Archive for April, 2008

A Manifesto Against Everyday Sexism

April 20, 2008

Low-level sexism

 

Let’s define low-level sexism as ”jerkiness,” for want of a better word.  Men who say they’ll call, and then don’t.  Men who compare the secondary sex characteristics of women in loud conversations at the water cooler. Men who sprawl all over two bus seats and half the aisle, rather than hold their parcels on their laps the way normal people do.  Men who noisily clear out their sinuses and spit on the sidewalk, rather than blow their noses into tissues like regular people. Men who bad-mouth Bella Abzug and Hilary Clinton.  I won’t even get into issues like opening doors, using the word “girl” for a female old enough to legally hold paid employment in the US, leaving the seat up, and ogling waitresses.  All of these are probably just momentary potholes in the path of social evolution, or even legitimate differences in social behavior between subcultures.  Most of this stuff is obnoxious but harmless, and much of it can be worked out on an individual level, with eventual society-wide consequences.  If feminists concentrate on attacking low-level sexism, we just look nitpicky and dumb.  The spectre of Political Correctness (much of it fabricated, by the way) can make most people–including ourselves–reluctant to take our analysis seriously. Looking at low-level sexism will encourage many women to conclude that “men will be boys,” but that it’s not worth worrying about.

 

High-level sexism

 

At the other end of the scale is what we can call “high-level sexism”–discrimination against women that causes danger to life and limb, and severe limitations on self-support.  Dowry murders, for instance.  Female infanticide.  Genital mutilation.  Foot-binding.  Domestic violence.  Rape.  Incest.  We are nowhere near ending any of these horrors.  Serious organized efforts are underway, and every now and then one of them gets results.  It will be a while before we can even be sure that there have been results, since the first step in combatting such abuses is almost always to document them and encourage reporting–so the officially recognized numbers will go up, simply from improved reporting, for a long time before they start coming down from improved prevention.These campaigns must be given as much social and financial support as possible.

 

But if we concentrate on high-level sexism, many of us can legitimately say “I’m okay–none of that has happened to me.  So the society around me is okay too.” I have heard myself say, on several occasions, that I am “lucky” never to have been abused by my husband or a boyfriend, never to have been raped, never to have been abused or violated by anyone in my family during my childhood.  My expectations and standards, for the kind of life a human being is entitled to by virtue of being human, have been lowered (when the human being in question is female) by the constant spectacle of high-level sexism. If I am “lucky” never to have been the victim of high-level sexism, then I tend not to feel entitled to complain about the everyday sexism that infests my life and the lives of all the women I know.

 

A case can even be made that the increased publicity given to high-level sexism at home and abroad is designed by The Establishment to make us docilely accept lower levels of sexism.  “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet” suggests that, as long as those in power occasionally cut off a few feet, they can get away with keeping an entire population barefoot. Concentrating on high-level sexism tends to lower our standards and expectations for every other kind of behavior between the sexes.  Watching “Sleeping with the Enemy” or “The Burning Bed” (as opposed to, say, “Thelma and Louise”) will probably encourage the average wife to put up with a lot more sexism than she would have otherwise.

 

Everyday sexism–economics

 

In between is “everyday sexism”, the sexism most American and European women live with every day of their lives, the ordinary,  gray kind of sexism they usually manage to ignore for the sake of their own sanity and blood pressure.  Women work harder than men, and make a lot less money.  Women, on the average, get paid 2/3 of what men are paid (note that I am not about to discuss what anybody earns.)  The median income for men is roughly identical to the income of the top 10% of women who work for pay.  Women are less likely than men to have benefits with their jobs.  They are more likely to be working temporary or part-time jobs.  We are often told that this is because women prefer that kind of flexibility, so that they can fulfill their family responsibilities.  The fact that women are also more likely to be working more than one job casts some doubt on this analysis.  Men do work more paid hours per week than women–but most of their hours over 40/week are paid as overtime, while any extra hours women work are likely to be in a straight-time part-time poorly-paid second job. 

