Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Which women?

I'd like to write an article (or so I thought) about a phenomenon I've observed: women grow up to think the right thing - and feminist thing - is to be able to support themselves as adults. (Which women, though? But I digress.) Men, meanwhile, or at least the male equivalents of these women, grow up thinking they'll be supporting a family.

So what happens is, women (of this group? what are its boundaries, beyond my anecdotal evidence?) do indeed find work that allows for them to pay their own bills... but no more. And with a kind of between-the-lines implicit thinking that to be self-supporting is to be able to pay one's bills in one's 20s. (Roommates, ramen, happy-hour; health insurance nice but optional.) Men, meanwhile, will at least aim for a salary that supports a spouse and a couple kids. Or they'll flounder a bit, but they won't think of settling down before at least starting on that path.

In the abstract, this would just seem to help explain salary disparities. But in practice, it explains why there are so many men and women why marry and then it turns out her career is the more dispensable. And a feminist insistence that the work a woman does is just as important will only go so far, when something comes up that requires/encourages one person to stay home/scale back, and the couple is forced to look at who can actually support the family.

That, then, has been floating around in my head for some time. But I'm reluctant to pitch this article because at this point, there's nothing there. Can I, at this juncture, prove any of this? Absolutely not. Could I interview peers and see how they were raised? Yes - the call-up-some-friends school of journalism. I'm not aware of any academic study dealing with this exact question, so I couldn't go the well-respected report-on-findings route.

Now, one might say, if I were a man, or more lean-in-ish, I'd pitch anyway and then come up with something. One might also say - and this is what Anna North has said at Salon - that enough's enough with this entire genre, which she calls "women's stories":

Let me clarify: I am not tired of stories about women’s lives, stories that tell me something real about how a particular woman thinks or works or loves. But I am tired of “women’s stories,” stories that are supposed to be about a problem that afflicts “women.” 
These stories, in mainstream American media, tend to fall into certain categories. There are the ones about when women should get married. There are the ones about how women balance work and their children, told with no discussion of these women’s race or class, and with a strange disregard for the possibility that said children might also have fathers. And then there are the ones about hookup culture.
And... a bunch of things.

First, I think it's relevant that, when I wrote a post about the pressure "women" (and I'll admit that I did not write with a specific class or race in mind; the response I got suggested I was highlighting a major issue for Muslim women, which I hadn't anticipated) get to marry at a specific age (although that age, I allowed, will vary by subculture): not too young, not too old, and there's this almost-nonexistent window of opportunity between the two. I was arguing against the idea that there's one age at which a woman must marry - or indeed, that a woman must marry at all. And the reaction I got included a good bit of fury at how once again, this publication was telling women when to get married. Which was, let me repeat, the exact opposite of what I was doing. I was examining the pressure on women. But it didn't matter. I'd written a piece in that genre, so it could apparently be assumed that it was a piece encouraging anxiety and telling women what to do. Readers felt as if they'd read it a million times before, so it didn't really matter that they had not. Point being, readers now see "women's stories" and have effectively read them before reading them. Which probably does support North's point.

But there's a difference between a deeply-researched feature article and a blog post, one that readers tend to miss (and have no reason to think about), but that's important for understanding what it is that one is reading (and angrily commenting on). Something whipped up in a few days or less, something that's the germ of an idea, is simply not going to have the same precision regarding which segment of society we're talking about. If you're just starting to think about something, you don't know. And there's a place for the beginning of an idea. The problem is that beginning-of-idea posts are presented as indistinguishable from result-of-months-of-research articles.

Also relevant: these different forms of writing pay differently, so to the people criticizing every last bit of published writing online for not including interviews that span the nation's geographic and socioeconomic limits, well... you see where I'm going with this. And a lot of criticisms of Journalism Today seem to miss this. It's not that journalists aren't interested in the world beyond Greenpoint or Prospect Heights. It's that getting paid $70 an article to report from Syria starts to look like not the best deal.

But for longer articles that have been researched... then indeed, it does get old, having to read about all the women, when one is clearly just reading about the author and a few of her friends, who are not representative of anything other than, at the very most, their own subculture. Once something beyond a vague hypothesis is entering into it, you do need to have parameters regarding which people whichever issue does or doesn't apply to. Meaning... that this post, which I'd begun as a tepid defense of "women's stories," ends up basically agreeing with North. She makes a good point.


ATM said...

Huh. I concur that feminist women set out to 'pay their own bills' but I'm not sure I agree men set out to 'pay their family's bills'. Do guys talk about this with you? I really only have a gauge from a couple men I've been in relationships with, not general feelings.

I'm in a STEM/academic field and I really don't see men and women making different choices based on family vs. self. And I do see a lot of women putting their careers on the back-burner to have kids. It's more of a 'Well, I'm going to have to go through the ~9 months of pregnancy etc., so I might as well add a couple years of half-effort and follow you around'.

Now I'm actually trying to think of what guys I know that have been the trailing spouse. I know more that have had a pregnant wife during their PhD defense.

