When I was told after participating in a conference call with Gloria Steinem a few weeks back that I was welcome to send a follow-up question to her, I was at a loss. Fortunately, nearly forty of you saved my butt with the most amazing, thoughtful questions. It was nearly impossible to choose just one and so I didn’t. Well, not exactly.
I asked a question that was an amalgam of questions inspired by Laurie, Overwhelmed, Blog Antagonist, Christina/aka Kitty, and what’s her name…oh right, Linda Hirshman, who got me about as mad as anyone this year with her assertion that “overeducated” stay-at-home moms were betraying the feminist cause by leaving the workforce.
My feeling? College is not trade school. I was raised to believe that you educate yourself for its own sake, to be more productive citizen of the world. Therefore there is nothing wrong with people–male or female–who don’t “use” their degrees in the ways they intended while obtaining them. Surely there are more philosophy majors than philosophers in the world. And I can’t tell you the number of my high school peers who went to law school simply as an expensive way to buy time and figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up. Answer: not lawyers. However I suppose that becoming actors or writers or rubber stamp store owners with a law degree is fine in some people’s minds. Just as long as they don’t become mothers.
There’s a bigger issue with the attack on stay-at-home moms, however, which is that I don ‘t think we really want the task of raising children solely in the hands of the “undereducated.”
This is just my opinion, of course. I was interested in Ms. Steinem’s.
And so I asked her (in a far more rambly, long-winded way than this): How does a stay-at-home mother espouse feminist values to her own children without diminishing the legitimacy of her own decision?
Her answer, verbatim:
The goal of feminism is to honor and value all productive human work and open it up to everyone — including work that has been devalued because women, the de-valued half of the species, do it. To say that homemakers “don’t work” is a form of semantic slavery. Actually, homemakers work longer hours, for less pay, under worse conditions (more violence, depression, drug and alcohol addiction etc.) — and less security (more probability of being replaced by a younger worker!) — than any other class of workers in the country. So we can help a lot if 1) we never say “I don’t work,” but rather “I work at home;” 2) never put “just” in front of homemaker; 3) expect and require men to be homemakers and nurturers, too, whether that means husbands who cook, or sons who do their own laundry, or single moms who find male baby sitters and “mannies” so their kids grow up knowing that males can be as loving and nurturing as females — just as women can be as accomplished outside the home as men. If you decide to go back or into the paid labor force after your kids are more on their own, you could turn your homemaking life into a business-style resume: for example, you contracted for services, ran a budget, socialized new humans, did volunteer work that was a job in itself – whatever. We can do all that as individuals.
As a movement, we can also pass legislation to attribute an economic value to care giving at replacement level (whether care giving is raising children, talking care of elderly parents, AIDS patients; whatever), make this amount tax deductible in a household that pays taxes, or tax refundable in households too poor to pay taxes (thus substituting for the disaster of welfare reform). This Caregivers Tax Credit unifies the so-called soccer mom and the welfare mom because both benefit. You can find out more about this legislation, which just expands the refundability principle we won in the Child Tax Credit – though a lot of people don’t know they’re eligible; you should publicize that – to care giving. The website for the tax-credit campaign is caregivercredit.org.
For the global and economic implications of valuing what women do – a third of the productive work in developed countries and 2/3 in agricultural countries where women also grow much of the food their families eat – plus attributing economic value to the environment, you can see “Revaluing Economics,” an essay I wrote in Moving Beyond Words. Or you can find still more in If Women Counted by Marilyn Waring.
Does Gloria Steinem speak for all women, all feminists? No, of course not. But as someone who has about as much knowledge and insight on the topic as pretty much anyone, I think that her endorsement goes a long way.
If you’d like to hear what she has to say about healthy relationships, bloggers of color, pursuing causes, reclaiming the term feminism, and standing up to the boys, you can visit the bloggers who asked those questions; I’m sure their own posts will be up shortly:
*Jen Satterwhite of Mommy Needs Coffee
*Catherine Connors of Her Bad Mother (who has a fantastic question about embracing our sexuality while protecting our daughters from the abundance of provocative images in the media, something that has been discussed with great passion at Girls Gone Child and IzzyMom.)
*Pamela Slim of Escape from Cubicle Nation
*Leah Peterson of Leah Peah
*Kristen Chase of Motherhood Uncensored
*Ingrid Wiese of Three New York Women
*Sarah Brown of Que Sera Sera
*Stolie of Funky Brown Chick