Saturday, October 20, 2012

The F word

No, not that f-word, people.  The other one.  The one that should have come up during the Presidential debates this past week.  The one that people seem to avoid like the plague - and as a linguist, I always find it intriguing when people do that, and then I wonder why, and then I write posts like this one.  You know the word I'm talking about: feminism.  For those of you who are less in the mood for that kind of contemplation, there is knitting content in this post (ironically, in a post-modern sort of way); please feel free to skip to the end for that.

I don't know how many of you watched the debate this week, but at one point, one of the questions brought up something near and dear to my heart: a woman asked what each of the candidates would do in the next four years about the fact that women (still) earn about $.73 to the dollar compared to men (for doing the same jobs with the same qualifications, she didn't say, but I will).  There are a couple of things to talk about, vis-a-vis the answers. 

Thing the first is the one that's been all over the interwebs ever since: Mitt Romney's answer and his (now-infamous, and probably never-to-be-lived-down) binders full of women.  As soon as he said that, I thought - this one's sticking, and as a linguist, of course, I find it interesting to think about why that is.  What is it about that part of his answer that is so utterly meme-able?  There were so many other things about his answer that I found noticeable that didn't take to the airwaves in the same way.  For example, when he said that he received no female candidates for posts in his cabinet, the question I think he should have been asking right away is not, how do I get binders full of women to ask to apply, but instead, why aren't women applying to work in my cabinet?  What message am I failing to get across that makes women feel that they don't want to apply?  What broader social forces are at play that make women not apply to positions of power more generally?  What is going on here?  But OK, he didn't.  The next issue with that answer was the fact that his protestations that he knows qualified women sounded all too much like a recognized trope when a person with prejudice is confronted with that prejudice, and they respond: "But I have lots of friends who are X".  That phrase usually doesn't mean what it sounds like it means.

The binders full of women, though, that's what struck a nerve (judging by the amount of space devoted to it on social networks).  Interestingly, it's the way that it's been used to mock another powerful man altogether that I think gets to the heart of the problem with it.  I'm not sure if any of you have seen the Bill Clinton "I heard there's a binder full of women!" pictures going around (I've seen at least three iterations, and heard about several more), but it seems to me that those point to the issue here: it's about objectification.  It's about the idea that women are interchangeable, available, tokens.  Because the binders full of women don't get at the real problem - why women didn't apply, why women are still paid less than 75% of what men are paid, why there wasn't a woman standing on that stage answering those questions - and because those binders don't get at answers to those questions, they seem far too much like a pat on the head, a brushing-aside or covering-over of a very large problem.

Because let's be honest - neither candidate answered the question worth a damn.  Both of them talked about access, about the idea that women should have access to jobs.  They're right, women should.  But if we end up doing the jobs that men do for 25% less, then do we really have access to the "same" jobs, with the same benefits?  Does that really address the question of why women are considered to be 25% less valuable in the workplace?  Or of why that number has been going down again in recent years, rather than up?  Does it address the fact that most single-parent homes with children in them are headed by women, who then must support those families on 3/4 of the income their male counterparts would get for working as hard as they do?  Does it address the fact that when women do, finally, begin to get access to a particular career, that career loses prestige and, concomitantly, pay?  (If you think I'm wrong, look at the difference in pay in medical careers like family practice as opposed to surgery - still male-dominated; or look at what's happened to professorial pay since women gained more, although still not equal, access to the halls of academia; look at the differences in pay between the areas of academia that have more women in them relative to those that are still male-dominated.)

Speaking only as an N of 1, I have seen this same thing happen to me.  A year after I was hired in my current job, my department hired a male professor who had not yet completed his Ph.D.  He earned more than I did, even though I had both the degree and more years of experience in the classroom.  More recently, my department hired another male professor who is, as yet, untenured (note: I have held my job for nearly eleven years, have had tenure for five years, and I am currently the chair of my department); he is paid almost exactly what I am paid.  Both men are valuable colleagues, worth their pay.  But why are my experience and skill (and my degree), not worth more?  I have published as much, earned as many awards, taken as little time on leave, etc etc.  But I am not worth as much.  And for anyone who would say that money isn't everything - that is true in a philosophical and existential sense, but in a capitalist society (which, for our sins, we are), money is one of the most central ways by which we judge, and reward, our perceived sense of what a person is worth in a particular role.  More practically, money is how we feed ourselves and our families, clothe our children, give them opportunities, help others in society.  It might be nice to think it doesn't matter, but it does.

