Shame, Sheila Heti, some of my Bad Feminist Opinions
Hello! I am behind on everything in my life because I recently got a puppy. His name is Kafka, and he is a perfect creature, but I am now spending several hours a day removing things he shouldn’t eat (chunks of mulch, pieces of plastic, and the like) from his mouth and encouraging him to urinate outside, thus far with little success. Here he is.
Now that he is safely asleep, I have a moment to share two pieces I’ve written (although I am doing my best, again with little success, to refrain from doing any non-book writing for a while), as well as to insert myself very unwisely into an argument in a way that will surely annoy many people. I’m sorry I’m like this! Watching Kafka grip onto various items with his teeth and hold on for dear life while I try to remove them has been clarifying for me, in terms of my own intellectual disposition. Unfortunately, I’m not reformable. Biting down on an idea and refusing to let go of it is one of the few sources of pure delight in my life.
The pieces I wrote are (1) about public shaming (it’s bad; it’s more institutional than psychological) for The New Yorker, and (2) about Sheila Heti (she’s great) for The New Left Review.
The argument I want to insert myself into concerns stay-at-home moms. The most provocative billing would have it: I want to defend some version of the view that the New York Post ascribes to Jill Filipovic in the characteristically uncharitable headline, “Feminist author: Stay-at-home moms breed ‘worse, more sexist’ men.” Yes! Hear me out! (Or don’t; no one is making you read this!)
First, some background. In a recent piece for The New York Times, Matt Bruenig very sensibly proposes that,“as states expand child care benefits in the coming years, they should provide benefits both to people who use child care services and to home caregivers.” In the world the proposal envisions, parents would be able to choose between availing themselves of free/subsidized childcare and availing themselves of compensation for performing at-home childcare. Sounds good!
Jill Filopovic raised some misguided objections to the article in a Substack piece that, alas, I cannot read, as I do not pay for her Substack and do not especially want to pay for her Substack. Luckily for me, she outlined her key points in a twitter thread, and Bruenig copied excerpts in a blog post in which he responds to her concerns. The crux of her argument seems to be that the policy Bruenig proposes would incentivize women to stay at home at disproportionate rates, and that this would be bad.
Let me begin with what I am not claiming.
First, I am very much not claiming that Filopovic raises compelling objections to Bruenig’s proposal in particular. I’m persuaded by the responses he outlines on his blog, as well as some other responses I can imagine on his behalf. If, as he claims, “home child care benefits do not affect child care decision-making very much,” and people who intend to opt for home care will do so pretty much no matter what, then “home child care benefits primarily determine whether home child carers are paid,” and not whether people will choose to stay at home in the first place. It’s irrelevant whether stay-at-home-mothering is bad, necessarily or contingently, because we aren’t choosing between at-home care and out-there care but between compensated and uncompensated at-home care. The latter is obviously preferable; whether a world of compensated at-home care is preferable a world without any at-home care is neither here nor there, at least in the limited context of Bruenig’s discussion. Moreover, if the concern is the gendered distribution of labor (and this is very much my concern), then it’s just as much of a problem that women provide the vast majority of out-of-home childcare as it is that women are the vast majority of stay-at-home caregivers. Finally, the welfare situation in America is so bad that we should probably just take whatever we can get.
Second, I’m not claiming that care work is not valuable, or should not be compensated. Let me be clear: it is valuable; it should be compensated. (Someone should definitely pay me to take Kafka out to pee once an hour, no?) In my limited experience, the standard response whenever someone raises the worry that women do disproportionate shares of housework is the following complete and utter red herring (I will explain why it is a red herring below): ARE YOU SAYING THAT MY MOM/MY SISTER/MY GRANDMA/MY AUNT/THAT WOMAN I MET ONCE ARE DOING VALUELESS WORK????????????? DO YOU HATE CARING???????????? DO YOU THINK CRADLING BABIES IS WITHOUT DIGNITY?????? DO YOU HATE BABIES??? For instance, the top responses to Filipovic’s Tweet: “As a female with an adv. degree who left the workforce to care for my young children and ill parents, I believe that caring for our most vulnerable—those who will be our future and those who are our past—is vital work. Saying it’s anti-feminist stigmatizes the women who do it.”
