i.e., feminist choices. In an idealized world, then, both being a SAHM and a working mom would be feminist choices (in fact, all choices would be feminist choices, because it would be an egalitarian, feminist society). According to this definition, though, you’re using “feminist” to describe how society and individual circumstances affect choices, rather than how choices affect society and individual circumstances. The problem I have with this definition is that any choice that is not supported by society becomes, de facto, non-feminist. That doesn’t seem right to me. Since our society has initially resisted each advancement of feminism, that would mean that feminism only advances through non-feminist choices.

    I don’t want it to seem as though I’m dismissing social advocacy/protest and giving all the credit to individual choices. Advocating for the legal and social tolerance of choices that reflect women’s equality is a major and vital part of feminism – probably THE major part. But it’s not an either/or situation – it’s more like a positive feedback loop. Advocacy makes women more willing and able to make those choices. As more and more women make the choice to reject part of the patriarchal structure, we as a society shift our definition of what is normal or acceptable, making it easier for women to make that choice, and also opening up space in the public discourse for advocacy.

    As for Schlafly (like a bad penny, that woman) dismissing her decision based on the presumption that she must be lacking in one or more capabilities makes me very uneasy. I understand where you’re coming from, and I even agree with you, but I don’t like the assumption that someone who makes a choice you disapprove of must necessarily be insufficiently educated/aware or socially deprived. It’s essentially the same argument that anti-choice people use – women who have abortions just aren’t aware of the implications of their actions, poor darlings.

    For what it’s worth, I vacillate between two different explanations for Schlafly’s behavior, depending on how charitable I’m feeling at the moment:

    1. She’s the product of a repressive community and truly believes that the gender roles and hierarchy that she advocates are the best thing for individuals and for society.

    2. She’s a world-class sociopath who realized that she could gain a lot of power, influence, and wealth for herself by arguing that we should not allow (other) women to have them.

  7. I find it interesting and somewhat disconcerting that my previous comments were both longer than my initial post.

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