Originally published June 29th, 2012, on The Next Family.
I recently had another hair battle with my son, and this one ended in an unexpected way. His long hair gets tangled easily, as mine did when I was a child, and he enjoys dealing with those tangles about as much as I did. Honestly, I had expected the end result of this fight a while back, when he started being teased. After enough of a fight, I finally blurted out “I’m either combing your hair or cutting your hair- PICK ONE!” After a moment of shock while the implications set in, he timidly asked “Will you cut yours, too?” Trying to redeem myself, I agreed, and got out the clippers. He had quite a fun time planning to use the piles of hair to make Halloween wigs.
Unfortunately, changing things take time. Thankfully, the hair cut is going over better than the arguing, although it’s created its own controversies with some people. Then Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” for the Atlantic. Talk about things that take a while, and the -isms (sexism, racism, etc.) might just take the cake. There are some interesting accompanying pieces and critiques on Slate and The Prospect, as well as some great discussion on the Facebook page of Connie Schultz (award-winning writer and wife to Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio).
But the thing that really struck me about the Atlantic article was the assumption that everyone wants to have it all, and I think that’s the major point of feminism that Slaughter misses. Feminism (to my limited understanding) was never about having it all; it was about having what you wanted. It was about life choices of both men and women being respected and valued, no matter what they were, and having equal opportunities to live those choices. Feminism isn’t about getting women out of the kitchen and into the board room; it’s about giving women equal access to be in the boardroom, if that’s what they want to do with their life. There’s so much fighting over life choices, and I’ve never understood it. To work at home or outside the home, to have children or not, how to create your family, what career one wants to follow- I frankly don’t get how any of these things affect anyone outside of the family making those choices, and yet our culture fights tooth and nail for a particular view of how these decisions should be made. For a country founded on freedom and talking extensively about liberty, we sure aren’t free from others’ judgment of us and our lifestyles.
Ironically, my husband has had far more gender studies classes and discussions than I have, as he is a historian who writes on definitions of masculinity and the impact that had on the civil rights movement and other revolutions. He is, however, a staunch supporter of equality and recognizes his own privilege, and tries to do his best to not take advantage of that privilege. And so long as we limit the issue to outside of our house, he does pretty well at accomplishing his goal. Inside the house, I attribute the differential in division of labor as interpersonal differences in energy levels more than his or my view of gender roles; he can easily sleep ten hours a day and be happy, while I’m usually good after about six. It wouldn’t matter what gender either of us were, I don’t think there’s a way to have that and a 50/50 split in household duties, but if anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Essentially, the right to choose our own path to follow is a huge gap in the US. While there are obviously strictures about what is “acceptable” for men to do, those strictures are looser and less often seen as critically as the strictures around women, and there’s rarely negative connotations connected to those dividing lines for men (think of how people used to say “women’s work” and its implications). Outside of careers, choice in family structure is also contentious. Again, I realize that it happens to people of both sexes, but how much more is it for a man to say he doesn’t want kids, compared to a woman? For a woman to be infertile is often seen as a critical blow to her identity, and whether a person becomes a parent through adoption or surrogacy is seen in some circles as a point to judge just easily as their politics or clothing.
The real answer, of course, is to continue the push for equality- equality of opportunity, equality of access. In the short term, can we simply stop judging everyone with a different opinion or life choice from ours? As many families as there are, there are that many ways to become a family and make a family work well. So long as no one is being hurt, what does it matter if dad stays home, or mom only wants one child? And heck, isn’t it just easier to not worry so much about what other people are doing? Now go be lazy, and don’t judge decisions that don’t affect you, like a boy with long hair or a dad who wants to stay home. I think that’s a pretty positive step for equality, don’t you?