It’s worth noting that the question of whether something should be compensated in a fair fashion can and probably should come apart from questions about its intrinsic worth or its desirability. Many jobs are bad and unjust, from which it does not follow that the people performing them are not entitled to fair compensation. In my view, Amazon warehouse jobs should not exist, because Amazon should not exist. But while it does, I think that people working in Amazon warehouses should work in humane conditions. Even someone who thought the institution of stay-at-home parenting should be abolished entirely (to be clear: I don’t think this) could think that, in this debased world, stay-at-home parents should be fairly compensated. Relatedly, it’s obviously true that many people who become stay-at-home parents are not choosing between [[insert whatever job you think is pleasant here]] and care-taking, but rather between [[insert unpleasant job here]] and care-taking—which means that even someone who thinks care-taking is hellish and horrible might think that people can rationally choose to go in for it, given the absence of better options.
Anway, I am NOT saying care work is anti-feminist. As a matter of personal preference, I’m against caring, obviously. Not giving a fuck is more my style! But I’m glad that other people care, and I think what they do is valuable. What I’m saying is that it’s a problem when women are the ones doing care work at disproportionate rates, just as it’s a problem when men are the ones in STEM fields at disproportionate rates. I am not saying that care work is bad, much less that it is intrinsically bad.
More broadly, there is a good argument in the general vicinity of Filipovic’s, and it’s this. A society in which women occupy the vast majority of care-taking positions is one in which gender roles are rigidly enforced; there is a major cost to living in a society with rigidly enforced gender roles; this is a cost we ought to acknowledge, even if we are willing to bear it in some instances. In addition, it strikes me as obvious that many people who purport to be arguing for a society in which single-career families are financially tenable are in fact implicitly arguing that women should get back in the kitchen. People who really are just arguing in favor of rendering single-career families viable, insofar as there are such people, are at best naive, unless they’re operating in a context in which radical idealization is the norm (for instance, analytic philosophy, which I enjoy, so I don’t mean to be throwing ideal theory under the bus, as long as it’s suitably flagged as such). Under present conditions, if we change nothing about society except the financial viability of single-career families, women are obviously the ones who will be saddled with the care work. I say “saddled” not because care work is not a pursuit with intrinsic dignity and beauty and blah blah blah, but because being made or pressured to do something you don’t want to do is to be saddled, even if the thing with which you’re saddled is pure undiluted goodness itself. Both these things are true: it would be good for us to live in a society in which single-career families were a financial possibility for everyone, and it is fanciful to imagine that many people who call for them are not doing so as a dog whistle intended to signal their allegiance to regressive gender politics. Under capitalism, gender is constructed to a huge degree via its association with particular professions. It would be insane to deny this.
So, what Filipovic says that I think is true, no matter how much of a cringey #GirlBoss feminist she may be (I’m trying to get out of the habit of rejecting arguments with truth to them, even when they come encased in unsavory trappings), is this: “More mothers at home makes for worse, more sexist men who see women as mommies and helpmeets. Men with stay-at-home wives are more sexist than men with working wives; they don’t assess women’s workplace contributions fairy; and they are less likely to hire and promote women.” I don’t think this is true of every single man with a stay-at-home partner, because there are exceptions to rules. And I don’t think this is necessarily true, meaning that, in the fictional world with an entirely cultural history, an isolated division of labor along gendered lines might not perpetuate sexism—indeed, might not have any particular significance whatsoever. But in our world, it’s true that policies that contribute to the re-entrenchment of gender norms do reinforce sexism. When men see traditionalism of this sort modeled, over and over again, many of them do develop gender-essentialist convictions; when children see gendered divisions of labor iterated and reiterated, this does affect their sense of what’s possible for and proper to both women and men.
It doesn’t matter if “women’s work” is well-compensated; it doesn’t even matter if it’s high status. Very roughly, there are (at least) two different axes of sexism: the one on which women and femme people are assumed to be worse at things, e.g., femme people are assumed to be irrational or bad at math, and the one on which women and femme people are merely assumed to conform to a set of special norms, at least insofar as they are good instances of their type, e.g., it’s not bad to be maternal, but a woman who fails to be maternal fails qua woman; it’s not bad to be femme, but man who is femme fails qua man. It so happens that, in our society, the two often go together. Traits regarded as stereotypically female are often devalued. But even if they weren’t, it would still be bad to force people into categories that don’t fit them. Here’s an example. I don’t think feminist philosophy is worse than philosophy of language (there is also feminist philosophy of language, but set that aside), but I would still absolutely hate it if all female philosophers were expected and pressured to specialize in feminist philosophy rather than philosophy of language.