So, what I want to know is, why did neither of those presidential candidates talk about (here it is, brace yourselves) feminism?  About the idea that there should be a social movement that advocates for women, and that continues to do so until women are treated as equal citizens, and that people of both sexes should proudly sign on to such a movement?  Why did neither of them mention the Equal Rights Amendment - you know, the one that would acknowledge, under the law, that women are the equal of men?  Why do people insist that there is no point in such a thing, that women are already equal to men under the law?  If that were true, why is it that women still do not have the opportunities that men have?  Why are we treated differently?  I have two daughters, and I hate like hell the thought that when they grow up, they will still be part of a world that values them less, that tells them that their roles as mothers are critical to our society but then says that their roles as mothers makes them less-valuable people (and it is still true that mothers are paid even less than their single counterparts, while fathers are paid more than their single counterparts - in other words, parenthood makes men good risks, but women bad risks in the workplace).

Dudes.  I am a feminist.  That doesn't mean that I hate men.  It doesn't mean that I think all women should burn their bras, neglect their children, go into the workforce, be the same as one another, create a society in which women dominate men and abuse power.  It does mean that I think that women should have access to a full range of options for personhood, that they should be paid equally to men when the option that they choose is to enter the workforce.  I also think that women who stay at home to raise their children should have access to social security earned during the years they are at home with dependent children, in their own names (rather than having to depend on their husbands' - or, worse yet, trying to access some portion of their ex-husbands'), and, maybe, even access to affordable healthcare?  Call me a socialist, but if we tell people that one important path a person could choose to take is to be home with their children for part of their childrens' growing up, then we should put our money where our mouths are.  (Note: I think stay-at-home dads should have the same benefits.)

I don't think that's going to happen until a couple of other important things happen first.  One of those is for women to stop back-biting when their compatriots choose a different path than their own.  I work outside the home, and have since my girls were little.  That does not make me a bad mother.  It doesn't make my husband a hen-pecked man whose masculinity I have taken away by refusing to allow him to provide for his family alone (I have been told both things more than once).  A woman who stays home with her children is not an anti-feminist by definition.  Breast-feeding neither makes a woman a great mother, nor a bad feminist.  Not breast-feeding neither makes a woman a bad mother, nor a great feminist.  When did we get so judgmental of one another?  When did we decide there was only one path to successful womanhood?

The second thing is that men need to get in on this game.  Until fathers are willing to demand paternity leave in equal amounts to women's maternity leave, until they are willing to say, "I need flexible hours so that I can get home with a sick kid if I have to, so I can leave at 5 and get the kids to soccer, so I can leave earlier two days a week since the kids' #$%*!! schools insist on having early-release days, as if 2:30 weren't already a ludicrously early hour to get out of school", until that happens, workplaces will still think of mothers as drains on company resources.  Until women are paid equally to men, families will be stuck in a cycle of protecting a father's job more than a mother's, because he brings more back to the family.  Men have to stop buying into the (empirically untrue - go ahead and do the research, I have) story that men aren't nurturers, they aren't good at raising children, they don't "bond" with their children the way mothers do, so they don't "like" being with their kids the way mothers do; they have to stop allowing society to cut them off from the pleasures of living a balanced life.

I realize that my rant here has focused on families, on women who have chosen the path of motherhood, and that the choice not to have children at all is yet another one of those equally-legitimate but all-to-often-criticized options that women should have access to.  I also haven't talked about the issue of double jeopardy, women who face both sexism and racism in trying to access their right to the options that should be available to everyone.  I am not ignoring these things because they're not important, but because I was mostly focusing on my personal experience here - I'd love to get comments from folks who are dealing with those things as well, to bring voices of experience to the table here - middle-class white working motherhood isn't the only story (it isn't even the majority story), it's just the one that I know best.

