This is part one of a series on gender equality in children. It’s targeted to smashing the patriarchy but it’s not just about our daughters. It’s also, perhaps, more important to those raising strong boys. Because without men realizing that women are human beings worthy of the same rights, women don’t stand a chance. This series will discuss the importance of feminism and why we need to teach our kids feminism matters – starting first with theory and then moving to practical examples and applications.
So, I’ve talked about the March on Washington and the March for Life before but I think we need to talk more about how we still need these things. If we are to find gender norms that hold our kids back, activism matters.
I hope some day to tell my daughter about how all mommy’s friends marched on state capitols, government buildings, and Washington on that historic January afternoon when she was only a few weeks old. I wasn’t cleared for exercise yet and it depressed me I could not walk. Still, I hope she is inspired to know that my friends didn’t desert us and stood for her and so many little girls.
Sure we’ve come a long way from the issues our mothers and grandmothers faced but let’s not forget where we came from and how recently we were fighting for basic human rights. Let’s begin in the Victorian Period when the First Wave started. We may romanticize the beautiful dresses of the period. I do. My husband jokes that if there is a period piece, I’m addicted. It’s true. I love Victoria and will watch it tonight for sure. Still, we should remember that Queen Victoria was considered an extension of her husband in many ways. Prince Albert had an uneasy go of accepting that his allowance and abilities relied on her in many ways. The show does a decent job of illustrating this at times. It’s not perfect (see romanitcization) but it illustrates the uneasy play between private and political life.
During the Victoria era, women did not have property rights in most cases and could not vote. Even women as fortunate as Victoria! She was at the helm as a Head of State and could not vote. As a gender studies and political science major in college, I read a lot on this subject. One of my favorite discussions of property rights and suffrage deals with John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft Mill. J.S. Mill’s “The Subjugation of Women” and Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” are standard reading for burgeoning feminist scholars. If I wrote a syllabus, I’d probably start my class here. Wollstonecraft, in particular, touches on the issue of the home. She states that equality in education and rights between women and men would strengthen marriage as an institution and would benefit children and, thus, society. Some radical feminists will scoff at this, certainly, viewing all marriage as harmful to women but I would argue that this was about as militant as feminism was for the time. Likewise, Wollstonecraft’s defense of bringing the personal as the political is important.
What does this “personal as political” mean? Why does it matter? The personal as political is what drove the march for suffrage and property rights for women. No longer were women content with letting their husband’s rule their lives. This Victorian concept, discussed interestingly enough by the Victoria and Albert Museum, was later taken up by second wave feminists as a call for politicians to grant women more rights – rights like contraception, abortion, the choice to divorce, and the ability to be free of domestic violence. Prior to First Wave Feminism, it was thought women didn’t need political or property rights because their husbands had their best interests in mind. Issues like this were “personal” and confined to the household and not acceptable topics for public discussion. Remember, women couldn’t discuss or show their pregnancies still. This would continue until Lucille Ball was pregnant on I Love Lucy in the 1950s! Domestic violence and birth control were similar issues for Second Wave feminists. You see, domestic violence was not a public issue. It was between you and your husband, ladies. But if you wanted to leave? Well, the state would admonish you and make it nearly impossible to divorce your husband.
Carol Hanisch’s essay is the seminal text on the personal as Political was published in 1969. 1969, ladies and gentlemen. She argued that the biggest issues still facing women were simple and that excluding non-radical feminists from the dialogue wasn’t helpful. I will still hammer this home. It’s no secret I really don’t find radical feminism to be helpful. We aren’t there yet. We are still in the trenches fighting for basic rights almost 50 years later. We aren’t dealing with issues specifically outlined in Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper as most of us either get to choose to stay home or work if we are privileged enough to have a family life which affords this. But we aren’t in a world where we can say “equality” yet, either. At the same time, in our largely heteronormative world where a majority of people marry and have babies, many so-called “women’s issues” are “family issues” and, thus, still big feminist issues.
Our mothers grew up witnessing this Personal as Political debate. They had to claw like crazy to break into the workforce and get professional jobs. This is not to say women hadn’t been in the workforce. You see, our working class sisters had been working as cleaning ladies and factory workers for years prior with very little respect. One of my grandmothers was a lifelong factory worker and the other was a cleaning lady and often the only breadwinner in her family. My grandfather was always trying to be an artist. She had 5 living children so she had to support them somehow. But for our mothers who wanted to earn a wage and advance their careers – often with the same education or more education than their husbands – they had to work twice as hard. Women of color probably had to work three times as hard. And then they came home at night to the same responsibilities their stay-at-home-mothers had had.
This was even the case in my otherwise egalitarian house. My mom would work similar hours to my dad, would do most (if not all) drop offs and pick ups and would do almost all of the housework and all the cooking during the week. If one of us was sick, my mom took over. My dad did some household chores on the weekends and cooked our weekend meals. He also taught me how to cook and was an excellent pasta and bread maker. But, honestly, my mom did twice as much as my Dad. Neither of them ever treated us differently but that was the example I had of what mom did vs. what dad did.
And I internalized it a lot. Until my hellish pregnancy which had me bedridden for half and unable to cook for fear of vomiting in the sink. I did almost all of our laundry, I did most of the cleaning (minus dishes, garbage, and toilet bowls), and cooked all of our home-cooked meals because my husband doesn’t cook. But then I had to ask for him to step up. I couldn’t work a full time job, struggle through a difficult pregnancy, and do it all. It just wasn’t possible anymore. So, we had to find a better balance. We still struggle. We have a newborn now. It’s impossible to eat out like normal people because we don’t want her to get sick and we don’t want to worry about screaming. So, I basically cook all of our meals. I also, now that I’m back at work, I commute about 7 hours a week. My husband now cleans and does laundry but he won’t fold and sort it properly, so that still leaves me a lot. It’s gotten much better but it is nowhere near perfect. He’s taken more night feedings to help with the deficit but with PPD, I still struggle. He does drop off and pick up for daycare so I don’t double my commute.
