Feminism and the Workforce

I am writing this using my touch typing because honestly I can’t see much.  My eyes are puffy and sore.  I’m not sure if this is normal.  I will call the doctor in the morning to find out.  I know a week to 10 days of recovery is not uncommon.

I just finished reading The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella for the 6th or 7th time.  It is not an award winning book plot-wise but I think it is funny and when I’m sick or feeling down I reach for Kinsella’s writing every time.  I listened to it on audibook and lately I’ve had a lot of time with my audio books 🙂

So, the main story behind this book is a woman named Samantha is just about to be made partner in a prestigious corporate law firm in London.  To get to this point she regularly logs 60+ hours and never has time for social gatherings or even time to think for herself. She doesn’t know how to toast a bagel, iron a shirt or replace the bag in her vacuum. The only time she gives to herself is an occasional viewing of the Waltons for comfort.

Then through a massive mistake Samantha panics, flees to the country and ends up working as a housekeeper in a big lofty house. It is admittedly ridiculous but if you can get behind all of that fluffy plot and think about the questions Kinsella is asking, it is a thought provoking book.

It touches on one of my favorite topics- work.  Why we work, how we work, what motivates us to work, how does money, power, control figure into work?  What do we lose in work? What sacrifices are worth making for work and which one’s aren’t? How do we find that elusive balance between work and life?  These are all questions that fascinate me.

Kinsella’s book made me think about work and feminism in a new way and has left me pondering…

My entire life I was taught in school that pre-feminist women were disenfranchised (which they were) and unhappy mainly because of their unequal share and positions in the workforce.  Men had the power and money at work; therefore, they had the eventual satisfaction and happiness. By confining themselves to the home in unpaid labor, the traditional woman, could not contribute all she could to the world; thereby leaving her unhappy and unfulfilled.

I remember reading Betty Friedan:

“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all?”

I wonder if Mrs.  Friedan would have the honesty to ask this same question of a lopsided career woman like Samantha in the novel who works, works, works?   Couldn’t you make a similar list full of the daily deadening tasks of the career woman and ask the same questions at the end? I wonder what she’d think of such a problem?

In some ways the modern career woman asks the Is this all? question even more frequently than her predecessors because they attempt to do all in the work-world and at home. One commenter on this very blog said of her life:

“I feel…I don’t know…a societal pressure of sorts to make mothering a priority. As a working mom, I feel as though I have two full time jobs (and neither gets done to its full need). No one is pressuring my husband, or men in general to find a better balance between work and home”

This highly stretched living ends up leaving a lot of women feeling that they do many things but don’t do them particularly well.  I think every woman has moments where she feels mediocre because she’s pushed too far, too fast, with limited time.

When I was young (high school or college aged) I readily assumed my greatest accomplishment in life would be from my work. Nobody ever said ‘you will get your greatest satisfaction from your hobbies or from serving in the community’.  Think about it- what do we ask children about their future lives?  It’s what do they want to be someday, what do they want to do for their job.

People at church said I’d get the most fulfillment from my family but this was largely ignored as passe sentiment by the young me.  Also family is not a controllable outcome; therefore, depending on it for your contribution to the world can be a risky enterprise.  Work is at least more in our control.

In the book, Samantha finds, to her surprise,  that not working actually gives her the most joy and fulfillment- taking weekends off and having a life are what make her truly happy whether her work be in the domestic or corporate sphere.  This seems to defy everything I was taught as a young girl?  Fulfillment from the weekends? Those are just for play?

For both men and women, the world is telling us to focus on work, work, work but our hearts are almost always telling us  life, life, life.  Easier said than done.  Whether your a teacher, nurse or accountant, work has become such an overwhelming part of most modern woman’s lives.  For someone like me this is especially true as I work from home.  I think this leaves most women feeling unsatisfied with a huge part of their lives. Just the opposite of what the feminists told me.

I think feminism added another layer to the work myth by saying that great female accomplishments in the workforce would make our entire society better.  So now its not working for your own happiness but your entire sex and even all mankind. If we have a normal but necessary job it can feel like such a let down- like you haven’t done that one thing you were called on to do in this life, when you may have, just not at your paid employment.

I work hard but it is way down the list of my greatest accomplishments.  I get satisfaction from everything else in my life and that motivates me to work, not the other way around.

Maybe some women have these great empowering jobs but nobody I know.  Most work to provide sustenance and to allow them to pursue their true passions in the rest of their lives.  Maybe men already knew this for hundreds of years but they’ve had more time to evolve mechanisms to cope with the demands of work?

I’m just throwing this out there, but maybe feminism missed the mark when they focused so much on work as an equalizing force? Maybe our problem wasn’t working in the home verses working in the office but just a general lack of self-worth and recognition?  I guess we have more options now which is certainly a good thing but it also can leave women floating in a sea of undecided and unmet aspirations.

Why is it any less ennobling to dedicate one’s life to something we might not get paid for?  Does getting paid somehow eliminate the ‘Is this all’? For instance, why does having my life work be this blog seem somehow lower than what the feminist theology espoused? It has all the elements of an empowering voice, freedom of expression, and ability to influence others that the housewife role supposedly denied women.  Why does the fact it is unpaid make it any less important for a life?

I don’t think it does and I think the scores of workaholic, frazzled, stressed out women out there would agree with me.  Could it not be the saddest moment of all when you get to the top of the career world and still find yourself wondering what it was all for? I speak only in hypothetical here as I am clearly not at the top of any field or career.

It makes me glad I was taught a bigger answer to that question ‘Is it all?’, an eternal answer. My faith gives my life meaning when the world would see little value. What a great comfort that is.

That said, I still deal with deflated feelings about the workforce and my participation in it.  Anyone else struggle with this? Finding our own way to contribute can be very difficult? Do you struggle in finding value in what you do contribute, or are you left asking Is this all?

Ok. Now I will try to get to sleep and rest my poor eyes.  Got to get back to work in the morning…

8 thoughts on “Feminism and the Workforce

        1. yeah her latest I’ve Got your Number is a lot of fun. Goes into the mixed up way we communicate in the modern era.

  1. I suppose that feminists would think the “big thing” I did with my life was the time I spent working in military intelligence, which eventually helped hasten the end the Cold War. But it wasn’t particularly interesting or fulfilling work, although my kids thought it was fascinating, when they were old enough for me to tell them about it, and they still enjoy shocking people by telling them, “My mother was a spy, and worked at the National Security Agency.”
    I personally got much more out of the travel I did during that time (which helped prepare me to write novels, 30 years later). My most rewarding work was in the home, with my children (which also helped prepare me for a subsequent career in healthcare, as well as to help me write those novels). There’s never a dull moment, with kids around! And I never stopped doing the things I wanted to do; plus, my kids were built-in friends who kept me company during life’s great adventures. Only chronic illness had the power to slow me down…but then, it’s harder to write books when you’re on the run.

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