Is Gender Equality Killing Women?

Is Gender Equality Killing Women? January 26, 2013

I consider myself a feminist, which means (to me at least) I support the elimination of barriers to access for all people, regardless of their gender. But in spite of that, the equality that follows such efforts comes with its own consequences for the culture, and sometimes even for the woman herself.

My wife, Amy, pastors a prominent church in downtown Portland. She has office hours, late-night meetings and weekend commitments that keep her away from home quite a bit, sometimes more often than she’d prefer. I work most days from home as a writer, which means I have greater flexibility in my schedule to take the kids, pick them up, and sometimes make dinner or even put the little guys to bed. It’s not often that Amy gets home after both kids are asleep, but it happens. And when it does, I see the pain on her face.

Zoe, our four-year-old, had a dad’s night at her preschool this past week, at which they presented us with the requisite finger paintings and other artifacts of her classroom time. But my favorite thing was a letter that she dictated to her teacher for me. The very first sentence in the letter was as follows:

“My dad loves taking me to school every morning.”

She’s right; I do. And I know sometimes Amy gets jealous when she has to kiss the kids on the head and dash out
the door for an early meeting. Again, this is not a day-in, day-out thing, but it seems that when it happens, she struggles with it more than when I used to do it. For the first ten years or so of our marriage, I was the office job guy, affording her the opportunity to go to graduate school, stay home with our newborns and eventually, start a new church in our home. But I do think that, because in our culture it’s still often “expected” than men will be the primary providers, there was less of a cultural bias for me to overcome in leaving the kids.

Amy has told me that, although she has found her place in the professional world, she experiences an implicit (and sometimes even explicit) expectation from those around her to be both a full-time professional and an ever-present mom. So in a way, hers has been a process of addition rather than adjustment or reallocation. And lest anyone thinks this is an isolated experience, I heard a woman in NPR being interviewed about this very thing some time back, so it must be true!

Overall, as women enter the full-time workplace in growing numbers, they’re experiencing more of the same side effects that men “enjoy” from overwork and

related stress, including increased hypertension, heart disease and other risk factors related to eating on the run and missing out on exercise. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but research is finding that, as women gain opportunities once enjoyed predominantly by men, they’re also suffering from the effects those

opportunities can have too.

Phyllis Tickle

For a more stark example, the United States military lifted the restriction this week that barred women from holding combat positions. Though this is a win for gender parity, the implications of what this means for those women who put their lives at greater risk is sobering.

There’s plenty of friction among women discussing the issue as well. Theologian and author Phyllis Tickle talks publicly about turning points that have affected family dynamics and, secondarily, church community, such as access to birth control and workplace parity. Her point – or at least one of them – seems to be that when children don’t come home to a parent after school or take the time to gather intentionally around a table for a meal, the family identity suffers. Others, such as author and blogger Julie Clawson, push back on this notion, suggesting that unfair blame is being cast in women’s direction, and that such claims draw a false correlation.

Some suggest that such trends mean we’re headed down a dangerous path, and they use this as their basis for calling for what they call a return to “traditional family values.” Others place the blame on unrealistic expectations for working mothers to be superhuman, a social burden that is not equally shared by men in a similar position. Others point a finger at our economic system, blaming the need for families to depend on two full-time incomes in many cases to subsist in the American middle class. Still others argue that these trends are largely a confabulation, manufactured by a society wrestling with gender roles, norms and a sense of ground shifting beneath their feet.

I told Amy over dinner a few nights ago (we made it together) that I predicted we will see a shift back toward what some would call more traditional gender roles in our children’s adulthood. Without such barriers to access, there is likely to be more fluidity in more of a back-and-forth dynamic, as people search for the kind of balance of multiple roles they feel fit best for them and their loved ones. As for me, I can handle the “pastor’s wife” jokes and the “mister mom” pokes, especially when the payoff is a letter like the one I got from Zoe. There may come a day when the writing well runs dry and I find myself back in a corporate office. But for now, I consider myself to be a part of a sort of frontier of our own for male identity.

It turns out that the elimination of gender barriers goes both ways. So far, I feel pretty fortunate to benefit from less traditional family values.