 

And, of course, women do a lot more unpaid work at home, whether or not they hold paid jobs.  Studies indicate that the amount of housework a woman does is virtually unaffected by whether her husband is employed, and affected only minimally by whether she holds a paid job.  Women not only cook, clean, wash, shop, and do miscellaneous errands; they take most of the responsiblility for child care and for the care of elderly and incapacitated relatives (both their own and their husbands’, by the way.)  Generally speaking, they accept an obligation to do this at least partly because they feel obliged to compensate the family for the fact that they bring less money home from the job than the man of the house.   But of course, one of the reasons given by management for paying women less and hiring them in less responsible, less permanent jobs, is that women’s family responsibilities interfere with their ability to give the Almighty Job their whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.  It is not unreasonable to suspect that there is a con going on here–we are discriminated against at home because we are discriminated against on the job—and vice versa.  If we stop to think about it, we are likely to suspect that we are really being discriminated against at home and at work because we are in a lower caste than the men we compare ourselves with. 

 

Not only do we work harder and make less money than the men we live and work with, but we are presumed to have less right to and need for resources.  Some years ago, I handled a divorce between a couple in their late ‘50s, both disabled.  The husband, who had managed to establish a work history before being injured on the job, was getting Social Security Disability, in the amount of about $800/month.  The wife, who had worked only for short periods or in jobs not covered by Social Security, was getting SSI, in the amount of $437/month.  I was representing the wife.  The husband’s attorney said, essentially “My guy is getting disability; your lady is getting disability.  There’s no property and no other income.  Why doesn’t he take his benefits and she take her benefits, and both go on their way?”  What astounds me now is that that proposal actually sounded reasonable to me at the time. Fortunately, it did not strike the judge that way (she was a generation younger than I, and had a good reputation among “wife-lawyers.”)  She pointed out, reasonably enough, that neither of these people had any unusual or expensive special needs.  If the total income available to the two of them was $1237/month, the obvious thing to do was split it down the middle and require him to pay her (or have Social Security pay her) $182/month out of his benefits.  Until then, it had seemed as normal and natural to me as to opposing counsel that a woman could get by on $182/month less than her husband, when there was no obvious difference in their circumstances except gender. 

Similarly, at least in Illinois, a divorce settlement that leaves the wife-plus-one-or-two-kids with a total combined income (from her earnings and child support) equal to what the husband gets for his own needs alone, is considered a “good deal” for the wife.  Let’s go over those figures in a little more detail.  Figure the wife brings home roughly half the earnings her husband gets (a not unusual circumstance.)  In Illinois, the usual child support for two children is 25% of the noncustodial parent’s net income.  So if he brings home $2000/month and pays $500 in child support, and she brings home $1000/month and gets $500 in child support, that leaves them “equal,” each with $1,500/month. Except, of course, that she is using that sum to provide food, shelter, medical care, and clothing for two people besides herself, and he is not.  And, depending on the ages of the children, she may also be providing child care, which on the average costs $110/week in the Chicago area. If one or both of the children are still in diapers, it may cost a good deal more.  If one or more of them are male teenagers, who will eat anything that doesn’t eat them first, feeding them will cost a lot more than feeding herself and her husband combined.   According to other studies, the husband is likely to be paying more for his car than for child support.  But he is also likely to be complaining bitterly about having to “give” so much of “his” money to his wife.  If he pays regularly, his friends are likely to consider him a candidate for canonization.  If he doesn’t, nobody is likely to think badly of him.  It’s always hard to make ends meet these days, after all.  But she should be able to manage.  After all, we reason subconsciously, it costs less to feed a canary than an ostrich.

 

For that matter, what kind of resources does a woman have access to while her marriage is “functioning”?  Most two-car couples have an old car and a newer car.  Almost always, the wife drives the older car.  If the family budget will accomodate only one set of restaurant lunches, it is the wife who brown-bags it.  If only one person can afford to park downtown at work, the wife takes the bus.  If the family home has room for more than one bedroom per kid, one for the parents, and the usual living room-dining room-kitchen-bathrooms, it is usually the husband who gets a den, or workroom, or toolroom, for his own use.  The wife may be responsible for maintaining the house, but she is unlikely to have a single room in it that she can call exclusively her own until the oldest kid leaves home.

 

[All of this, by the way, may provide an illuminating explanation for the “gender gap” in voting–the reason women are more likely to vote Democratic than men, controlling for race, education, occupation, and family income.  Women are likely to make considerably less money than the men they live with, or than men with the same education and occupation, or men of the same race.  They are, apparently, choosing to vote consistently with their individual income rather than their family income or other demographic traits.]

 

Who takes care of whom?

