Tuesday, July 04, 2006

July 4: Women's Independence Day

"Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." --Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776

Women gained the right to vote more than 144 years after the Declaration of Independence.

July 4: Women's Independence Day
by Martha Burk

Once a year Americans celebrate their independence from government tyranny with parades, apple pie, the beach, and family get-togethers. We don't think too much about personal independence - being free from various minityrannies in our own lives, be they personal or vocational. But this year the holiday will be celebrated against the backdrop of a raging debate in the elitist press over women embracing paid jobs and declaring their independence from housework. What's in the elitist press today will likely be on Oprah or Geraldo tomorrow, so this big argument, now also igniting the blogosphere, deserves a closer look.

The trouble has been brewing for years, with so many "opt-out" stories in The New York Times about how educated women are bailing out of the workplace for full-time motherhood. Working women cried "foul." There was no data - just the anecdotes of fewer than a dozen Ivy League types with rich husbands who could afford to "choose" full-time motherhood. (A careful reading of even these interviews showed that the women were pushed out of their jobs by the impossible competing demands of motherhood vs employmenthood.) And of course these stories totally ignored the majority of women - those for whom not working is not a choice.

Now comes a new book by Linda Hirshman, a retired Brandeis professor, called Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (Viking). Contrary to Christian fundamentalist philosophy and guilt purveyors everywhere, Hirshman advises women to embrace paid work. Women are just as deserving of good jobs as men, and just as deserving of holding those jobs without guilt because they also happen to be parents. Men have been doing it throughout history. But at least in American culture, it's somehow not OK for women to work unless they "have" to (most women, by the way), and if they do work, guilt is required, especially if they are or plan to be parents. Hirshman would change that with a female attitude adjustment: quit accepting second-class citizenship at home. Quit taking responsibility for all or most of the housework, the scheduling, the driving, the worrying, or as she puts it, "managing the butter."

This is good advice. If the "choice" to stay home is so great, why don't more men choose it? Why is the laundry "women's work" anyway? Is the floor cleaner because a woman wields the mop? It comes down to our national belief that men own the jobs, and women own the kids and all the clutter of life outside the workplace. As long as we believe this, we'll never be equals, and equality starts at home.

So this July 4th, ditch the guilt and declare your independence. Read Hirshman's book with a beer in the backyard while he assembles the picnic, finds the beach towels, gathers up the dog, and makes sure the kids have their flip-flops and sunscreen. And when it's all over, sit back and enjoy the game while he unloads the car, launders those beach towels, bathes the kids, and checks on overdue homework.

Come Monday, give him a permanent gift of half the nonemployment related work of the household (after having it all for just one weekend, he should be relieved). Think of it as a first step toward freedom from the tyranny of our own attitudes and the unequal division of life's labor those attitudes create.

(Martha Burk is author of Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It, released in April from Scribner.)

Fun Fact: Who printed the first copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the signers’ names? (See comments for the answer)

Women's History