Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pin money

Just finished Emily Matchar's Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. It's great, but first, a story about my tracking down the book. It was noonish on a weekday, and I arrived at the public library in jogging clothes. That was because I'd jogged to the library.

After looking around for the book and not finding it where I thought it would be, I went to the information desk. I explained that I was looking for a book called "Homeward Bound," and the woman at the desk asked me if it was a children's book. And I realized that there was no possible explanation for my disheveled state, for the noon-on-a-weekday situation, other than children. (Except: dissertation. There is now a chapter eight. I tell ya...)

Anyhow, I said no, non-fiction. A grown-up book.

The woman helping me entered this into the system, and then said, or more like asked, "Why women are embracing the new domesticity?" And I all of a sudden thought, damn, this seems more personal than I'd realized.


Homeward Bound... left me with a lot to think about. Are women who earn less than their husbands dabblers who earn pin money? Am I that woman, and if so, why am I not better-accessorized? That even female journalists at the top of their profession can feel that way is not so reassuring.

Anyway, it's not often that I read a non-fiction book and think, my goodness, I agree with nearly all of this. Part of it is, as I've mentioned, that all the while, as I was critiquing the food movement, Matchar, though coming at the question from a different perspective, was arriving at many of the same conclusions. She's interested in the people who practice DIY extremism, whereas I'm more interested in consumers-as-researchers (the quest to buy the right stuff), and in the false impression perpetuated in certain articles that everyone college-educated is a DIY extremist. She's looking at the people who take this stuff dead-seriously; I'm more taking note of those who... let themselves flow with the greenwashing. The 'I try to avoid parabens, but because that's cool, who the hell knows what a paraben is' set. The 'I shop at J.Crew, not Old Navy, because I'm against fast fashion' contingent.

In other words, I'm interested both in the rising expectation that everyone's turning their shopping into a research project and the more blatant class-signaling variety. Not sure which is more common, though - my impression that the latter is more common than the grinding-of-one's-own-flour could just relate to where I live, or my tendency to read fashion blogs and not homemaking ones, or who knows.

Where Matchar's book is most especially spot-on:

-Yes, 100 times yes, the food movement ignores that women abandoned home cooking for a reason. Also 100 times yes, the calls for more cooking-at-home not only sometimes outright blame feminism for the decline of home cooking, but also - more universally - fail to properly acknowledge that asking "Americans" or "parents" to cook more is effectively asking women, mothers especially, to do so, because that's who ends up being held responsible if junior's living off Junior's.

-Yes, 1,000 times yes, the answer is an improvement in food quality on the whole - ingredients as well as convenience foods - and not an ever-greater list of demands on parents-i.e.-moms. (A personal request: the new-and-improved fast food shall be catered by Dos Toros.) The obsession with what individuals do in terms of feeding their family organic, etc., comes at the cost of movements to improve what all families are feeding their kids. She looks at this more as, individual families need to think of the greater good, whereas I see it more as, we have this movement promoting that (often consumerist but sometimes DIY) approach. But either way, yes, the idea that improving how "we" eat should be entirely about individual families making choices is a problem.

-This relates to the Sheryl Sandberg "don't leave before you leave" idea, and no, I have not yet read "Lean In." Perhaps when I jog back to return this most recent round of library books, that will be available. Anyway, according to Matchar, a lot of women see something noble and independent about rejecting the rat race, corporate America, etc. But, as Matchar wisely points out, their stay-at-home butter-churning enterprises are all being funded by their husbands' real-world jobs. Matchar, though, makes sure to point out that this isn't entirely about women choosing to be un- or underemployed, and is in part a case of, these are women having trouble finding work, who latch on to an ideology that says your baby has to latch on until it's college-age precisely because it gives them a sense of purpose. This, in turn, puts them in a still-worse employment position than they'd have been in had they stuck it out.

-On that note, I like that she's very clear, at the end of the book, about the specific social class going all homesteader. That as much as we all want to shout that these women's privilege is showing (they are, after all, being supported by their husbands, in an era when having a husband at all is a marker of fancy-class status) these are not the hyper-elites. These are women who don't have fabulous career options. Neither do their husbands, of course, but the men are still going to work.

Agreeing, adding:

-It seems to me like the underlying problem - the thing that gets women of this elite-but-not-Sandberg class into this bind where they're stuck choosing between perma-adjuncting, freelancing, and the stay-at-home chicken-coop mom option - starts far, far earlier than the point at which a husband or child enters the picture. Women are majoring in different fields, taking different paths, applying for less for-profit-ish post-college jobs.

More women might be going to college, but if they're not entering with the expectation that once out, they'll need to support a family, that impacts their outlook. Second-wave feminism, as much as it's been absorbed, has been absorbed as, you need to be able to support yourself. And women will get to a place where they can support themselves, or at least their 22-year-old selves who don't have all that many expenses.

So it's not that women are abandoning potential careers in order to be housewives. Often, they were never in a position to have such a career in the first place. But it kind of seems as if they were, because they have been to college. They are privileged. Except that when it comes down to it, when there are bills to pay, not so much. As I've said before, and as I will say again, knowing what kale is will not pay your rent.