 

What happens when the husband gets sick, temporarily or permanently?  He and his wife are likely to take it for granted that he is entitled to be waited on hand and foot by her.  If he is disabled, she is 90% likely to “stand by her man.”  When old age hits, it will usually hit her a little later than it hits him, both because most wives are younger than their husbands and because women don’t usually get hit with the most serious diseases of old age until about ten years later than men.  So they both take it for granted that she will nurse him through his last days and then spend her last days alone. 

 

Who takes care of the wife when she gets sick, or disabled, or old?  Unless the illness is really serious and really long-term, the answer seems to be “nobody”–she just muddles through.  If she becomes disabled, her husband is 70% likely to walk out on her.  When she gets old, he will probably be long dead (note: I don’t mean to imply that it is in any way sexist of men to die earlier than women, although a case can certainly be made that there is sexism in the pattern of men marrying women younger than themselves, which certainly contributes to the likelihood and length of women’s widowhood); if she’s lucky, one of her daughters or daughers-in-law will take care of her.  Otherwise, she will get whatever care she can afford from underpaid overworked strangers.  Most of us take this state of affairs for granted.  It’s the way things are.  It’s the penalty women pay for living ten years longer than men (an advantage I suspect men bitterly begrudge us.)

 

Crime waves

 

And then there’s crime.  In 1959 (in those halcyon days before “crime in the streets” was a major worry), I went away to a women’s college in the big city.  During Orientation Week, the students were treated to a lecture from the local police chief on how to be safe in the city.  Don’t walk alone or go through the park at night, he told us.  Walk in groups as much as possible.  Be sure your doors are locked when you get back to the dorm.  Lock your bicycles.  All the stuff necessary, in short, to get the point across that every man’s [sic] hand could be presumed to be against us. We heard stories of women being raped in broad daylight in well-travelled places, and people passing by and doing nothing.  But nobody ever made horrified pronouncements about a crime wave.  If women had to limit their mobility and live in fear, that was just the natural order of things.  The “crime wave” started fifteen years later or so, when men had to be careful where and when they walked around the city.  That was serious business.

 

Permanent waves

 

Of course there’s personal appearance.  The average woman, regardless of her income or marital status, spends several hundred dollars a year and between 5 and 10 hours a week buying and using cosmetics.  This time and money is not coming out of surplus–remember, she starts out with less money and spare time than the men for whom she feels obliged to put on a free show.  Her clothes, like those of any socially acceptable man, must be neat, clean, and suitable for the activity in which she is engaged.  But in addition, they must be regularly varied–unlike a man, she cannot be seen wearing the same suit two or three times in a week, or the same outfit to two parties in a row.  Many of the clothes she wears–like pantyhose–are designed to disintegrate after only a few wearings.  Her shoes are designed, not only to wear out, but to wear her out–to pinch and deform her feet, and make walking painful and long walks impossible.  A man who wears tasselled loafers to work is considered overdressed–a woman who wears them is considered underdressed.

 

The hidden logic of this endless labor and expense connected with women’s personal appearance is, I think, twofold: first, we presume that, unlike Man,  Woman in her natural state is ugly, and requires alterations (both temporary and permanent) to achieve an acceptable appearance; and second, we presume that men are entitled to look at esthetically pleasing women, whether the latter are family, friends, romantic involvements, or perfect strangers.  It seems perfectly natural to us that the Hooters restaurant chain hires lucious young women to wait on tables attired in tight t-shirts and short shorts, to please the male customers.  Even the EEOC, in bringing a discrimination complaint against Hooters, raises only the issue of the right of men to work for Hooters. Nobody is concerned about the right of the female customers of Hooters to be surrounded by food servers esthetically pleasing and sexually attractive to them.  No one, in fact, finds it at all odd that men can retain the services of an entire class of people (mostly female) devoted to their esthetic and sexual pleasure, while almost no such services are available to women.  When a woman wants to look at something esthetically pleasing, she pays her six dollars or whatever and goes to the local art museum.  When she wants to look at something sexually pleasing, she may, if she’s lucky, get to see a Chippendales performance once a year or so.   The rest of the time, she is likely to be surrounded by other women trying to attract and please the men with whom she works and socializes.   And the personal appearance of those men, if she’s lucky, will be neat, clean, and suitably attired for the activity in which they are engaged.  Period.

