Thursday, May 17, 2007

Liberation or Enslavement - One Perspective

I think I was the first of the "women libbers" -- even before Gloria Steinem and friends altered the spin of the Earth.

As a very young child I never understood why my dad went to work six days a week and my mom didn't. She spent most of her time reading, writing letters, riding herd on the housekeeper and running out to movie matinees. It simply did not make sense to me that women didn't have to "go to work," and I vowed at age eight that I would never live a life similar to my mom's, which I saw even then as boring and empty.

I know, I know.... stay-at-home moms generally work their fannies off, and they're doing arguably the most important job on the planet. Don't get your undies in a twist -- read on - I'm certainly not attacking that concept.

I grew up in the very black-and-white era of the Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, before the radical 60's took hold. There was a stigma attached to working moms when I was a kid, and it wasn't just in my own little narrow world. "Good moms" were homemakers, pie makers, baby makers and loving wives. "Bad moms" were often divorced and working out in the world, with not nearly enough time for their kids. "Bad kids" very often came from these broken homes with a working mom. Very cliche, but in those times and in some limited ways, also regrettably true.

But, even in that culture and as young as I was, it still didn't seem right that my mom had what I perceived as a free ride. I just didn't "get" it. Of course women should work too -- why not?

As soon as I had finished school and started my first job, the workplace inequities of that particular time made even less sense to me. "The bosses" were, of course, nearly all men -- the worker bees all women. The term 'sexual harassment' had yet to be coined, but the concept was certainly one most young women were familiar with. It was simply a fact of life -- as routine as the disparity in responsibilities, opportunities, wages and benefits.

I don't remember if there was a single inciting occurrence that pushed my consciousness across the feminist event horizon, but at some point in the 1970's I realized I wasn't alone in my anger and frustration with the male-dominated business world. I realized the power and empowerment of other like-minded women.

My job in the retail lumber industry couldn't have been a more macho setting, nor could the company have been more closed-minded to women's advancement and success. Every step up the ladder was a battle, and my threats to resign often echoed off the walls. I even developed what I termed my "pee pee philosophy," which stated simply that a penis was an obvious requirement for the title of manager, the annual bonus, use of a company car and a reserved spot on the summer deep sea fishing trip... no matter the qualifications and experience of the person with a pee pee deficit.

I made so much noise at just the right time (when militant feminism rocked corporate America and important legislation loomed) that I eventually became the first manager in the company's history, with all the incumbent perks. (OK, I get seasick, so I passed on the fishing trip, but I at least had the pleasure of at last refusing that particular invitation.)

So what's the point, besides a trip down nostalgia lane? The point is -- I wonder now if I, if all of us who fought that war and kicked our way through the glass ceiling were, in the end, right.

Of course a woman should be paid the same as a man for the same responsibilities. Of course women should have the right to pursue whatever career appeals to her. Of course educational and advancement opportunities should never be limited by gender. What I'm questioning is the wisdom of our choices in light of where women stand today.

Scratch a married working mom and you'll find a frazzled, harried woman with more stress than she's ever had before. She not only has the pressures of an increasingly demanding career, but in the majority of homes she is also the master scheduler and CEO. Dad is certainly more involved with the family than in previous generations, but it's mom who's putting it all together.

Check out single-parent families and the majority are households with mom at the helm, doing everything on her own with little or no help from anyone. This may not have changed much as there have always been women who have had to support their families -- but the sheer number of those women is greater than at any time in our history, by choice or by chance, and the weight of both career and family life has increased exponentially.

It's impossible to find meaningful statistics on the physical, emotional and mental health of working women today. For every study "proving" a negative impact of the combined responsibilities of a career and family there is another study "proving" that women working outside the home are actually healthier and more fulfilled.

For every study of the negative impact of this situation on children there are other studies showing a rise in independence and achievement of these same kids.

We've recently been told that the divorce rate is down considerably -- (but then, so is the marriage rate.) I'm crossing my fingers that the divorce statistic is credible as there is an abundance of long-term data documenting its deleterious effects on children. According to Minneapolis' Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten, "One recent study, for example, found that boys from an intact, married family are half as likely as others to end up in prison as young adults. According to another study, the single "most important explanatory variable" behind the three-fold rise in youth suicide over the last 50 years is the "increased share of youth living in homes with a divorced parent."

Trying to get a handle on what's really happening is similar to weighing the pros and cons of paper versus plastic bags in the store, or deciding if coffee and chocolate really do have health benefits. Each side of the issue can "prove" its particular viewpoint with a quagmire of questionable studies and statistics.

  • Strictly from my own perspective, I see women in their late 30's, with well-established careers, just now starting their families...and with the gloomy prospect of using their Social Security checks to pay for their shoes to dance at those children's weddings.
  • I see many women who would really prefer to stay home with their young children. Instead, they face years of unwanted employment just to finance a more lavish lifestyle.
  • I see families so busy with over-planned lives that they rarely have any time to just be together, or just plain "be." Many kids have no idea what free time is, or what life might look like without a coach, a teacher, a uniform or car pool.
  • I see families moving from one upscale home and neighborhood to another and yet another, each more expensive and financially draining, and who pay for that luxury with high-powered jobs.... and children wearing designer clothes who are schlepped to daycare.
  • I see women certainly fulfilled in their careers and certainly fulfilled in their roles at home, but who bear a burden of stress that manifests in physical ailments and god knows what kind of mental and emotional pressure, taking god knows what kind of toll on their overindulged, over-scheduled kids.
  • I see women who think they celebrate the choices they've made but who secretly long for a simpler life with closer ties to those most important to them.

I see what changes have occurred in the family landscape and in the lives of women and I wonder.... what did we early feminists really set in motion?

With the perspective of age and vantage of history I have to ask, how wise were we pioneers?

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