Is a rich husband better than a career?
Those, my fellow harpies, were the words that greeted me at the supermarket checkout stand last week, courtesy of the always classy Grazia magazine. It must say something about just how reactionary our society can be that I was only minimally shocked.
Well, it turns out there was a reason of sorts that the question was being asked. An LSE academic, Catherine Hakim, recently published a paper claiming that it’s time to re-think gender equality policies because, among other things, women and men want fundamentally different things. Most women, she says, still aspire to ‘marry up’, to men who are better educated and earn more than they. ‘Symmetrical family roles are not the ideal sought by most couples,’ she writes in Feminist Myths and Magic Medicine, ‘even though they are popular among the minority of highly educated professionals. It is thus not surprising that wives generally earn less than their husbands, and that most couples rationally decide that it makes sense for her to take on the larger share of childcare, and use most or all the parental leave allowance’.
Dr. Hakim would have us believe that women are simply naturally less careerist than men. Her argument through the whole report is couched in the language of ‘choice’ – women have chosen to work fewer hours than men, so that must mean that that’s their in-born inclination, regardless of financial, social, or ideological conditioning that may have influenced those ‘choices’. The idea that women might be choosing not to work because it has been suggested to them from birth that they are less capable than men, or because they frequently feel that the entire weight of childcare rests upon their shoulders, has either not occurred to her (doubtful, considering that she must be a rather clever woman) or is scandalously ignored.
Heather McGregor wrote an excellent piece for The Guardian today, arguing that women’s claims to yearn to stay at home are often motivated by guilt towards their children. ‘Somehow,’ she says, ‘a mother is always going to feel that she should be parenting more than she does…It is the belief, mainly held by women…that mothers are more important, which causes stress in every working mother and leads them to want to give up work and stay at home full time. Or at least to tick the box in a questionnaire that says that they think that is what they want.’
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this same dynamic at work in my own life. My mother has always worked – when I was a baby, because my parents needed the money; and later, because she and my father had divorced and she had no choice. (I also spent months at a time with my dad, who did the same thing). For me, having parents – plural – who worked and spent time with me was the most natural setup in the world, and I never considered not having a career myself.
And yet, now that I am in my early twenties, the same woman who showed me how it is done, the same one who has been wildly successful in her job and turned out a daughter who, in my admittedly biased opinion, is pretty OK, has advised me time and time again to marry rich so I don’t have to work. Neglecting the value of her own achievements, she looks at her sisters who stayed at home, and says she wishes she had been able to do the same. She thinks she would have been a better mother if she had. But I can’t imagine that. If anything, I think I benefited from being separated from her apron strings for a little while each day. But unfortunately, I can’t make her understand. She will go on beating herself up for something that is not a problem, just because society has told her that the ideal mother is, to reference Marie Anelle’s recent post, a self-sacrificing angel, and that she hasn’t lived up to the ideal.
Those ideas are prevalent all around the world. In Germany, a woman who puts her children in daycare so she can return to work risks being labeled a ‘Rabenmutter’, a ‘raven-mother’, a word implying that she somehow lacks a natural interest in her children.
In the face of pressure like that, no wonder so many women would prefer to avoid the hassle, guilt, and judgment that often come with working outside the home. Dr. Hakim suggests that if that’s the choice most women make, it’s futile to do anything to change that pattern. But history has shown that when it is made feasible for women to enter domains that were previously shut to them, from university to jobs, they seize the chance. Instead of fatalistically accepting the status quo, we should take that as a lesson and start pushing for real equality.
What does that look like? That means recognising that fathers are equally responsible for their children and creating a legal framework which evens out the playing field. I like the idea of mandatory paternal leave, myself, as it would make men and women in their child-bearing years equally ‘risky’ hires. And it also means combating noxious ideas like these. Many young, impressionable women who read articles about Dr. Hakim’s work will undoubtedly be led to feel more guilty about choosing a career, or more uncertain of their choices. If all women want to marry well, they might ask themselves, what’s the matter with me that I don’t? Girls: there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s society that’s the problem.