Friday, November 25, 2005

Of the straw feminist, work, and the press
Amanda Marcotte makes a point that I think can't be made often enough. Whenever right-wing writers want to bash "modern" women, or when the mainstream press wants to pander to the right, they bring up the straw feminist character: the woman who chooses sexual liberation and an exciting, fulfilling career over marriage, home, and childbearing. In her middle age, alone with her meaningless empty life, she comes to regret these decisions. But it's too late. Middle-aged and successful women have more chance of being hit by a solid gold meteor than they do of finding a satisfactory husband. The punishment for their selfishness is that they have to go take care of their aged parents.

As Amanda points out:
[This narrative] takes advantage of a never-fun situation--finding a way to care for elderly parents--to browbeat "career women" for being selfish. And, as usual, it's highly classist--most people, men and women, don't have careers to abandon for any reason. We just have jobs. The notion that working for a paycheck is a choice is alien to most women and really has been since working for paychecks was a practice that came into existence. These taunting articles aimed at upper middle class and upper class women are not only intended as part of a larger backlash against feminism, they also function to imply that feminism is a cute affectation of upper class white women. And I suppose to upper class white women, it can be an affectation that's readily abandoned like an old pair of shoes for this year's fashion. To the rest of us, feminism is a necessity, a movement that gives definition to the struggles of average women's lives from why we have more stumbling blocks to getting that survival paycheck than men to why we often find ourself pulling the second, unpaid at-home shift when men don't.

And it's not just classist toward women; these women who have a "choice" of an exciting, fulfilling career, or not, are supposedly choosing to live like men. That is, these writers seem to believe that most men have exciting, fulfilling careers of choice instead of soul-crushing jobs of necessity.

Media watching bloggers often point out how culturally detached the Washington media is from the rest of the country. This is not just a problem of political writers in the capitol. Most writers for the top ranked media, whether they are in Washington, New York, Atlanta, or Los Angeles, belong to a single tiny class. They have arrived in the professional upper-middle class. Most people they work with and socialize with are in careers that they have chosen. Their jobs are interesting and rewarding. Whatever their background, they have either forgotten or never knew what life is like for people outside their clique.

This cluelessness was on display last summer when New York Times columnist John Tierney and Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley both proposed raising the retirement age. Of course, they were both reading from the same GOP talking points, but their justifications for it were revealing.
Neither one admitted to the possibility that work might be an unpleasant burden for some people. Many of us put a great deal of faith in the idea of a social contract that states, if we work hard and eat our vegetables someday we will be rewarded with the gift of full ownership of our time. We are mortgaging the most healthy and productive years of our lives to someone else for the promise of a few years of our own. Any attempt to move the payoff day further away from today and closer to our deaths is a complete and brutal betrayal of our good faith.

Tierney is well paid to express his opinions in one of the most prestigious and widely distributed venues in the country. Grassley is well paid to be one of the couple hundred people who have the most power and influence in deciding the direction of our country. Their jobs are interesting and they are influential and respected for doing them. Both have options and choices if they grow bored of this work and want to try something else. Whatever else they try, it will be well paid and come with generous benefits.

This is the social milieu of most of our professional punditry. This is the sensitivity that most of our opinion leaders have toward people in other classes. They aren't so much hostile to us, as unaware that we exist. When such are the only voices that we hear in our public debates, is it any wonder that blogging has taken off so phenomenally? It's not just a selfish desire to hear the sound of our own voices; we're starved to hear voices sympathetic to our own.

Most presidential approval polls include a question on whether we think the president shares or understands our concerns. Whenever the straw feminist character shows up, we can be sure the press doesn't understand the lives and concerns of working women or of anyone working outside the same class of the professional press.

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