That a man must break his back
To earn his day of leisure?
Will she still believe it when he’s dead
–John Lennon, Girl, 1965
Jill Filipovic was born in 1983. That was the year I was admitted to the New York bar, having passed the July, 1982 bar exam. She tells of her grandmother’s, her mother’s experience leading to hers. It’s assumed she’s telling the truth, though she hasn’t earned the right to be believed.
But there isn’t much question of her reliance on her own narrative from which we are to extrapolate that the significance of the female experience can be inferred from her story. Pundits like to do that, to assume that they are universal and their experience is a substitute for everyone else’s experience. It’s not like readers have their own families, mothers and grandmothers, from which to draw.
Her point was that women in the olden days were forced into “women’s work,” mostly motherhood and housewifery, and if not, teachers and nurses. As Filipovic speaks of my generation from her own distance, she’s not entirely wrong, but not entirely right either. Feminism in the 60s and 70s sought equality, and women were seeking out new territory, new occupations and professions.
Not everyone wanted them to begin with, and more to the point, many found that when they accomplished what they thought they wanted to accomplish, it wasn’t nearly as wonderful as they were told it would be. Work was hard, unpleasant and inconvenient. The good news was that they had an option. If they decided that they no longer wanted to work, they could stop. They could go home, cook dinner, clean the house, raise the kids.
Men didn’t have this option. Of course, no one could physically stop a guy from calling quits, but there were a few issues. The kids still wanted to eat. The bank still wanted its mortgage payments. And his wife had to approve. It meant that he would let his family down financially, as it was his duty to support his family. It meant that he was not the man his wife expected him to be. He was no longer an acceptable mate.
Filipovic’s view of history through her self-serving lens doesn’t grasp this.
That didn’t mean, however, that work brought happiness, fulfillment or purpose. That work could be central to women’s lives and identities was not then, and is not now, the dominant way we think about women and work.
We have a broad understanding that work is valuable for men, that it feeds their sense of importance as providers and meets some existential need related to identity and sense of self.
See what she did there? Women, when they worked, were denied “happiness, fulfillment or purpose.” Men? It’s all about their “sense of importance” and some “existential need.” There’s an old joke that the money earned by a woman was hers and the money earned by a man was theirs. Feeding the kids isn’t very existential. Except for the kids, anyway. Yet, her limited grasp leads her to find a convenient stalking horse for the great evil du jour.
This force is potent enough to be one factor that may have swung the 2016 elections: Working-class white men, out of work and watching blue-collar jobs dry up, lost their mooring as providers, and cast their ballots for a man who promised to take them back in time.
These are poor, fragile men, whose existential and important identities have been stripped from them in the great feminist awakening, and they turned to the dark side to get it back. She doesn’t delve any deeper, because this isn’t about men except to the extent she can trivialize their role in society.
Which is perhaps why today, women finding individual identities tied to their work makes so many people uncomfortable — why people are so quick to assert that we can’t “have it all,” why the American government and workplaces are so slow to implement policies that would enable us to at least have something a little better.
Who wouldn’t prefer work that “brought happiness, fulfillment or purpose”? Filipovic writes as if this should be an entitlement only for women because that’s what she cares about. Men don’t dream of the glorious day they can die quickly in a coal mine or slowly on the assembly line, repeating the same motions five days a week for thirty years.
Even though it’s of no consequence to her selfish narrative, her solution, policies that would enable women to “at least have something a little better” might be extended to include everyone, regardless of gender. Imagine, men being fulfilled as well as women, not that Filipovic cares.
Except that existential killer, reality, bites her female-Utopian cure in the butt. The numbers don’t add up. The work needed by society to function won’t cooperate. Somebody has to pick up the garbage, even if the job isn’t particularly fulfilling. Stores can’t operate when nobody shows up for work because they’re entitled to six months maternity leave. Stores can’t necessarily stay in business if they’re paying people not to work, and those damn consumers aren’t throwing them oodles of extra money to finance the obligation.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 1950s was women’s turn to the domestic, the first time in recorded American history where women got married sooner and had more babies than their mothers. The prevailing sensibility was that life as a suburban housewife was supposed to bring ultimate happiness.
That’s not quite true. Just because it’s today’s narrative doesn’t mean it was reality at the time. There were a list of things that needed to be done to achieve the American dream of a good life, a nice home, a family, a decent life. On the list was earning money to pay for the good life. Also on the list was cooking, cleaning, child-rearing. Somebody had to do it, even though it was hard, unfulfilling work. The suburban housewife wasn’t enjoying “ultimate happiness,” but doing what needed to get done. As was her husband, who brought home the paycheck.
Lawmakers know all of this. They also know that refusing to provide paid parental leave, adequate sick days and affordable child care means women are routinely forced out of the workplace — women don’t choose to opt out, they’re pushed. Politicians make this choice and then claim it’s women who are free to do the choosing.
We are all pushed to do what we have to do. It’s not fair. It’s not fulfilling. It’s just reality, that those darn kids want to eat every single day. No one is entitled to “work [that] brought happiness, fulfillment or purpose.” If it can be achieved, that’s wonderful, but we all have choices to make, women included, and those kids will still want to eat no matter how you feel about your job.