I also think this comment of Filipovic’s is right, at least in spirit: “A better model is a paid parental leave policy that heavily incentivizes men to take significant time off of work, too -- especially in the earliest weeks -- so that a child can be cared for at home by its parents for the first year of life. Then universal high-quality childcare.” What seems true to me in this statement is the thought that, whenever possible, we should try to enact reforms to childcare that disincentivize women from doing a disproportionate share of domestic labor. This may not always be possible! But when it is, it’s important.
Note that this argument does not have anything to do with how people feel, with what makes women happy; it has to do with achieving justice, with realizing a truly egalitarian society free of the slightest whiff of a domination-relation. Whether women enjoy conforming to gender norms or not, gender norms are not consistent with a properly conceived egalitarian project. Filopovic, in contrast, justifies her position by appealing to women’s emotional well-being. She writes, “Stay-at-home mothers are psychologically and emotionally worse off than working mothers by just about every measure, from depression to anxiety to anger.” As far as I’m concerned, this is the wrong approach. I neither know nor care what makes women happy.
Someone who puts all this better than I have is Susan Moller Okin, whose influential Justice, Gender, and the Family provides one of the responses to Rawls that I find most compelling. Here she is: “Unless the households in which children are first nurtured, and see their first examples of human interaction, are based on equality and reciprocity rather than dependence and domination—and the latter is too often the case—how can whatever love they receive from their parents make up for the injustice they see before them in the relationship between these same parents? How, in hierarchical families in which sex roles are rigidly assigned, are we to learn, as Rawls’s theory of moral development requires us, to ‘put ourselves into another’s place and find out whatwe do in his position?’” In other words, the internal structure of the family makes real contributions to public injustices.
I am sure that the people who like to respond to any version of this argument by getting very offended about their aunt who loves caring for babies will ask: Are households in which women do all the care work necessarily households in which there is no equality or reciprocity? Are these households in which there is necessarily a hierarchy? The answer is certainly—NO! Again, in a society with a different history, cultural signifiers would surely be different. But in our patriarchal society, choices that might represent individual quirks in some other society do, in fact, solidify gender norms, whether we want them to or not. Women who wear make-up, or diet to conform to beauty norms (I do both of these things), do not do so in a vacuum; when they do so, they are contributing to pernicious norms and setting a pernicious example. It is not merely a question of exercising personal autonomy when we choose to conform to a stereotype in a way that reinforces it.
Now, I am not saying that women should never conform to stereotypes. We must make our own, situation-specific calculations. I can imagine plenty of excellent reasons to become a stay-at-home mother or wear lipstick. Maybe we have to conform to gender norms in one way in order to deviate effectively in another way (e.g., no one will listen to a woman who doesn’t present in a stereo-typically feminine way, such that lipstick is the cost of pursuing a traditionally masculine career); maybe we care so passionately about mothering or lipstick-wearing or feminist philosophy that, for us, the cost of reinforcing a stereotype is outweighed by the benefits of doing what we love; maybe we simply have limited resources and don’t have it in us to fight certain gender norms that day; whatever. We live in a compromised world; we cannot but make compromised decisions. The point is not to shame people who do wear lipstick (again, me) or become stay-at-home moms (probably never me) or do feminist philosophy (also sometimes me) but merely to point out that these choices do have a cost. An outweighable cost is still a cost.
If our choice is between (a) a society in which at-home caregivers, who are mostly women, do not make any money, and (b) a society in which at-home caregivers, who are mostly women, make money, then it’s better for the women to make money, obviously. In some contexts, this is the relevant choice. The question is not “how can we reimagine society?!” but “what policy should we enact right now?,” and that’s fine. But sometimes, the question is “how can we reimagine society?,” and we should take care to reject gender roles when we formulate our answer.