Basically, it's time to be talking about this (again).  It's always been time, but maybe the total non-answers to that question suggest that we need to get a little louder.  Maybe we even need to think about doing what Iceland did a few elections ago - to say that men have had their chance, kick them all out of government, and elect women instead.  Radical, I know - kind of fun to imagine, though, maybe?

So yes, I am a feminist.  AND I knit (not BUT I knit, please note).  And I am knitting, in fact.  I knitted all the way through that debate on Tuesday, and I ended up with these (started fairly recently, out of a need for some quick success):
Those are Plain Jhaynes, a pattern of Anne's that I somehow have missed all these years, made specially for using up a little bit of special yarn.  As soon as I saw them, I realized that they were the perfect pattern for the mitts I've been wanting to make to go with my babushka scarves, which, much as I love them, use a skein and a bit of some very nice yarn, leaving quite a bit to be used up in other ways.  This yarn is Jade Sapphire silk/cashmere 2-ply, and I love it.  The two babushkas I've knitted (this one and a blue one) are probably my most-worn bits of knitting, and I'm really glad now to have mitts to go with one of them.  So, to recap, these mitts are Plain Jhaynes (Anne Hanson), knitted on size one (Signature - how I do love my Signatures) dpns, out of Jade Sapphire silk/cashmere 2-ply, in a size medium.  They are meant to fit fairly snugly, to add just that perfect bit of warmth without getting in the way of, say, typing, and I think they're going to do the job perfectly.

The other thing I've been working on this week is my new version of the Wine Dark Sea sweater.  You may remember from the old version (here, on Rav) that I knitted years ago, that I aimed for a sweat-shirty loose fit.  Well, I got it.  In looking at my old pattern notes and measurements, and comparing them to the measurements I tend to use now for sweaters, I realize that I built in about eight inches of positive ease (!!) when I designed and knitted the first one.  I ended up with quite a bit of yarn left over after I knitted it (my very favorite, can't-get-enough-of-it yarn, Briar Rose Sea Pearl), and after weighing and doing some math, I decided I had enough left to knit another, more fitted (less than 1 inch of positive ease) version.  So I put together some notes for myself, and did some math based on my gauge swatch.
And off I went.  I'm almost done now with the waist shaping.
Only one more set of increases to go, then a bit more plain knitting, then I'll split for the armholes.  At that point, I'll be able to slide it on (I'm knitting this part in the round from the bottom up) and see how I'm doing, both in terms of ease and length.  And I'll go from there.

There are also a few acquisitions of yarn and fiber, plus a cookbook that I'm totally psyched about, but I think I'll save those for the next post.  In the meantime, peace out.


Wanderingcatstudio said...

I have never ever understood the wage gap thing. And it's not just an American thing - it's the same up here.

And great mitts!

JoAnnaJae said...

Amen, lady! Well said.

Lynne said...

A very interesting, thought-provoking post.

Wool Enough said...

Your wonderful feminist rant almost made me weep. ok, it did, snif. My generation fought so hard to get this far, and it's not far enough. Time for the younger ladies to take charge and move it forward. And, as you say, it's past time for the men to get on board.

Gwen said...

Yes. I heard all you did, especially the resounding silence. Wharrrrrrgaaaarrrrtble!

(Anecdata of one family re fathers' ability to care: the father nurtured very well the years he stayed home to care for our kid. And their relationship is stronger for it.)

I'm thankful for my creative (slowly) productive knitting I can do while ranting.

Helen said...

I don't think there's a word of that that I would disagree with. I feel so often lately that it's as if we've gone back in time, as if the last thirty years didn't happen, and as if the battles that 'we' thought we had won have to be fought all over again.

