Can a woman who doesn't work for her living still label herself a feminist? Does being a "stay-at-home mom" counter basic feminist ideas? Ruth Stern and Adi Moreno, A gay couple from Tel Aviv, might have the answers to those questions: one has an academic career; the other is a self-proclaimed housewife, who feels that the feminist movement sees her as a symbol of failure.
The two are currently engaged in a research project which challenges many assumptions that are usually perceived as self-evident, relating to concepts such as family, work, career, self-fulfillment, wages and time management.
“Women constantly have to apologize. We have to apologize if we have no children or if we have no career. And we have to apologize twice as much if we have both children and a career," claims Stern, who is 45 years old and a mother to three adolescent girls who were educated at home.
"Feminism attempted to salvage women’s worth by taking them out of the house but reality has proven that even women who are CEOs or cabinet members are targets of contempt, needing to fight for their value to be recognized. I believe we need to begin working in the opposite way, valuing a woman for whatever she does, even if she’s a housewife, even if she has 10 children.”
Moreno, who is 43, has a Ph.D. in sociology. She believes that “there are a lot of similarities in the attitudes to careers today and the attitudes towards housewives in the ‘50s. In both cases society’s message to women is that if you fulfill yourself in this particular manner you’ll be happy.
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"The lie of romantic love promised women that in couplehood and a family life they’d find happiness, and the promise today is that if you only develop the career that suits you and fulfill yourself at work you’ll achieve your dream. In reality there are no utopias or dreams and the gap between the promise and life itself creates much misery of the kind that Betty Friedan talked about in ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ It will also lead to shame since you mistakenly believe that everyone is happy and only you are damaged.”
Financial risk of staying out of workforce
Indeed, feminism means a real freedom of choice for women. The question of questions, and possibly the only argument one could pose in opposing the choice of not working outside the home is, obviously, what happens to a woman making this choice after she separates from her male or female partner, finding herself after many years outside the workforce with no possibility of making a decent living.
“Even career women with good salaries find themselves facing poverty after a divorce,” replies Stern. “And if I were a career woman who relied on her partner being home more to enable me to work long hours, what would I do in case of divorce? I think that the expectation of non-dependence, of a 50-50 type of equality, of being two parents who divide the tasks they have identically, does not hold up to reality and creates a crazy life with very hard work both at home and outside it.”
Moreno believes “it’s very important that people realize that choosing to have a family together, especially if children are involved, is a financial choice that is a lifelong commitment. This means that even after a divorce there must be a commitment of the former partners that is much simpler and clearer than what is customary today – the two salaries have to be combined and split down the middle, with each party receiving one half of the total.
"Moreover, I believe that as a society we have to bring about a basic change in the relationship between work, money and life options. In a society in which every person receives a universal basic wage, which means that the state gives you an amount that allows a basic existence even without working [like the experiment now being in conducted in Finland – T.S.], more women and men will be able to choose to stay at home and care for the family and the community around them, and anyone wishing to work can enjoy additional resources and luxuries.”
Their project is a research-in-action one, namely, one that integrates voices from the grassroots. Among other components, each one of them will interview women in their community, and they assume the results will lead to a book which is not a typically academic one.
Moreno believes that the fact that they are a lesbian couple impacted their decision to investigate this particular issue. “When people live in a much more normative framework it’s much easier to follow existing scripts,” she says.
“Many straight couples simply slide into gender-defined roles, such as the man taking responsibility for the bank account and car repairs and the woman looking after ties with kindergartens and schools. This also happens when both parents work and support the family unit. We, on the other hand, have to create a division of roles that is gender-independent, and this makes it easier to question these divisions and their significance.”
In the division they created, Stern sees herself as living a full feminist life. “As a housewife I don’t suffer from oppression on a daily basis or from the chauvinism of a boss or colleagues,” she says. “I determine my own timetable and decide what’s important for me and what isn’t. Your question relating to divorce is based on an assumption that I don’t find to be realistic, one which equates a career with providing financially for the family, with self-fulfillment and with non-dependence.