Anyway, my point is, most of the people in my field make basically the same job choices but the women tend to be single.

Phoebe said...


"I'm in a STEM/academic field and I really don't see men and women making different choices based on family vs. self."

I think this points to something - are there more men than women in your field? One tends to see more men in fields that pay more. Which is one of my reasons for having come to this hypothesis. (I'm going less by what anyone has told me than by what I've inferred from choices people I know/observe have made.) Is it that men are simply more drawn to/better at certain subjects? Or - as I suspect - is it that men of a certain class don't see certain not-so-well-compensated professions as an option.

That said, there's definitely an element of, the same job will be viewed as the career if a man is doing it and dabbling if a woman is.

And finally, I just have a practical question re: your comment. You say that men and women in your field are making "the same job choices," but also make reference to women's "half-effort." Do you mean the women in your field, or the spouses of the men in your field?

ATM said...

My field is the classic 'women drop out along the way' field (I can't remember the cute term for this. Leaky pipe, maybe?) - biology. There are more female undergraduates but by the time you get to faculty, it's mostly men (of three positions I've watched get filled in the last two years there's been 1 woman interviewed out of 10). It's probably not a well compensated field, at least compared to the other STEM fields (less opportunity for employment in private industry for one).

I think in answer to your last question - both? There are many women who were my colleagues when I was doing my BSc/MSc/PhD who are now (temporarily or not) not in my field. This might get to your other point about terminology and what it means to continue being a whatever once you have kids. These women could still be biologists but are not teaching university courses, or doing field or lab work, although they may still be publishing. The men in my field are probably 50:50 married to fellow biologists. But in all cases where there are two biologists, the woman dropped her effort and had kids (or had kids and dropped her effort).

I'm honestly wracking my brains to see if I know any female biologists in relationships (from my cohorts at not-great schools) who aren't the trailing partner, besides myself. Some partnerships take turns trailing. Possibly my office mate and his wife but he's never said as much.

Anyway, I definitely do like your idea of contrasting men and women and how they perceive their role as breadwinner. Maybe you need to write a "men's story" article. I'm now going to ask awkward questions of my male friends to see how they see themselves (since I've had a ton of these conversations (since I was like 14!) with other women).

caryatis said...

Maybe we shouldn't be looking to journalism for social science. Social scientists (ideally) have the funding and the methodology to go out and interview women who are representative of the population and not just of the journalist's friends.

Phoebe said...



And yes, a "men" article, I should get on that...


The question then is, what's journalism for? Is the only acceptable journalism the sort that reports on social science? It sometimes seems to be moving in that direction - it's not enough to tell individual stories. The journalist must also fit these stories into a broader context, which means a Gallup poll or sociology paper needs to support the 'findings' of this one story. Which... leads to a lot of stories that would work well enough if they weren't claiming to prove anything sweeping, but they're expected to do so, which means studies must be cited.

-k- said...

A couple of recent well-placed pieces lead me to suspect (dread?) that we are on the cusp of an explosion in "women's stories" repackaged and written by men. How those pieces are received will, I think, tell us a lot about what, or who, we are sick of.

(Aside: Interview-those-in-my-immediate-surroundings journalism doesn't bother me so much as a general rule, but my confidence in the reporting/reporter goes up when it's at least a friend-of-a-friend being interviewed. Every so often I see someone presenting a source without making any mention of a personal relationship, when I know for a fact one exists- that is what sends me into a 'journalism today' tailspin.)

Phoebe said...


Curious to know which articles you have in mind. Which specifically, but also whether you mean articles that answer 'but what about the men'?, or ones about women by men. Because there's Hanna Rosin writing about men, and Daniel Bergner about women, but a man writing big stories about The Men isn't coming to mind.

And yes, friend-of-a-friend may be better. Another rule could just be whether the article points to anything in the outside world whatsoever. Journalism would seem to have to, the more the better, whereas a personal essay might be better if it does not.

-k- said...

The exact articles that made me feel like this is becoming a Thing were Stephen Marche in the current issue of The Atlantic, and Marc Tracy in a couple TNR blog posts, including a response to NYT's new working woman series. So not big pieces, but evidence. (The tag on Tracy's posts? "Daddy Wars.") And the thing of it is, they make valid points about the roles, needs, desires of fathers and do it in measured ways--they're obviously making every effort to preempt the hurling of YPISes--but the tipping point on this kind of piece could, for me at least, be hit very quickly. I liked Marche's piece, actually, but not everyone has that level of awareness/sincerity.

Phoebe said...


Thanks! I'd only heard of Tracy's "daddy wars," and thus seem to be falling behind! Marche's article (which I've now glanced at...) seems to be about turning this into a less gender-specific issue. Which is the overall critique I had been seeing of this genre - that it ignores men. Which is fair, and a good thing, as long as 'where are the men' answers where they are, and doesn't pretend that there are class issues but not gender issues. I mean, it can spill over into something like 'men's rights' or 'whiteness studies,' with the potential for false equivalency.