Away from that depressing thought, wasn't the reaction to the binders interesting? I was following the debate on Twitter and the reaction was immediate; everyone thought it was hysterical. Perhaps a bad metaphor is more memorable than a good one, but I think it's also because it's such a colossal example of objectifying women, by someone who should be trying very hard not to do that. And in the end it turned out not even to be true: the women had put the binders together themselves and made sure they were presented to him. What a wearisome lot politicians are.

Polly said...

Fantastic post that I'm urging my students in my Sex and Gender class to read.

Frauntene McLarney said...

I can't articulate my situation as it currently sits as well as you have yours. I need more time to ponder these thoughts, and lots of fuel have you provided! And, mine is also still white middle class....just from the stay at home point of view.

I find that when men ask what I do they are ECSTATIC that I have chosen to stay home and raise my kids and run our family and household. However, I have found that women don't share that enthusiasm. I feel like I get vibes of jealousy, or am looked down upon as a 'mere housewife', and that I must not be very smart. I have felt on MANY occassions the need to work the fact that I have a Master's degree from an Ivy League university into the conversation. That I have been recruited by several top companies in my field during my career. That we moved to San Diego for MY job, and my husband followed.

My job choice right now is just that, a choice. And it IS the best choice for me and my family. I have that I need to feel defensive about it. But why am I so defensive when talking with women?? Like you said, why aren't WE more supportive and understanding of each other. Why aren't WE more openminded to the notion that there are many 'correct' ways to parent/mother/raise a family? Am I defensive because of the vibbes I get from these other mothers, or is it from the vibes that I feel inside because I am, deep down, still somewhat insecure about my choice. Why do I at times feel like I'm letting my gender down by not staying in the workplace? I think all of these things come into play.

Anyway, just a thought for the day. And now I leave to settle a fight between the is never done, not even on a rainy, lazy Sunday afternoon!

love you, thank you! soon....

Nana Sadie said...

You know my particular bias where all this is concerned and I only wish I had the ability to say it as beautifully as you have here. I'm ready - let's MARCH! Must we continue to ignore the fact that it would only take 3 more states to ratify the ERA?

And yes, men need the same options for family leave and caregiving duties. My Sweetheart was a widower raising his son alone, and it was every bit as difficult for him as it was for me to raise my daughter as a single parent. THAT is what real "family values" must be about, if indeed we profess to value families.

BEAUTIFUL mitts, I need some of those.

Mimi said...

I certainly agree with you in theory--equal pay, equal opportunity and equal treatment across the boards without regard to gender, just haven't seen it play out quite the same way as is usually described. Perhaps it is a rare thing, to have the tables turned, but unfortunately that has been my experience. My late husband was finally promoted from a job he had held and excelled at for many years, to find his replacement, who would now be working for him, a far less qualified woman, who was hired at thousands of dollars more per year to start than he had ever dreamed of earning after 16 years on the job. Why? I've pondered that myself. She was demanding and knew how to get what she wanted, and certainly who to play up to which she did shamelessly, while my husband treated everyone with the same level of kindness and respect, was always described by customers and co-workers as helpful and accommodating, a hard worker--loved by everyone he dealt with. Was it fair that he did a job all those years with so little financial reward and someone less qualified who also happened to be a woman stepped in at a higher salary because she knew how to play the feminine game? Certainly not, but it was definitely a case where being female in a male world was a distinct advantage. So, I guess my point is, there is unfairness on both sides of the issue and perhaps it is less a case of being a feminist as just wanting a level playing field and equal treatment for everyone, including rights for my stay-at-home son who does a fantastic job nurturing his children as well as for his wife who is currently and happily the family bread winner.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post with an abundance of good fodder to ruminate on.

sorry, but I have to admit that the word feminist tends to get a knee jerk reaction from me, we need to come up with a new term. Any linguistic up to the task? :)

And yet, I believe with my whole being that men and women were created equal and that practiced equality should be a given among human beings. Where would we be without men and visa-versa? Respect; acceptance; recognizing abilities, skills, experience and intelligence - not gender. It's a baffling, and sad world in which we live that we're not even close to achieving this type of equal acceptance and recognition.