And I realize that as I type this, the implication of all of that is “he does it to help me” as if he doesn’t share an equal part in this and I am the default parent. He doesn’t see it that way. He’s openly told me this week that he sees me as looking at her more as his “project” than as his responsibility. That stung. Maybe it’s not wrong. In response, I pointed out to him that when he leaves it incumbent upon myself to cook every. damn. meal. and to watch him play xbox quietly while I make and clean up dinner while trying to take care of a screaming baby, I feel like that’s the message I get. I internalize that. I bend over backward to kill myself doing it. I turn into my mom. I go to a place I don’t want to because damn it it’s 2017. So, we are having more conversations going forward about what we both can do to stop this. I’m getting an hour of zen a day. NO ONE is playing Xbox until everything is cleaned up and we are both sitting down. Still, the fact we even have to have these discussions is indicative of gender inequality. My husband is not an asshole. He’s a feminist. But we’re all figuring this out. He’s been through this before. But his ex was a stay-at-home mom. I am not and I am drained after a day of solo parenting in a way he isn’t. Part of this is PPD. And part of it is just my personality.
My anecdotal experience is not unique. In this country, women still do significantly more housework than men. Around the world, women miss significantly more work than men taking care of children because men don’t feel comfortable being “that” parent. Men are denied paid leave or do not take their paid leave (for the record, my husband took his paternity leave. He said it made parenting a newborn and bonding with a newborn so much easier this time. Still, his work did not have a formal paternity leave policy. He was lucky to have a (female) boss and company that wanted to be flexible with us. Hopefully, in the future, other dads will benefit from this precedent. But he had to ask and push for it. Many men don’t feel like they can. And he will be the go-to pick up a sick kid parent. That’s our agreement since I commute. But I still worry enough about gender roles.
My daughter will learn to cook food and fix things around the house. He will teach her how to replace a baseboard or lay down tile. I will teach her how to make a roux. But I don’t want her to think it has to be this way. If her future partner (male or female) prefers to cook and she prefers to mow the yard, that’s cool. I want her to know how to do it all, though. And I want us to try to illustrate that moms and dads are all responsible for and capable of taking care of the household.
Parenting equality is not private issue. It’s a public one. Or, at least, I argue it should be as we still are nowhere near “equal”. We need to push for paternity leave and equal pay. We need to teach our sons how to cook and our daughters how to fix things. We need to not stop calling dads babysitters and acknowledge their responsibility as parents and their innate abilities to be primary caregivers (yes, dads can be great stay-at-home parents!). We need to as a society decide that parenting is unisex and that women are no more equipped to do it than men. That’s the first step.
This isn’t just about working parents, either. I see many friends who are struggling to balance a stay-at-home parent and their sanity. Many dads, it seems, don’t get the very real stress of being a SAHM or the fact that keeping a tiny human alive is a full-time job. I can’t speak to the alternative (dad stays at home) because this is really rare in my social circle. My Dad was a SAHP for about 2 years but even he arranged childcare and worked PT for that period. A few of my friends have husbands/partners that stay home as the primary caregiver. I think that’s wonderful. But even in my circle of Dr. Moms, it is far more common for both parents to work or mom to quit her job to make a career of momming (if even just until the kid is 2 or 3). Just because mom stays home doesn’t mean she should then do all the housework and cooking. We’ve talked about this recently. The prospect of in the future me taking a job in a larger city with substantially more pay would allow my husband to stay home for awhile. He’s expressed interest in it. I know if this happens, our balance will need to change. We’d treat it like daycare. We don’t expect our daycare to also clean our house or cook dinner. Why should the working parent assume the SAHP is somehow capable of doing everything all the time?
I also think as much as we need breastfeeding protections in this country, we need to stop equating the parenting of newborns with breastfeeding success. If I had a dime for every time a friend insisted she hadn’t slept in ages because she couldn’t pump enough for her husband to do a nightfeed, I would be a rich lady. Breastfeeding is hard when you work. Really hard. And it almost inherently puts more pressure on moms than dads. This is not to say I disapprove of this but saying that it makes moms more important or let dads off the hook isn’t fair. And while you can argue dads can do other things to make up for this added labor of breastfeeding, I would argue you can almost never make up for this all-encompassing tie a mom has to her baby. I can leave the house without a worry because my baby is formula fed. I could even go on an overnight trip. And I can say, “I need you to take the night feed because I just can’t go another night without two REM cycles”. But a mom who is breastfeeding can’t say that. We should probably acknowledge that breastfeeding is inherently a labor of love for women that requires them to take on a disproportionate amount of work. Granting more maternity and paternity leave would take some of this burden off moms and dads going through the struggles of starting breastfeeding. And if it is not working, we should stop shaming moms. And as moms, we should feel like it is okay to value our mental health and sleep. This is ultimately what led me to buy the damn brezza (well, my husband bought it for us, actually) and say “I can’t do this” well before she was born.
Overall, we’ve come a long way from not being able to own property. That’s great. But moms are still doing more than dads. Our daughters and sons have the most important and most immediate lessons on gender norms in our households. We need to talk about the very real challenges women face and try to do better in our households to explain that both parents are responsible for the security, health, and happiness of the family.