 

Rosie the Riveter

 

Likewise, we take for granted that every woman must at least be prepared to learn every skill men are required to know, and to practice them in a pinch–changing tires, shingling roofs, rodding out drains, jump-starting batteries, and so on.  That includes even those male skills that bring male practicioners high pay and status.  But we also take for granted that, when women practice those skills, they are unlikely to get the same level of reward and status–or any at all, in many instances.  And we easily forgive men for being helpless in the kitchen or the nursery or the laundry room or the sickroom, and praise them incessantly for being willing even to attempt competence in those areas.

 

Sweating the small stuff

 

And the countless bunch of small gripes–not only do women not have wives to do our housework and run our errands and ooh and ah at our every word and deed, we frequently don’t have secretaries either, even when we work in jobs, the male occupants of which can rely on secretaries, receptionists, file clerks, and a horde of other “girls.”  We have trouble making use of shoeshine parlors.  Clothing stores don’t do alterations for us for free.  Dry cleaners charge us extra.  And, on the other side of the equation, at least in Chicago, there are almost no female cab drivers or street musicians–not, I suspect, because of any official policy on the part of cab companies, but because the average “person on the street” is likely to be a lot more rude and abusive to women than to men doing the same work.  

 

None of this is life-destroying.  Women have lived with it for the better part of this century, without serious impediment to their jobs and family lives.  Sure, we all take for granted that, when a  man and a woman are doing the same job, the woman always has at least two more items on her agenda than the man–looking attractive, and not getting raped.  But most women in this situation do the job at least as well as their male counterparts. Indeed, none of this seems to reduce women’s incentives to diligence and competence, in the paid and unpaid workplaces.  (One suspects that men work mostly for reward and status, while women work to get the job done. )  We can probably go on like this indefinitely.  It’s undoubtedly an improvement on the status of women elsewhere in the world, or in previous centuries anyplace, and we survived that.  

 

Which is why most of us don’t bother complaining about it.  Which is why, in turn, we probably will go on like this indefinitely.  As Frederick Douglass says, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. . . .” 


Murphy Brown and the secret strike

 

There is, perhaps, one glimmer of hope, one indication that there may actually be a hidden strike already going on–the increasing number of “single mothers,” that is, women who, for whatever reason, are raising children in a home with no adult male presence.  The wisdom of the Neanderthal Right is that these women are irresponsible.  They lack control over their sexual impulses.  So they go to bed with men who clearly have no intention of entering into permanent relationships, just for the fun of it. 

 

The wisdom of the Left is more mixed, but generally concurs in seeing single mothers as victims, women who are stuck raising children in fatherless homes because the men who begat their children are too irresponsible to stay around and help out.  Sometimes it also blames a racist establishment which has put the majority of Black men in the prime family-formation years in jail, on the unemployment lines, or in the grave, so that the Black women in the same age group are left only with a choice between lifelong celibacy and childlessness, or raising children on their own. 

 

Undoubtedly there is some truth in both views.  There are women who will have unprotected sex with anybody, though not, usually, for the sexual pleasure of it.  More often, the motivation among teenage girls is to please somebody else, either the boyfriend or other teenage girls.  Another increasingly popular motivation for random sexual activity is barter for drugs. 

 

And there are certainly plenty of women who conceived their children with the full expectation of a long-term or even permanent relationship with the fathers of those children, and were then deserted, either before or after marriage, during pregnancy, shortly after birth, or at some later stage of motherhood.

 

But there are also, let’s face it, an increasing number of women who have entered into  motherhood, or  singlehood, or both,  voluntarily and after due and deliberate consideration.  Dan Quayle first brought the Murphy Brown phenomenon to our attention, and most of us now know, or know of, several divorced or never-married women over 35 who got tired of waiting for a husband and decided to have their children now, before the biological clock runs out.  We are somewhat less aware of the younger women who were not willing to go to any extraordinary efforts to keep the fathers of their children in the home, or even threw them out.  But I believe that is a continuing trend. 

 

We know, for instance, that a young woman who becomes pregnant is a lot less likely to marry the father of her child–or even seriously consider doing so if asked, or even want to be asked–than she would have thirty or forty years ago.  Her parents are much less likely to pressure her to do so.  Even the Roman Catholic Church has taken the position that couples should be discouraged from marrying when the prospective bride is pregnant. Since they oppose abortion on principle, they obviously consider single motherhood the most preferable option for a woman in that position.

