Recently, there’s been discussion about women who are ‘having it all’ by choosing to opt out of work and becoming full-time moms and housewives. Asiya Islam argues that a choice cannot be a choice when made in an environment that makes the other option intrinsically less lucrative.
Earlier this week, Lisa Miller wrote a story in the New York Magazine on feminists who are ‘having it all’ by choosing to stay at home. It proved quite controversial, though most of the responses I have come across agree that housewives can be feminist too. Why has it generated so much discussion then?
Lisa Miller provides us with a case study – Kelly Makino, a 33 year old woman who gave up her work as a social worker to look after her family. The problem lies in the reasoning Kelly Makino cites she used to arrive at the decision of giving up work. Miller writes about Makino:
Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multitaskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums; “women,” she says, “keep it together better than guys do.”
Last time I checked, feminists argue that such ‘conditioning’ is social, not a result of men and women’s brain wiring. But given Makino’s and Miller’s thinking, it’s no surprise that this NY Mag story is accompanied by a picture of the Makino family, with the little boy wearing a cape, playing with a football and the little girl holding a barbie’s torso.
But there is another big issue here – can we truly say that a woman has ‘chosen’ to stay-at-home when that choice is often made in an environment/system that makes the other option (that is, staying in work) very hard indeed?
Only recently, Marissa Mayer (who was briefly seen as a feminist model for being appointed CEO of Yahoo! becoming the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a pregnant one too) issued a circular to all Yahoo! employees, banning working from home in the name of improved efficiency. Such a ban is bound to have implications for employees’ family lives, and will probably force families where both partners are working to rethink their arrangements.
Flexible working has, in the last two decades, been the driving force behind keeping women in work and paving a way towards gender equality – by offering practical solutions, such as work from home a day a week, early start and finish, compressed working hours etc., flexible working has provided a vision of how work life can be balanced with family life.
Sadly, a man is still likely to be earning more than a woman. Further, a woman may be having a harder time trying to juggle housework and office work if her partner does not do an equal share of work at home – something that’s still way more common than we want or think it to be. Hence, faced with inflexibility, it is often the woman who bows out of the workplace to take on the (traditionally assigned) care-giver role, both to keep the larger family income secure and to avoid daily conflicts over who does what in the house.
As Carol Evans, president of Working Women Media, writes, “Every time we ask working moms what helps them the most, the number one answer is flexible work.” But flexible working has gone beyond just working moms. Flexible working offers a work culture for people to be able to bring their differences to the workplace. As more men and women start taking up flexible working, both our workplaces and homes start becoming more equal.
This is neither a condemnation of stay-at-home mums nor an assertion that housewives can’t be feminist. This is only an explanation of why many women make the choices they make.
Yes, there may be some women who have, completely out of free choice (if there is such a thing), decided to give up work and stay at home. But there is no doubt that such women are rare. Majority of women, and men, face dilemma in the face of inflexible working practices, unsupportive work cultures, and high childcare costs. To then say that many women are ‘choosing’ to ‘have it all’ by staying at home is a fallacy at best.
Asiya Islam is a feminist blogger (www.whyamiafeminist.blogspot.com) and currently works as Equality and Diversity Adviser at LSE. She graduated with Master’s in Gender, Media and Culture from LSE in 2010.