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30.11.05

More On Equal Marriages

Amanda Marcotte has an insightful post responding to the same Linda Hirshman article that I wrote about a few posts down. She starts off with the same general sort of observation that I made -- that Hershman's attempt to get women to strategize for enforcing equality in their own relationships is inadequate and ineffective in the long term if we're not also blaming the patriarchy for creating this situation in the first place. But the way she phrases it reveals that even my response -- basically "hey husbands and boyfriends, shape up and take responsibility for the equality of your relationship" -- didn't go far enough. Marcotte says:

The problem here is even if you're with a well-meaning man who tries to do his share around the house, unless he's a neatnik--i.e., internallly motivated to be clean--he's never going to be under the same social pressures as women to keep the house neat. Which leaves you with the choice of either asking him to meet an artificial standard that he doesn't want to meet, which will make him resent you, or lowering your standards to his and having people think you're a bad wife/girlfriend/woman. Bring children into it, and you get to be a bad mother, too. My ex-boyfriends had the freedom to take some bohemian pride in clutter, but for a woman, it's just evidence you don't care enough about your home or your man to keep the place clean.

The important thing is keeping our eyes on the prize and blaming the patriarchy, not the women who have to make hard choices inside it. Far more important to the cause of feminism than the individual choices women make to survive is going out there, labeling the problem, educating both men and women on the issues at hand so that they can at least start reconsidering their individual choices, and, most importantly, continuing to agitate for collective, political action that will demolish male dominance.


The basic point is this: households do not exist in isolation. What Marcotte is getting at is basically Anthony Giddens' theory of structuration -- social systems perpetuate themselves by setting up the choices that people face in such a way that it makes sense for them to make choices that reproduce the system (in the worst cases, the choice is framed in such a way that *either* option perpetuates the system). Therefore, you can't just fix the internal relationships of your partnership and have the outcome be truly equal. Your household is still in a relationship to all the people and social structures around you, who exert various pressures (such as blaming only the woman for a messy house) that skew the outcome when measured in terms of the happiness and freedom of the household members. So even exhorting both men and women to work for equality in their own households is not enough to fix the situation. Neither naive "choice feminism" that validates any choice nor Hirshman's call to demand that people make a certain set of properly feminist choices really gets at the heart of the problem.

This is not to say that within-household equality is a bad thing. An internally equal relationship subjected to antifeminist pressures is a good sight better than an internally unequal relationship. On the other hand, it's difficult to criticize many choices (particularly on the woman's part) that are what Marcotte calls "survival choices" that are rational within the system -- you can't demand that oppressed people make sacrifices for activism. We need to look beyond your own household domain for the other social structures that are placing unfair choices and pressures your household (just as Hirshman opens her article by looking beyond the workplace for the social structures that create workplace inequality). And we need to recognize that it's a change that has to be made society-wide, not under the naive classical-liberal conception that households can choose their level of feminist-ness all on their own.

On a slight tangent, Marcotte links to this Bitch, PhD post that gives one of the best succinct and forceful responses to the last-name-changing dilemma (from a basically structurationist viewpoint) that I've seen:

Do you not realize that already, even before your marriage begins, you are conceding that making things "easy," making the two of you "a family," worrying about "the children" is your job, not his? If having the same last name makes such a big difference to the two of you, let him change his damn name.

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