Great wails of perplexity! Wages, salaries, position should have nothing whatsoever to do with gender (or age for that matter). Abhorrent, and yet, there it is, time and time again.

And yes, as another commenter mentions; we women are sometimes the most condemning of each other. Where does that come from? The need to compete? To feel better?

If only we could move past the we vs them, to instead encourage, cheer on and lift-up one another to bring out the best in each other and to give each person hers and his due.

I love the idea of completely removing everyone who is in office and starting all over from scratch and the Constitution!
slinking off the soapbox...

Unknown said...

You are amazing! I love this post.

Mary Lou said...

Sing it sister! And did you read that the young woman who asked the question said she is absolutely not a feminist? It makes me sad.

Anonymous said...

I, too, love this post.
I am 'pro-choice' in so many ways. Some women need to work and nurture, others need to stay at home and nurture and there are others who need to work. It's all good. We each need to do what is best for ourselves and our situations. No judgement!
We are all bright, interesting, strong, beautiful women, no matter what our choice!

EGunn said...

Completely agree. The feminist thing needs to be talked about, front and center. I am always stunned by people who tell me that inequality no longer exists. They clearly haven't been a woman in the workplace, constantly getting less recognition for more work, or being assigned the secretarial duties and office upkeep in addition to all of the other parts of the job. Definitely still a problem, definitely needs to be front and center. That we can even be discussing reversing Roe v Wade and restricting access to contraceptives is appalling to me, whether or not I would personally choose to use the rights that they protect.

I think the backbiting is the real problem; there is a very negative (and actively reinforced) stereotype of feminists as aggressive, graping, and domineering women without anything like a soft side. I think it's time for a new feminism, that actually acknowledges all that women (and men) are - not only equal to one another, but also not necessarily the same. I don't have to be a man with boobs to work in a man's world, and he doesn't have to be emasculated to work in mine. Sadly, until all of the feminists-in-hiding stand up and speak, things won't change.

Gwyndolyn O'Shaughnessy said...

I've been a feminist since I could talk. Society has managed the playground trick of turning a proud word into a sneer. I decided a while ago that I wouldn't abandon a perfectly good word because Rush (ptooie!) and his nasty little pals twist it into a taunt.

Your example of professors' salaries reminds me of my mom. She used to shop her skills around to other universities, then go back to her department and say, "UCLA will pay me this much to move. What will you pay me to stay?" On the one hand, that's how it's done. On the other hand, my dad didn't think that was quite honest. Mom had no intention of moving; she simply wanted her pay to be equal to her colleagues'.

It also reminds me of a story I learned just before Mom died. In about 1964, Mom and her colleague Irene, the first female professor in Engineering, were trying to get the University to provide faculty salaries. They wanted to determine how great the salary gap was, and argue for equal pay.

The University dragged its heels, hemmed, hawed, said it couldn't get the appropriate permissions from the Deans, who couldn't get it from the Regents, who couldn't get it from the Lieutenant Governer therefore go home and raise babies. (FWIW, pregnancy was grounds for termination at the time. Married or not, you LOST YOUR JOB IF YOU GOT PREGNANT.) (Sorry: different story.)

Irene went home one day and ranted about how difficult the U was, how they were blocking access to this data and how frustrating it all was. The next day, unbeknownst to Irene, her lawyer husband called his buddy the governer of the state ... and three days later they had the data.

My dad wrote the software and ran the data.

The point is not that men have to step in, or even that the salaries were (or weren't) appallingly discrepant. The point is that social change is a group effort. Irene said she never asked Leo to help get the data. Dad smiled proudly when he told me about programming the project. This group of friends worked together to bring women's salaries into the 20th century ... almost 50 years ago.

Isn't it nearly time to bring us into the 21st?

twinsetellen said...

Thanks for the rich post. It is hard for those who haven't seen overt sexism to realize that inequality still exists.