 

Who divorces whom?

 

There is a less obvious shift in the mechanisms of divorce.  Today, as for the past thirty years or so, more than 60% of all legal actions for divorce are initiated by wives.  That cannot be taken as an indication that the marriage breakups were initiated by the wives.  In “fault” jurisdictions, the party who files the divorce is by definition the “innocent” spouse, responding to some unpardonable act by the other spouse.  And as a practical matter, even in “no-fault” jurisdictions, the most common reason to file for divorce where there are children is that the non-filing spouse has walked out.

 

 

And why?

 

But, with no change in the most visible statistics, I believe there has been a shift in the real mechanisms of divorce and family breakup.  I hear it from my women divorce clients.  I still encounter the hard-core stories of abuse and addiction, and the eternal stories of infidelity and desertion. But the victims of abuse, addiction, and infidelity seem more likely to resolve their problems in divorce court, or to do so at an earlier or less acute stage of those problems, than they would have been fiifteen years ago.

 

In addition,  I am also hearing a new layer of stories, about men who just weren’t “worth the trouble.”  They aren’t reliably employed, or they are employed but don’t earn very much, or they earn a good salary but spend most of it on themselves.  They don’t help around the house.  They insist on their wives working for pay, but do nothing to make the “second shift” any easier.  Sometimes they go out of their way to make it harder.  They aren’t hard-core alcoholics or addicts, but they drink regularly or smoke an occasional joint.  Above all, they display no consideration or courtesy to their wives.  They seem never to have been taught basic manners.  (Some of the ones I have met in court or in negotiating sessions seem almost to be suffering from a sub-clinical form of Tourette’s Syndrome, unable to control the vicious, violent, obscene words and phrases that come out of their mouths whenever their wives are present or the subject of discussion. )

 

There are social critics who believe that we are all nastier, less considerate people than our parents and grandparents.  Certainly that case can be made.  But I suspect that there have always been at least a significant number of husbands who behaved like the ones I described in the previous paragraph, as well as a significant number of low-intensity batterers and boozers, whose wives would never have dreamed of divorcing them before 1970 or so.   My grandmother’s test for a “good husband” was “Does he beat you?  Does he drink?  Does he use drugs?  Does he work?  Does he bring his paycheck home?”  If the answer to the first three questions was “no” and the answer to the last two was “yes”, she would consider divorce unimaginable.  There is enough of my grandmother in me that I listen for the answers to those same questions from my clients.  Increasingly, I am getting the “right” answers from women who still want divorces.  I think, in short, that women are imposing stricter standards on the men they live with. 

 

The Victorian solution

 

Right-wing social critics, like George Gilder and David Blankenhorn, consider this an unfortunate and destructive trend.  The only remedy they can see is to make single motherhood even more difficult than it is now, so that women will have no alternative to staying in an unsatisfactory marriage but giving up their children, or starving. 

 

That does not, of course, speak very well for the merits of men as husbands and fathers, if women are to choose marriage only as an alternative to starvation or loss of their children.  And it sorts ill with the uneasiness of some men who fear that their women stay with them only for financial support.  They cannot, after all, have it both ways.  They cannot starve single mothers into returning to the home and then complain because all those women want is their husbands’ money.  If they want to be loved for themselves alone, they may actually have to learn to be lovable.


Murphy Brown’s solution

 

Which, I think, is precisely what the new single mother is saying.  Now that it is actually possible (though still horribly difficult) to raise children without the presence or even the financial contribution of an adult male, more and more women are choosing to do it, not for fun (or even as a result of fun), and not because they got “caught” (as the old expression goes), but because doing so is less stress, less work, and less pain than staying in a long-term relationship with a man who is, at best, a lousy roommate, a lousy business partner, a lousy father, and, often, a lousy lover. 

 

Women and men: the cooked and the raw

 

In our culture, and perhaps in every culture on the face of the earth, men are considered to be finished products, as is, no exchanges, no returns, no substitutions.  Women, of course, are raw material.  We are always improving ourselves.  Virtually every mainstream women’s magazine has articles about diet, exercise, makeup, grooming, and fashion in every issue, and most of them have “beauty makeovers.”  Most women will go out of their way to educate themselves on and share in any of the activities their menfolk consider enjoyable or important, unless the menfolk specifically exclude them.  So women’s magazines teem with information on how women can change themselves until they become whatever it is their men want. 