"goodness, some pple shld just learn not to speak at all"

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  • Julie Clawson

    I think it can be easy to point a finger at gender equality as being a core issue here. We make daily life a competition between men and women and get shocked that some women today are doing things that upper class women for the past 400ish years never did. We create elaborate theologies dictating what “God-given” gender roles are while ignoring the facts of history and lay blame at women’s feet for struggles in society, the church, etc. It’s an easy scapegoat. But I honestly think the gender war stuff is so popular because we are truly afraid to name our individualism as a culprit. Instead of examining our very recent (historically) turn from communal societies to individualism in the Western world and the negative effects of that shift, we find another shift to take the blame. If we are not to fall apart as a society, I would rather us look to our basic philosophies of the self and how we relate to others than assume that a return to some non-existent idea of “tradition” will be the inevitable fall-out.

    • I agree with many of your points, Julie, but I do believe that tradition, even if only a consciously constructed or unconsciously constructed idea. Still has real consequences on our lives. Even if our endeavor is to deconstruct those, I think we have to understand both of them and their influence on how we perceive ourselves and each other in moving forward.

  • From what you write, the problem is not gender equality but what we have come to accept a “full-time job” to be. If anything is killing women (and men), it’s not gender equality but working like fiends.

  • Joel Layton

    I agree with Brett insofar as it isn’t the equality per se that is bad, but it is that women are gaining access to an already harmful and morally bankrupt system that destroys people. Furthermore, they are gaining access to it at a time of rising inequality and less opportunity and stability in the first place. Basically, women are gaining access to the dehumanizing system of capitalism, as opposed to being unpaid and unappreciated laborers.

    • Wonder

      This. This times a million. amen.

  • smrnda

    I think virtually all of the problems are with the economic system – workers are being squeezed so that, on the very top, you can have a handful of families with a ‘breadwinner’ father taking home in excess of six digits and a stay at home full time wife/mother and her array of servants. We also have a problem in the US with a system that’s just geared against workers – we lag behind other nations in the sense that we work longer, more inflexible hours and families get fewer benefits than they do elsewhere.

    The problem with the idea of ‘traditional’ as in men working and women at home is that it isn’t traditional. Outside of the economically comfortable upper and upper middle classes, women have always had to work for money, it’s just we hear the stories of the privileged few and assume that was normal. Even in the leave it to beaver 50s women were working outside the home, it’s just everybody made TV sitcoms about well-to-do white people, not a minority family where the mom was working.

    I grew up in a 2 income family with absentee parents, and yes, it meant we weren’t that close, but it made me and my brother more independent, and I think the tradeoff was worth it. It’s tough to accept, but I think family is going to be less important in the future.

  • Amanjaw Marcuntte

    “My wife, Amy, pastors a prominent church in downtown Portland. She has office hours, late-night meetings and weekend commitments that keep her away from home quite a bit, sometimes more often than she’d prefer.”
    Hoo boy, she is so getting bent over the copy machine by some dude who can satisfy her sexual needs in ways you just can’t. Hope you don’t suffer a panic attack when she hits you with the “it just happened!” confession.
    It sucks, but the world is made up of ugly truths and pretty lies. You’ll figure that out eventually.

  • How about we talk less about this being a gender-specific problem and rather consider why it is that so many full time jobs in our society make people feel chewed up and spat out at the end of every day and why people are being pressured to work late, bring piles of work home with them, and be available by email and phone late into the night? I’m pretty sure there are a lot of full time working fathers out there who would like to be more present with their families, but can’t because of the unreasonable demands of their full time jobs. I know a lot of families have one parent working full time rather than both working part time because they need the health care and other benefits that come with a full time job. Perhaps we can get creative, as a society, and work at ways to, perhaps, disentangle health insurance from the type of employment one is able to get, so that two part time jobs can really be just as good, for a family, as one full time job. I’m sure there are ways to creatively address this problem without blaming gender equality or insinuating that maybe feminism is a bad idea. (And I’m not even going to touch the class issue, that the question of whether or not to work full time is a luxury that QUITE a lot of mothers don’t have….)