Women's work?

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October 18, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Is it just me, or are women under a lot of pressure in our society these days?
In my last article, I talked about some of the current issues surrounding masculinity, so this time I’m looking at femininity. This last century has seen major changes to the definition of femininity and womanhood, with the entry of women into careers and professional work outside of the domestic sphere. In my grandmother’s time, the “done thing” was for women to quit their jobs, whatever they were, as soon as they got married; homemaking and child-raising were supposed to be their full-time roles (though my grandmother got around that by teaching piano lessons in their home!). If you’ve seen the T.V. show Mad Men, set in the 1960s, you can see examples of this convention – especially in the earlier episodes, it’s understood that as soon as one of the (female) secretaries becomes engaged, she’ll leave her job.
But despite the term “women’s liberation” being thrown around in reference to the entry of women into careers and work previously unavailable to them, I’m not sure the shoe fits, exactly. Feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that what has happened is not so much that women have switched over from a domestic to a professional, career-oriented lifestyle, but that many women have just accumulated another layer of responsibilities, a “second shift” as Ruether calls it (see this book, page 220). In other words, women have entered the professional sphere, but most men haven’t taken on extra domestic responsibilities. This means women are now expected not only to get married and be in charge of children and housework, but also to be successful professionals. Leafing through a Canadian women’s magazine like Chatelaine, there’s evidence of this all over the place. Marketed mainly to the family-woman, who is married with children, it provides advice on everything from what to wear to the office to how to clean your car in 3 minutes to how to decorate your kid’s room (so it’s fun and functional!) to the best 10-minute meals to cook from scratch for five people after you’ve rushed home from the office! Women are pressured to fulfill all of these obligations: a successful career, a successful marriage, an impeccable, tastefully-decorated home, primary responsibility to care for children and keep everyone fed with nutritious, delicious home-cooked meals, all while keeping oneself looking stylish, fit and put-together (ethicist Naomi Wolf goes so far as to call the amount of time and energy women are expected to spend on their appearance their “third shift” of work – see this book, pages 25-7). It’s exhausting just to think about it all! How can women possibly live up to all of these expectations? I don’t think we can, not without seriously burning out.
So what about Mennonite women – how are we doing in relation to these societal expectations? I think Mennonite women continue to emphasize marriage and children, as well as excelling domestically (see for instance the popularity of the new Mennonite Girls Can Cook cookbook and blog). But there’s also the expectation that many of us will go the professional route, and take on a career as well – that Mennonite work ethic is alive and well in the busy-ness and industriousness of many of us! What about the added responsibilities of involvement in a church community? In some ways, the shifts in church roles have paralleled work roles; women can now be found in traditionally male positions, as pastors, teachers, preachers, worship leaders, deacons, etc., but also doing traditionally female work like childcare and preparing food for potlucks and other church events. Do we now expect women to do all of these things? What about men – are there similar expectations of them, or not?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating a return to the constrictive, stereotypical gender roles of the Mad Men era. That’s the easy (and not-so-great) way out. The argument that it should be up to women to choose whether to stay at home for a time or to concentrate on a career is a start, but it doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion. It does acknowledge that neither of these roles is “better” than the other – homemaking, parenting and professional work all make valuable contributions to the community (depending on how they’re done, of course, and what area one works in). It leaves out, however, that such a choice is open to men as well. But Ruether pushes things a step further, arguing for communities “in which the processes of childraising, of education, of work, of culture have been integrated to allow both men and women to share child nurturing and homemaking and also creative activity and decision making in the larger society” (pp. 232-3). In other words, a more fundamental change is needed in how we think about work and family and community, including the church community. I can for sure think of people that I know who think and live outside the box in this way – maybe working part-time and being more intentional about sharing home and family responsibilities while blurring gender expectations, whether between two parents or between families. But this is especially a challenge to church communities, I think, to be more supportive of each other, to build closer communities and to help each other discern what aspects of our lives can be simplified and even pared away. Those who have fewer home or child-related responsibilities (those who are single or don’t have children) can help out those who are feeling overwhelmed – whether women or men. Some congregations clearly do this already, while others could work on it. This way, instead of the church community adding to the hectic pace of our lifestyles, we can actually help lighten each others’ loads – especially the disproportionately heavy loads women currently carry.

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