"In practice most jobs aren’t associated with self-fulfillment or even with decent wages, and the expenses associated with a woman finding a job are not much lower than her income. One channel for bringing about a change is to keep fighting that glass ceiling, the wage differentials, etc. However, I elected to drop out of this game. I want to invent a new game. I totally see myself as part of the feminist movement, continuing what was started by women taking to the streets in opposition to male domination. I don’t call for turning back but believe that a look forward must be expanded, allowing us more choices.”
‘What’s important to me is my house’
Stern continues that “one of my problems with feminism is that it sees the external world, what used to be called the masculine world, as the world in which it’s important to operate. My value system is very feminine, as it’s labeled. What’s important to me is my house, which means my wife and children but also the expanded family, my friends, neighbors and the different communities I’m associated with. I don’t accept the male world of values and I don’t think there’s something un-feminist about that. I regard men and women as tribes, as traditions.
"There’s a female tradition and a male tradition, all of us have some of each of those and ideally we should be able, regardless of our gender, to create our own mixture.
"Currently, women pay a higher price when they try to blend work and home because they can’t, and usually don’t want to disengage completely from their female tradition, so they continue to worry about their children even when they are CEOs of high-tech companies. That’s not true for all of them and I wouldn’t like it to be that way for all of them. I believe that in an ideal world more and more men would understand the importance of these values and that they too would want to come home earlier.”
Moreno in turn notes that the demands made by feminist movements to incorporate women into the workforce serve capitalism and neoliberalism, as described by Nancy Fraser in an article appearing in the collection “Capitalism and Gender: Feminist Issues in a Consumer Culture”.
This demand, she explains, “doubled the workforce in the market, adding a skilled and educated source of labor. In tandem, men’s wages could come down since men were no longer the sole providers. It’s important to remember that originally feminism did not suffice with the demand to integrate women into the workforce.
"The demand was accompanied by a questioning of the very division between work and home and the diminishing of the value of female occupations at home or outside it. Feminists demanded political power, respect and living conditions that would give them choices, and the workforce was intended to be an instrument for achieving this.
“In practice we got long workdays, wages that were too low and for many men and women a life of being yoked to financial necessity and a lack of alternatives. This is not something from the past. Even today the main focus of established feminist organizations is the incorporation of women into the workforce.
"For example, in the UN index of gender equality we measure the percentage of women working in a given company in order to determine how egalitarian that company is. This is despite the fact that part of women’s poverty comes from working too hard in part-time jobs and for insufficient wages, not because women work too little. Instead of pushing women to work more we must act to reduce the number of work hours for all genders along with raising wages, not just for women in senior positions but for lower levels as well.”
The price of gaining power
There is something paradoxical about the radical feminists’ attempt to change the world. In order to achieve this we have to attain decision-making positions and this means playing the existing masculine game.
Moreno: “Seizing decision-making positions is one route we’ve tried but this didn’t always work in our favor, since we by necessity change when we spend a big portion of our lives in such places, such as when we enter politics. But the feminist movement from its inception was not just a movement geared to the attainment of powerful positions but a resistance movement led by a small group of women who did not hesitate to act in non-conventional ways in order to express defiance and rock the boat. Other revolutions, such as the LGBT one, prove that it’s possible to change a lot in the cultural arena by taking defiant steps and breaking down social boundaries.”
What chances are there for such a radical and sweeping change of the perception that self-realization can be found in the workplace and through a career, or in some place that is outside the home or, on the other hand, in the other pervasive perception, certainly prevalent in Israel, that it’s unthinkable for a woman not to bring children into the world?
Moreno: “First of all one should recognize that the discourse of self-fulfillment is very much a class issue. There are many groups in Israel who could never find self-realization at work. A woman cleaning houses doesn’t attain any self-fulfillment and the long hours she has to work don’t even provide her with adequate income for a decent living, certainly not a pension and financial security for the future. With some reservations, I believe this change is already happening, on two fronts. There is a sense of dissatisfaction with the workplace. The era of self-fulfillment is a vestige of an economic world that has passed.”
Stern: “Change can already be seen everywhere, as in the “slow” movements and the pursuit of the simple life, for example. I can’t imagine my daughters’ generation agreeing to a 10-hour workday, to one profession rather than to the embracing of several areas. I’m confident that the world is going in that direction, towards more flexibility and certainly towards the understanding that there is no one lifestyle that fits everyone. I think the feminist movement is lagging behind and we want to close this gap.”