 

But women are instructed, even by such otherwise sensible advisors as Ann Landers and Dear Abby, never to marry a man with the hope of changing him. Any woman who took that advice seriously and still chose to marry would have to be a hard-core masochist, since most men are lousy husband-and-father material, especially in the early 20s when most of them get married.  In fact, the falling marriage and remarriage rate may be an indication that women are taking that advice seriously, and choosing, if they may not hope to change the men they marry, not to marry at all.

 

None of the commentators on single motherhood, from left or right, have given any thought to what a husband or boyfriend would have to do to make a woman’s life better than the current conditions of single motherhood, so that she would have a positive incentive to get married and stay married. Men’s magazines never include any information on how to please a woman, or how to change oneself to become what a woman wants 

 

This is partly because we still believe, as a society, that marriage exists primarily for the benefit of women.  Which implies in turn that there is still a reserve army of unmarried women out there, ready and willing to replace any woman who is too picky about pay and working conditions.  “Women are like buses,” men tell themselves.  “If you lose one, just wait a few minutes and another one will come along.” Suddenly we are discovering that maybe another one won’t come along. 

 

Some immodest proposals–for employers

 

So I think it is time for a whole new set of proposals for saving the American family.  Some of them extend to the whole society, and most of all, to business and industry.  We need to make collective provision for the rearing of healthy, emotionally stable children who will grow into competent and mature adults.  Any society that is not willing to make this kind of provision for its next generation does not deserve to have a next generation.  That means providing for paid parental leave for all working parents during at least the first three years of a child’s life, and for emergencies and important events in children’s lives thereafter.  It means publicly-funded and publicly-monitored child care facilities.  It means children’s allowances to bring the income of every family–even the family of a minimum-wage worker–up to a decent level.  None of these proposals are new, and their proponents have documented the need for them far beyond my poor power to add or detract.

 

For men

 

But in addition to that–here comes the really revolutionary stuff–men need to change.  Men need to behave differently.  If they hope to spend their retirement being supported by the next generation of workers, they need to establish families in which those workers can grow up into competent and mature human beings.  Which means they need to put in time and energy, not only earning a paycheck, but maintaining the family home, and taking actual physical care of the children, and sometimes even of their mother.  They need to learn how to do those things competently, and to recognize, without being told, when those things need to be done.  They need to realize that they are not born knowing everything they need to know about relating to women and children. Sometimes they need to ask the women and children in question, and then listen to the answers.  They need to know how to gain the confidence of women and children.  They need to know how to help without controlling.  Sometimes that means “why can’t a man be more like a woman?”, but more often it just means “why can’t a man be more like a person?”

 

For women–don’t iron while the strike is hot

 

And–okay, here’s the most revolutionary suggestion of all–women may need to go further.  The current stage the women’s movement is stalled at requires us to at least be prepared to raise children alone.   But those children–the male children–need to be raised to be the men we would want our daughters to be willing to marry.  And it is not at all clear that a woman raising her sons alone can pull that off.  Most of our sons will be the same kind of men we decided were “too much trouble” to live with.  Our daughters will have the same choices we had, no better, no worse. 

 

Our children really need both male and female role models, preferably in regular interaction with each other on a basis of equality, fairness, and mutual assistance and comfort.  There is no other way we can raise sons who will interact with their wives that way.  If we cannot find men who will be such role models and engage in such interaction, I am increasingly convinced that we must refuse to bear children at all. 

 

Let me say that again.  I think women must consider refusing to bear children to men who will not stay with them and provide a model of egalitarian and mutually supportive family life for those children.  Women must consider refusing to bear children into a society which penalizes parents and especially mothers in the workforce.  Women must consider refusing to bear children into an economy that treats children like “consumer luxuries.”  Women must consider refusing to take on the obligations of motherhood in a society that defines mothers as having total responsibility for their children while giving them almost no power over the circumstances in which they raise those children.  Women must consider refusing to bear children into a society which pays women substandard wages because they have, or are likely to have, children, and condemns a third of all children to poverty because they are being raised by women. 

 

Slavery persisted in the societies that allowed it, mainly because slave women were forced to continue bearing and rearing children to be made into slaves in turn.  If slave women had been able to deny their fertility to their masters, slavery would have died in the American South long before the Civil War.  We now have the power they lacked, of choosing not to bear children. 

