Since we're apparently not allowed to go a month without some media organ somewhere putting forth the idea that working mothers are a ruinous societal force unleashed by misanthropic feminists ("Darn Those Working Moms" is Alternet's take on this media phenom), Time magazine steps into the fray this week with a cover story, "The Case for Staying Home," that echoes Lisa Belkin's opt-out number from last fall.
The magazine does run a sidebar pointing out that clinging to middle-class status by one's fingernails often requires two incomes, so try not to bash working mothers if they're only doing it for the family ("Why Women Have to Work"), and one which throws a bone to the "Well, what about fathers?" crowd by saying working dads aren't too thrilled with this either. ("Men Want Change Too") But the cover more or less broadcasts the whole point to the story, which is not that maybe, the workplace is pretty unfriendly to anyone who has a family, but rather, that working women are apparently in retreat.
As I wrote back in December, the issue is more complicated than that. But complicated would require people to rethink societal roles beyond the elemental gender divide, so it doesn't sell.
[ETA: To be fair, a lot of the magazine article does point out that women rarely manage to work out reasonable work-life compromises, so it's a lot more nuanced than the cover would suggest.]
Case in point: Caitlin Flanagan's Feb '03 Atlantic Monthly piece, "How Serfdom Saved the Nanny Wars," which more or less posited that those uppity feminists are exploiting working-class women instead of doing their own damn housework in sisterly solidarity, and men are off the hook since the poor bumbling dears are biologically incapable of dusting correctly anyway.
Flanagan’s deeply determinist view of men’s housekeeping skills has raised its head before, but here, she gives the partners of these exploitative nannymongers a free pass on the moral outrage on account of biological default. On the bright side: at least her sexist assumptions are equal opportunity in presuming that men exist to start messes and babies, and women exist to press-gang other women into cleaning them up. She also takes a facile and highly selective view of feminism, decrying it for hypocrisy (that Betty Friedan had a cleaning woman is apparently more odious than the nanny-employing Flanagan -- after all, Flanagan feels, she at least admits she’s an exploiter, whereas Friedan was apparently too concerned with framing a set of ideological tenets to fret over her own shortcomings) and racism. When in doubt, invalidate one movement’s ideals by discrediting them ad hominem.
Although Slate seemed put off by Flanagan’s smug tone (and let other people challenge her on it when she participated in its four part Culturebox series), that’s not the real offense here. Smug can be fun to read, and I'm all in favor of writers who aren't afraid to be smug, snobbish or short-tempered.
What I do mind are shaky arguments that take the easy way out and rely on inflammatory prose rather than critical examination of underlying premises. I personally am irritated that Flanagan got away with slinging together a soupcon of rhetorical devices that could set Susan Faludi on the road to Backlash II rather than making a watertight argument about the sticky strands of sex and money webbing any discussion on why domestic work as a commodity is such a hot-button issue. In this age of Martha Stewart trials (see earlier entries: "Martha, Martha, Martha" and "Apparently, Feminists Don't Make the Bed") and booming consumer markets for labor-saving devices and food, there are real questions to be asked and answered about the financial and social transactive values of domestic work. Flanagan completely bypassed them in favor of pushing the liberal-guilt buttons among uncritical readers and providing bad-feminist fodder to the deeply conserative ones.
Or maybe I’m in a mood because Flanagan’s half-assed work is so lucrative for her. By her own account ("The Mother's Dilemma,Atlantic Monthly Unplugged), she lucked into the Atlantic Monthly gig by virtue of knowing the right people, and from thence she has jumped to a staff writer position at the New Yorker . Would that we all could stumble onto such a career path. Perhaps then we'd all have the time to change our own sheets -- or at least make a lot of money telling other people to feel guilty for doing what we did and hiring someone else to change them.