Look out, single women in the workforce! You have a potent enemy. Oh, did you think it was the ever-looming specter of sexual harassment that accounts for the continuing hostile work environment that women face (in 2008 31% of women polled reported having being harassed at work)? Well, it’s not.
What? It’s the whispers behind your back that you got to the top because you’re a woman given special consideration in this age of affirmative action rather than because you’re good at what you do? WRONG.
And, don’t even think that it’s the culture of shameless self-promotion that gets rewarded in most organizations, a culture that works against women, who are less likely to nominate themselves for promotions and raises. Because it’s definitely not that.
Oh, you know who it is—she’s over there, to your right. The Halloween-costume designing, soccer-game attending leech whose been pawning off all her tough assignments to you. You got it; according to Amanda Marcotte, it’s the working, married mother. And this mother has been using the handouts that your and her employer, you know, the Family Friendly one, to slowly but surely take away your work flexibility so you are absolutely forced to “schedule[e] vacations for off-seasons.”
Marcotte’s piece from Slate.com is a significant work of rhetoric. How else should we characterize an argument that is able to pit women against other women by effectively reducing any legitimate gripes married (which, in her discussion, is the same as with-children) and single women may have about their workplaces to, I kid you not, who can home early to help their kids with their Halloween costumes versus who can go take a Yoga class?
Friends have pointed out that there is a steady form of discrimination against single women. In supposed support of this, Marcotte refers to a book by Bella DePaulo who has coined the dandy phrase “singlism.” I’m going to leave well alone my gripe at the elasticity of the term “discrimination” and even my irritation that all “ism”s, even newly minted ones that are depending on the cache of time-tested oppressive systems like sexism and racism, are apparently equal these days.
I’m not going to get into it, because I think it’s crucial to recognize that there are many, many ways in which coupledom is privileged. It’s not just any sort of coupledom, though, but a state-sanctioned, hopefully-spawn-generating family lifestyle that is encouraged in the U.S. tax system, in the system of civil rights, and, more informally, how being single is understood and constructed to be the failure of the individual to find someone to truly care about her (or him) on a permanent basis. The way we talk about single women, or unmarried women, or women who don’t have or want kids, especially sucks, and the way we treat them sucks even more. This point seems obvious, which unfortunately hasn’t meant that anything serious has been done about it.
But we don’t need a fancy new word, and, frankly, such an irritating one at singlism to talk about this, because this is not a new concept. It’s been a while now that smart people have been talking about heteropatriarchy, especially of the nation-state, which is to say the way that countries shamefacedly promote heterosexual and patriarchal institutions in order to shore up on the number of people it can count as its citizens. That’s a better word, and before you shun it because it has the whiff of academia, think about how it thinks of ways that gays in addition to singles are ignored. This word’s been around for a while.
And what we really don’t need is for Marcotte to be the flag-bearer for this issue because if the world is truly according to her, the cause of feminism is dead. Despite being described by Time magazine as “an outspoken voice of the left” (fine, fine, I got this off Wikipedia) she parrots the many conservative dismissals of feminist concerns— her post imitates the countless rants I’ve heard against maternity leave because it apparently allows working mothers to skate by on the work that their unmarried colleagues do but still collect the paychecks. Also, of course, in this New World Order, the married mother is also the oppressor to the silent victim, the single man “who are often ignored in the ‘lean in’ debates, can end up picking the slack too.”
And if you’re a single woman who thinks Marcotte is on your side, know that, according to her blog post, you are apparently most concerned with proper vacationing and having time to exercise. These, ladies and gentlemen, are apparently the true concerns of working women today. No wonder feminists make for easy targets for the conservatives—we’re arguing about trifles in a somber world.
Marcotte lists examples of women exploiting their leave and speaks of them as ones “that should be familiar to anyone who’s worked in an office before.” Since anecdotal information is now passing for truth, let me speak of experiences of my own. When I was forced to take time off due to pregnancy complications, it almost killed me to not be at work. Even though I was given strict bed-rest orders, I worried about my classes, pushed to have former graduate-students take over my courses so my undergraduates would not have to be taught be people who weren’t interested in the ideas of the courses. I over-prepared to make sure the substitute teachers had as many resources at their disposal as possible. And I carried the guilt at not giving my students the course they had signed up for. There was no “slack” for anyone else to pick up. No working mother I have ever known would have done any less, and most would do more. The women I know mean well and do better by everyone who depends on them; they are enthusiastic about their jobs and carry around a disproportionate amount of guilt for any time they take off, even as they counsel other female colleagues to stand up for themselves.
And while I’ve been a mother for only seven months, I was a childless “professional” for a lot longer. I remember working at the Center for Writing at the University of Minnesota as a graduate student (okay, it was only like three-four years ago), and loving that my workplace was “family friendly” in exactly the way Marcotte describes it, even towards graduate students employees not part of the permanent staff. That was not because I hoped they would treat me just as well when I had children; there was never a chance that I would have a child at that job, since I could only have it until I graduated and I knew I was going to wait to have children until after I was done with my PhD. But it meant I was working at a place that treated their employees with respect.
My friend who posted a link to Marcotte’s blog on Facebook says that she has sympathy for her friends who are parents, but has to look out for her own sanity. To the extent that we are all looking for how a situation benefits or hurts us, I have to admit that I understood during my stint at the writing center that the same sort of care that my bosses showed towards my friends who were pregnant was exactly the same care that they showed me when I started freaking out about having enough time to work on my dissertation. That, yes, the first dibs for the coveted evening online consulting slots (because they could be done at home) would go to parents wanting to work and be around their kids at the same time, but they would also consider me and others like me who were feeling the pressure to do produce in other areas of their life.
But, I suppose this is because I work in the academia, which Marcotte dismisses as being an elite profession. (Though I’m still stymied by why we must dismiss academia just because it does something well.)
The crappiest part of Marcotte’s blog is the assumption is that there is a finite amount of compassion to be had, and that sympathy for someone in a radically different situation is reified, mistaken for a concrete resource that can only be spread so far. In Marcotte’s world, work is a zero-sum game where what you give to married mothers is snatched away from someone else. In her first paragraph, she says, “the demand from parents for time off means single women without kids are routinely pressured into working late, scheduling vacations for off-seasons, and otherwise picking up the slack that work/life balance leaves undone by their colleagues.” Again, later, “One reason it’s become acceptable to squeeze childless women for more work while indulging mothers is that it’s assumed that what goes around comes around.”
Never mind that it’s generally understood that allowing parents to bond with their children make for better workers, in much the same way that preventative medical actions like regular check ups is cheaper for employers, for insurance companies, for hospitals, and, of course, for individuals.
Marcotte’s airy conclusion is that “what we need are work environments where the specifics of your home life didn’t matter at all.” Yeah, right. Isn’t that like saying that sudden color blindness is going to cure the nation of its centuries of racism?