 

Prochoice?  How about better choices?

 

Is it fair for us to be forced to this choice?  It is not that different from the choices forced on educated women a hundred years ago.  They could either use their education in important and recognized ways in the public realm, or they could love men, marry, and raise children.  Not both. The women who had to make that choice might have felt enormously encouraged to know that their granddaughters (or, more likely, their great-nieces and the daughters of their students) would be able to choose among the new batch of unfair choices forced on us over the last thirty years:  between working two-and-a-half jobs (paid worker, mother, and homemaker) for two-thirds of a salary, and working one-and-a-half jobs (mother and homemaker) for no salary; between safe contraceptives that are not reliable, reliable contraceptives that are not safe, and safe, reliable contraceptives that are not reversible; or between abortion, giving a child up for adoption, single motherhood, and shotgun marriage.  All of these choices have three things in common:  they are choices between various kinds of deprivation and unfairness, with no good alternative; they are choices men are never required to make; and all of them were choices made available by the advancement of women.  They were, that is, still an improvement over the previous state of having no choices at all.  But they were, and are, lousy choices, and it is not fair that those are the only choices we have.   Nonetheless, only by working our way through the current lousy choices can we have any hope of making a world in which our daughters’ choices will be better.  

 

Red Emma 

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Eyes on the Street

April 9, 2008

 

 

These days, video cameras are everywhere. They no longer even depend on the whim of individuals fooling around with their toys, like the guy who accidentally taped Rodney King being beaten up.  Cameras are permanently set up all over the place.  ATMs, building entrances, lobbies, banks, intersections, virtually anyplace capable of supporting the negligible weight of today’s video cameras.

 

Some people, lamenting the loss of privacy, find this unsettling.  I yield to no one in my fervor for civil liberties. But I like the omnipresence of video cameras.  Whose privacy do they violate?  If you leave the four walls of your own home, place of worship, meeting room, or romantic tryst site, you have no expectation of privacy.  If you want privacy, stay home.  Or at least pay cash.  I think I might feel differently if the cameras also recorded audio. Fortunately, given the ambient noise level of the great urban outdoors, that would be wasted effort anyway.  So if, in the course of a conversation with a friend as we walk down the street, or sit in a restaurant, or ride a bus, I malign the president or the war, I don’t expect to be electronically overheard.

 

But if somebody zooms through a red light and gets caught on camera, three cheers!  If somebody robs me at an ATM, his face is preserved for posterity, and that’s just fine.  If I have to walk through a questionable neighborhood on the way to my car, I’m comforted by the knowledge that somebody somewhere is monitoring my progress and my safety.

 

Yes, I have been somewhat spooked by police taking pictures at anti-war demonstrations.  The proper response, which seems to have been picked up quickly, is to take pictures of the cops in return.  Both can be useful in court later, especially as proof of what didn’t happen.  I’ve already gotten one client acquitted on 6 felony charges, based on such a video.

 

The down side of the ever-present security cameras isn’t that they erode privacy. The real down side is that they are a symbol of the end of visual community, what Jane Jacobs used to call “eyes on the street.”  By which she meant, not electronic doohickeys, but real live people with the time to watch what went on around them and the inclination to respond appropriately to it or testify about it as necessary.  Jacobs located such people on front porches and similar semi-public places.  Front porches are mostly unoccupied these days.  The people who used to hang out there are much more likely to be at work, if they are able-bodied enough to be useful as witnesses.   Or, in really dangerous neighborhoods, they are inside, with the shades down, unwilling to be seen, and especially unwilling to be seen seeing any illegal act.  So, on one hand, it is sad that we need an electronic replacement for such human vigilance. On the other hand, it is good that we have one.

 

Jane Grey

 

 

 

 

Electoral Follies and Glimpses of Hope

April 8, 2008

I rarely get a chance to be proud of my home state. Illinois is something like 48th in spending on social services, 47th in education, and probably first in the number of governors and ex-governors convicted of felonies. But by george, I’m bursting with pride today. The governor of Illinois has signed into law a provision that requires the award of its electoral college votes to the presidential candidate with the most support nationwide. Speaking of stats, we are the third state to do so. For more information, or to follow developments nationwide, see http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/

Until 2000, of course, most of us thought of the Electoral College kind of the way we thought about that old moose head Grandpa kept in the attic. You know, no earthly use to anybody, unlikely to do any damage, but one of these days we really ought to get rid of it. Most of us had never even heard of the Hayes-Tilden Compromise, which was what happened the last time (1876) the Electoral College vote and the popular vote diverged. Which is kind of a shame, because the Hayes-Tilden Compromise erased the last vestiges of Reconstruction from the South, and established Jim Crow legislation for another 80 years—scarcely a historical footnotes.

