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Reductio

November 3, 2009

Lauren reviewed this survey and said:

Because mothers are more than their children or grocery shopping habits, I’d imagine they tend to check their email, conduct business, and make phone calls too. Was that on the survey?

The answer is that it isn’t. That’s what this culture does to women. It reduces them to component parts, pidgeon-holes them and refuses to recognize or respect the whole woman.

Like much of how patriarchy works, I see it only second-hand and if I were not looking for it I would miss it. I look at my own experiences, and I can see that this does not happen to me, because I am a man. I see myself as a multifaceted person, and nobody challenges that.

When I walk into a meeting of the lawyers in my bar, I expect people see me and think of my firm, or the last case we had together. But those who know me well ask about my kids, or about my wife. Some might make a comment about politics, somebody’s plans to travel to Scotland, Formula 1 racing or mixed martial arts — implicitly recognizing that while I show up to be a litigator, I remain at the same time a spouse, parent, voter, ethnic Scot, and fan of fighting sports. I am all these things, facets that I put forward by turns but that are a part of me all the time. As Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

I don’t think we have a society that is comfortable with women being large or containing multitudes. The survey Lauren links treats “mom” as if it encompasses the whole of the woman, defining her entirely. Women are expected to be one-dimensional, so that if a woman is a professional, and if she is also a mother, any sort of acknowledgement that she’s also a mom is seen as slightly or not-so-slightly inconsistent with her role as a professional. Recall Ed Rendell’s open-mic gaffe (in the classic Washingtonian sense of the word; saying what one really thinks in a manner and context that is disadvantageous) about Janet Napolitano, that she was “perfect” for Homeland Security because she had no life and no family?

When people talk about the work-life issue, they usually talk about time and priorities — folks like Jack Welch, GE’s sometimes deified former CEO, say that women who take time off to have a family cannot aspire to high professional achievement. On its face that is about two things: (1) time; and (2) commitment.

(The first is a discussion all its own, and can’t be had without bringing in men’s — American white-collar men’s — career paths and expectations and the way we kill ourselves for employers; the two-income-household norm; the stagnation or real wages and the upward appropriation of all productivity gains for more than thirty years; environmental and global sustainability; and men’s willingness to be parents and to de-emphasize career in their self-concept. I can’t fit all that in this post.)

The second is easier, because it’s largely subjective. I can’t find the research at the moment, but I’m relatively certain that I’ve seen research that shows that between a man and woman, each with kids, each of whom work the same number of hours, the woman is perceived as less committed to work. (If I haven’t seen that, then certainly the research that shows that the same resume or work is perceived differently depending on whether a man’s or woman’s name is attached suggests that that would be the result. See, e.g., Virginia Valian, Why So Slow? The Advancement Of Women pp. 127-128, available here; see also this.)

That result is certainly what this paper suggests:

Laurie Anne Freeman, a world-renowned expert on information technology and Japanese politics and a professor in the Political Science Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, received extremely positive reviews from her department until she had two daughters and took leaves to be with them. (1) The reviews she received after returning from her leaves were increasingly critical of her research and productivity. (2) Despite family-friendly university policies, including rules that prohibited consideration of leave time when evaluating productivity, the department repeatedly evaluated her earlier than scheduled and compared her unfavorably with professors who had not taken leaves. (3) When Freeman came up for tenure, she had an impressive list of accomplishments including two prestigious fellowships, one book published and one under contract, and invitations to present her work at leading institutions including Harvard and Stanford. (4) Overwhelmingly negative assessments from her department, however, culminated in a unanimous recommendation to deny tenure.

(Long excerpt only for free, but I’m only concerned with the introduction.) Even family-friendly universities, in practice, seem not to mean it. When a woman becomes a mother, there is what I think is both a powerful and a largely subconscious tendency to see the role of mother as overwhelming all other facets of her, so that other people (even other women; probably even other mothers) will simply believe she is less committed and competent in the workplace, even in the face of contrary evidence.

People: what can I say? Our ability to reject our own observations when they conflict with what we think we know — cognitive dissonance – is stunning. We are not creatures of reason. We are only creatures that reason.

Feminists at all well-read in sexuality, or who just pay attention to the world around them, are well acquainted with the way our culture views women’s sexuality as inconsistent with any other role. This is most often discussed as the “whore/madonna complex”, the inconsistency between sexuality and motherhood or nurturing, but it is not limited to that. Women are virtually always either invisible or sexualized, and if sexualized that very sexual perception (or projection) is used as an excuse to exclude the woman from having any other identity, including professional.

Examples are easy to come by. People don’t want women who have been sexual in a public way to teach or coach their children: Cheer coach fired for former nude modeling. Teacher fired for wearing bikini. People treat a woman political candidate as a joke if she has done sex work.

Law firms even shun women who are sexualized against their will by a knuckledragging horde of anonymous misogynists. When a bunch of evil men acting behind a cloak of anonymity made highly sexualized comments about two young women at Yale Law School, the most prestigious and selective in the U.S., one of the women found that she mysteriously got no job offers. (See para. 30.)*

There is no shortage of feminist literature that discusses these phenomena in detail: the difficulties women in the workplace have in being taken seriously if they are also mothers; the pressure on women to be sexual and then the consequent rejection of any other identity besides sex object — not subject — as inconsistent with being sexual. All that is familiar territory. What I am interested in is the possibility that this is all a single, over-arching phenomenon: that men are accepted as three-dimensional and complex creatures, people who “contain multitudes,” but that women are not — that women pidgeon-holed and expected to fill one role and only one role, and face resistance for showing that there is more to them than that.

*Ultimately, both got good jobs, and the suit ended with something of a whimper last month. For those unfamiliar, a lengthy summary is aviailable here. By way of full dislosure, I am in no way objective about the whole incident. Jill Filipovic was also targeted by the same misogynist moral incompetents. She is my fellow Yes Means Yes contributor, my sometime editor at Feministe, my cocontributor at this blog and my friend.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. dcardona permalink
    November 3, 2009 5:23 pm

    I am very familiar with this scenario. I was rated highly and was being actively groomed to replace a regional theatre’s top director until I become a mother. Upon returning to work the mentorship halted immediately and the poor reviews came one after another. Over two years it got so bad I ended up leaving that place of employ and worry now about my prospects of returning to the field I love. One of the toughest parts for me is that the director I was to replace (retired 4 months after I left) and the source of the new perception of me as “incompetent” was also a woman, albeit one without children. I sometimes wonder if this fact made her more susceptible to believing the social lie about mothers, but I’m sure that is oversimplifying things. Once she told me how “really great” it was that I never spoke of my child at work – it was meant as a high compliment even though she constantly spoke of her extended family and outside interests.

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