Co-opting Women

One of the more disturbing consequences of the growth of capitalism and the attendant world view that insists on measuring success in terms of income and possessions is the dissolution of the family. This may seem a strange claim to make, but when one considers the factors involved it will hold up to scrutiny.

In a commodified culture such as ours where success is measured by buying power, the pressure becomes intense on women to join the work force in order to become empowered  in the only way such a culture knows how to measure power. As an early feminist writer,  Jane Addams, noted as early as 1910, women who stayed at home to raise the family were little more than “parasites, unproductive, consumers upon the state.” If women were to become empowered and free themselves from the chains that bound them to a home and family, they had to go to work and challenge the men on their own ground. The alternative was unacceptable: self-fulfillment could only be achieved in the real world making real money. As Christopher Lasch has pointed out in his disturbing book on the dissolution of the American family (Haven in a Heartless World), “faced with an argument that condemned leisure as a form of parasitism, antifeminists could have insisted on the positive value of leisure as the precondition of art, learning, and the higher form of thought — arguing that those benefits ought to be extended to the American businessman.” And this despite the fact that one of the original feminists, Virginia Woolf, argued persuasively that a woman requires a “room of her own” in order to write fiction — i.e., improve her mind –not make money.

In any event, such an argument in a commodified culture would sound other-worldly and it would never pass muster with women (or men) who have been raised to believe in their heart of hearts that the only things that truly matter have dollar signs attached. Success in our culture is all about money and power and one cannot obtain either of those by staying at home taking care of the kids. The seeds for the idea that emancipation and true self-fulfillment in a consumer society were only possible with increased buying power were sown by the advertising agencies which, in the 20s and 30s of the last century increasingly targeted women, convincing them that their freedom was predicated on buying things they didn’t need. Eventually their message devolved into the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby!” This necessitated women’s financial independence from their husbands, which, in turn, translated into the urge to leave the household and find work. The assumption here that self-fulfillment and independence, indeed, true success, rest on increased purchasing power, is an assumption that is seldom questioned in our culture.

However, the notion that true empowerment may be a function of the pursuit of goals higher than financial well-being deserves attention, because it is one that goes back at least to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks who treasured their leisure and knew how to make the best of their spare time. A reflective life dedicated to art, literature, and learning was for them one well worth living. But such a life seems unattractive to Americans of both sexes who have been conditioned to believe that such pursuits are frivolous and not worth serious time and attention: we have become an increasingly anti-intellectual society as we have grown older. Further, we have forgotten how to use our leisure time and especially forgotten that for centuries people were convinced that it was during those moments of creativity, contemplation, and reflection that one achieved true success. Our measure has become that of  dollars and cents: success must be measured to be real.

In this process, women have become convinced that real success can only be achieved “out there” in the real world breaking the glass ceiling and fighting for their place at the table of wealth and prestige that our culture blindly insists is the only one worth occupying. The result, of course, is children raised in day-care and the all-too-common phenomenon of the “latch-key” child who comes home each day to an empty home and whose parents are riddled with guilt and determined to make it up to them by spoiling them rotten. As Lasch points out, “Feminists have not answered the argument that day care provides no substitute for the family.” One can hardly argue any more  that children are more well-adjusted and happier today than they were when they were raised by authoritarian parents who attempted in their stumbling ways to instill discipline. As Lasch has argued at length, children desperately need strong authority figures or they conjure up their own and the ones they imagine are much more damaging to their psyches than the real thing and often lead to twisted personalities and violent actions. In any event, child rearing has been taken over by psychologists and social workers and other members of the “helping professions” as well as the schools and television; the parents of both sexes have found that their time is better spent elsewhere.

This is not to say that the urge to empower women is somehow wrong-headed. Clearly, women have been powerless and marginalized for centuries and their time to shine is long overdue. But it is sad that in our culture the only way they think they can shine is in the limelight their male counterparts have stolen and keep to themselves. But it is a pale light indeed. The problem here is the misconception involved in measuring success and power in terms of income and credit card limits. It would be better for us all if it were measured by those things that really matter, those things that make human lives fuller and richer. And this goes not only for the women who have in effect abandoned their families and turned them over to the helping professions. It also goes for the businessman who, as Lasch suggests, could also benefit from a life measured in more meaningful terms than mere financial achievement.  Making a living is necessary, of course. But it shouldn’t be the measure of a man’s worth — or a woman’s either.

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4 thoughts on “Co-opting Women

  1. Great post. All of us could learn the powerful lesson you learn later in life – what you own does not define you. So, for those who are pursuring mucho dollars, whether be men or women, this is not the holy grail. Thanks for sharing, Professor. BTG

  2. As a one-time stay-at-home mom, I think that there is something missing.

    I didn’t have to work, and stayed home for 8 years with my son, and then worked part time, arriving home when he did. I was incredibly fortunate and I understand that completely,

    For me, as someone who left the professional world I was a fish out of water. The hardest part of being at home was that nothing is ever done. Nothing. There is no “good job” credit or shine for a job well done until your kid is grown; good toddlers can go wrong in middle school or high school or beyond. You really never know but you do your best and hope. No guarantees.

    On a day to day basis, being home really sucks because nothing is ever done or if it is it doesn’t stay that way for long. The house is never clean. The chores keep on coming and rally are never finished. These were not expectations of my husband or me — only reality. (Really, my husband didn’t care — he gets it)

    At work I do a great job, I usually know immediately whether something is right or wrong and I take steps to make sure what I do is good. And you have guidelines to let you know that. I hated not having that feeling of competence.

    And I’ve been a much better mother since I went back to work because, while I stressed out a lot at the demands on my time while my son was still young (he’s now 22 and someone I’m quite proud of), I got to be smart Elyse, not just Jacob’s mom.

  3. I thought of many quotes as I read this post; “Less is more” was one, and another:

    “The real measure of your wealth is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money.”

    I’ve had a life that owned me, and now I have a life that I own, and wow, the quality of life is so much more now! The biggest problem is that one becomes caught up in that current of high-stress work/life and cannot see the vast calm waters of ‘less is more’ peace!

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