In the function in which I work in the corporation for which I work, I can say with reasonable confidence that women are being treated equally. I can see the salaries of the people who work for me, I can see that the VP's of over half of our divisions are female (and a significant portion of the Presidents), I see careers continuing to move forward quickly despite maternity leave, and I know that many critical decisions are being made by women. But I also see that we have very few women on our board and that the women in functions other than those at corporate (i.e. in sales or logistics or manufacturing) report not feeling like their voices are being heard. Even in a very progressive company, there is work to be done. We will need many binders of women (and men) to accomplish it.

D Marie said...

My feed reader was not working this morning so I had to go to the Knitspot blog to look at her entry and as i was grumbling to myself about technology not working correctly i found the link to your blog. Turns out this glitch introduced me to a wonderful new blog! Thanks for sharing your views. It's refreshing to see a woman address the very thoughts I had while Romney spoke of his binder of women.

RobinH said...

I think that the answer to why the wage gap persists is rooted in complex cultural attitudes. For historical reasons, business culture was originally male-dominated and to a great extent the attitudes have persisted. At the same time, women who emulate male communications styles are often seen as 'pushy' rather than 'assertive'.

Drawing on Deborah Tannen's research, we could characterize 'male' interpersonal relations as competitive and hierarchical, while 'female' relationships are characterized by networking and a strong social pressure to conform.

So women are left walking a line between being trying to emulate masculine communications styles in order to function in a business enviroment dominated by men, but seen (by men) as competition if we succeed, and (by women) as outside the social norms (whatever the norms for their group are). That's why the working moms and stay-at-home moms are often at odds- they are operating within different paradigms, and (unconsciously) trying to exert social pressure to rein in people they see as nonconforming.

Basically, we're hardwired to feel positively to people we perceive as being like us. And despite active efforts to overlook cultural, racial, and gender differences we tend to unconsciously justify our prejudices in a socially acceptable manner. Think of all the people who absolutely hate Obama as president... many of them will deny vigorously any racial prejudice, while wildly grasping at any straw to explain their dislike. There's been a lot of research documenting this effect in studies of discrimination.

So in the specific case of women's wages, you have on the one hand that women are often less assertive about asking for raises and taking credit for accomplishments, and on the other that there are still a lot of pervasive attitudes that women with families are less committed to their work. There's also quite a bit of social conditioning related to risk. Men are taught that risk is exciting especially in competitive situations, while women are more likely to find risk intimidating. Taking fewer risks means fewer women entrepreneurs and fewer women at the highest levels of business.

So the last question is- what's the answer? To some extent ingrained attitudes can be overcome by awareness of the problem combined with the explicit use of objective measures of performance in determining wages. And the other part is an active push to change the culture. As you suggested- for men to push for equal family time. For the contributions of stay-at-home parents to be valued more. For women to overcome overly risk-averse attitudes, and men to learn cooperative attitudes in addition to competitive ones. (If I had a dollar for every workplace pissing match I've witnessed, I could retire now.)

At any rate, this is the conclusion that I've come to, after having done some reading and thinking to make sense of the issue.

And FWIW- I'm white, female, middle class, and childless by choice. My dad was career military (enlisted) and an electrician. My mom was a teacher, librarian, and then stay at home mom. I've spent 20 plus years working as an engineer in manufacturing (heavily male dominated), particularly the 14 years I spent in the auto industry. (You can guess why I've had an interest in this issue for a long time.)

RobinH said...

Yikes. Okay, that's more of an essay than a comment.

And one more note that the 'male' and 'female' trends that Tannen refers to are generalizations applied to populations. There's a ton of overlap- so there are plenty of folks who don't fit the stereotypes.

Jofran said...

Can we ever just be kind and respoect other people's choices.

I am lucky that I have alwys made the same as my male counterparts.

I have had to work harder and get coffee sometimes but even that has been ok.

I have been able to support my family and fiber habit.

Loved your post.

AlisonH said...

Yes yes and yes. And I'm glad that phrase jumped out at you like it sure did to me--I like to think it did so near-universally to half the population, and hopefully some of the other half too.