Why do we keep missing this? In part because there is one small subset of women - and men - who can major in Medieval Tapestry Studies and be readily employable upon graduation. That would be the graduates of... either a certain number of elite colleges (some people I've discussed this with think UChicago counts, others are skeptical, and my personal experience is mixed) or really just Harvard. These are the people writing opt-out-analysis, and, often enough (although not in Matchar's case) this is whom opt-out-analysis articles are written about. And we're constantly hearing about how there are on the one hand privileged women, and on the other, underprivileged ones. When in fact, there is this one superwoman caste (the Sandbergs, the Chuas, the Slaughters), and then this other caste of women who are on paper not that different, but whose degrees in Basketweaving from Obscure College aren't quite the same.

So I think Matchar gets us part of the way there, in pointing out that this is sort of a lower-rung upper-middle-class concern. But we need to go further, acknowledging that not all women - or all men! - are going to go to name-brand schools, but also changing the mindset of women who are entering college, or even earlier, and making it clear to them that they, just like their male classmates at Obscure, will need to earn something more than pin money one day. 


Anonymous said...

I agree, regarding the suggestion that women would do well to aim to support a family, and re: the critique that moral directives towards family health/environmental sustainability end up imposing unpaid work disproportionately upon women.

However, I wonder about larger economic forces. Which are those fields/skills that a student can pursue and have an obvious path to a well-paying job? They seem to be fewer and fewer, and they could not absorb the whole population. It seems more likely that in our current economy many people are going to have "cobbled-together careers," and I think most college grads, providing they have an economic safety net (i.e., family) can be successful if they can communicate, do research, and problem solve. A cobbled-together career, though, means being flexible, persistent, and able to move about. (Those who lack a safety net have it much harder, as you've pointed out in your posts about internships.) The two-body problem gets in the way of that, but also of the traditional career path. Couples I know in which both bodies have straightforwardly marketable degrees/skills seem to have no easier time finding equity. One party ends up backing off so the other can lean in. I hesitate to tell young women "major in something practical" when I'm not really sure what that would be (nursing? can we all be nurses?)... but I'm convinced we need to ease the demands of work across the board or better facilitate parenting/working (on-site daycare, pre-school, schoolbuses, after-school activities onsite, health care unattached to job stability, I don't know?)

I love this blog.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I love your enthusiasm, Anonymous!

Anyway yes, it's important to avoid victim-blaming. If the entire economy is going in the direction of precarious employment, precariously-employed women can't be instructed to "lean in" their way to 1950s-breadwinner stability. And far too often, advice to major in something useful fails to take into account that not everyone - male or female - has the ability to become an engineer. Sometimes the advice amounts to, 'be the best at math in your class,' and by definition, that's never going to be everyone.

And yes, just as improvements in food quality need to come from the food system itself, not just individual families properly sourcing ingredients, the answer here isn't just women taking a different approach to careers, but is also... all the socialist-type (and I mean that in a good way) stuff you mention.

But sometimes, one is going to want to make choices while waiting for broader changes to take place, and sometimes, one will wish to go above-and-beyond whatever systematic changes might accomplish. The food example might be not waiting for a change in American agriculture subsidies before trying to eat more vegetables and less meat. In the case of women-and-work, there are indeed big, big structural problems impacting men and women alike. But in the couples Matchar writes about - and in many I come across in my own life - the men have found a way to earn enough to support a family, and the women have not.

I guess what it comes down to is, someone does need to be paying the bills. You refer to a "safety net," to "family," but what does that mean when you're talking about adults out of college? Lots of people could move back home if tragedy struck, but parents of young adults are also often enough workers cobbling together income, and so the model that assumes, a recent grad can try out this and that with the financial cushion of a stable-if-not-fabulously-wealthy parent is fading away as well. So there's on the one hand, if I had to guess, a small minority who'd really have no one to turn to in an emergency, and then on the other hand, a similarly-small minority whose parents can-and-will fund post-college figuring-stuff-out.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Also! As for the specific question of what to advise young women, I see this as less of a which-major thing than as how one approaches college and a post-college job search more generally. Women - it's my impression, and there's tremendous class variation - no longer go in thinking a man will support them once they graduate. But they go in thinking they need to be able to support themselves. Men, meanwhile, go in thinking they need to be able to support themselves and three other people. This impacts all kinds of choices. The question isn't simply, which major is best, but also whether one is asking one's self that question.

In a sense, one might say that women of this caste have the better end of the deal. The burden of feeling you need to be able to support a family is probably tremendous, and means cutting off various more pleasurable/creative options. And if the divorce rate among even the only moderately fancy is, these days, quite low, the question of what will happen if the breadwinner up and leaves is less pressing than it might be. But it's still a question, and there's still a lot to be said for financial independence.

Petey said...

"In part because there is one small subset of women - and men - who can major in Medieval Tapestry Studies and be readily employable upon graduation. That would be the graduates of... either a certain number of elite colleges"

Oh, c'mon. There are plenty of situations where a degree from a second-tier selective college in Medieval Tapestry Studies would be of use. For example:

- It opens up lucrative opportunities in the unpaid internship industry.

- It gives one a leg up in the marriage market to investment bankers who collect medieval tapestries.

- It gives broad opportunities for anyone who has a family who's donated enough to a museum to have a wing named for them to gain a paid position in said museum.

- It opens up broad vistas to anyone who wants to work in the medieval-condition Bangladeshi weaving industry.

And none of that of that even starts to mention the possibilities of a future Congress passing a law to grant extra kale vouchers to anyone with a degree in Medieval Tapestry Studies.

Don't kill people's dreams...