So, while we all expected some kind of apocalypse in the year 2000 (our survivalist friends even had us stocking up on canned goods and distilled water), we anticipated it in January, not November. What we got instead of the universal off-lining of civilization was another election in which the Electoral College vote and the popular vote diverged. And what that got us, several months later, was a war we are still bogged down in, and the shredding of our civil liberties. Arguably, it has brought us closer to fascism than we have ever been before, except of course that nobody is promising to make the trains, or indeed any other system of common carriers, run on time.

My original, grandiose, proposal for a solution was a trade with Congressional Republicans—we’d let them have the Schwarzenegger Amendment (abolishing the requirement that presidential candidates had to be born US citizens) if they’d let us abolish the Electoral College. But amending the Constitution is a slow and difficult process. The National Popular Vote movement is a lot faster and easier. It takes advantage of the fact that the US Constitution allows every state to choose its own Electoral College delegates any way it wants to, down to and including a hot game of draw poker or the Code Duello. Apparently a lot of states are considering signing on, mostly because they believe the Electoral College system discourages presidential candidates from paying much attention to states with small numbers of delegates, or because they believe it discourages the candidates from paying enough attention to more populous states—both of which, paradoxically, appear to be true.

So, gentle reader, if your state hasn’t signed on yet, it’s time to contact your legislators and get them mobilized. In the meantime, I will keep on basking in the rare pleasure of my state being more or less first in something praiseworthy.

Red Emma

The Politics of Politics

April 3, 2008
Some years back, I went to a meeting of a support group for people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  I do not in fact have CFS.  My husband does.  In fact, he has a sufficiently bad case of it that he isn’t up to support group meetings, which is why I went instead.  One of the hot topics among CFS groups at the time was the recent discovery that all of the money NIH had allotted for research on CFS had been used for something else.   We talked about it for a while, and then a woman in the front row said, “I never discuss politics. It causes too much stress for me.”  That was when I decided not to come back to that support group. E.J. Dionne says Americans hate politics because politicians ask all the wrong questions.  Aristotle says that politics is what distinguishes human beings from the “lower” animals. (Which shows what he knew about animals.)  Aristotle, and the Greeks in general, however, also tell us that politics is an activity available only to “free” human beings–those not hampered by enslavement, poverty, or illness.  And I think they had a point.  The people most in need of contesting the circumstances of their lives have the least time and energy available for doing it. Which confronts us repeatedly with the conundrum: if the poor are too busy being poor to represent themselves, who can represent them? Same goes for people with disabilities.  If they can be represented only by those who do not know their problems at first-hand, how much is that representation worth?Labor unions, for instance–in order to be able to bargain more or less on equal footing with employers, they have to have power. Once they have it, how well can they represent hotel janitors and farm laborers?

The answer that Mao and Lenin and Trotsky gave was that the only kind of power that will do the job is the kind that grows out of the barrel of a gun.  But more recent thinkers point out that this approach results in a post-revolutionary society dominated by well-armed able-bodied males, which leaves everybody else not much better off than they were before the revolution. 

Gandhi advocates the power that can be exercised by ordinary people–men, women, children, old people, people with disabilities, poor people–the power to stop cooperating with the system.  The result, if it works, should be a post-revolutionary society in which all of those groups continue to be represented.   

Anyway, even though politics is sometimes stressful for me too (and the older I get, the more stressful it is) I can’t bring myself to quit.  Now that I am a certified geezer (geezerette?  geezeress? crone?), I have less to lose than ever, and should be getting more political, not less. 

I feel a little out of step with some of my colleagues on Alexandria. Well, shoot, I’m always out of step with somebody. If I’m too political for the philosophic minds here, I’m probably too philosophical for the politicos on those other sites which shall remain nameless. And maybe too godly for all of them.  I did once write a plea for unisex bathrooms, called, of course, Potty Politics.  Ms. rejected it as too raunchy. Playboy said it was too scholarly. That’s why I’m a sister act, I guess.

Red Emma