Feminism and New Norms

I'm sitting in on a class this semester, and the professor often uses examples of public rhetoric in recent history to illustrate theoretical points. In one class, we were talking about norms. Specifically, the most far-reaching and important consequence of the eighteenth-century European bourgeois public sphere analyzed by Habermas is that it set forth a new norm: might-is-right differences in status and power didn't matter in political discussion; instead, the best argument prevails. As problematic as it is that this new norm emerged in settings that did not always welcome women or people of color, it nevertheless is a powerful new norm, especially when appropriated by said groups.

The discussion then turned to norms in general. The professor claimed that the women's movement, while an absolutely invaluable and much needed stride forward in the overall path to social justice, failed to provide a new norm to address the problem of division of labor in the home, especially an equitable arrangement for how to raise children.

Okay, I know there's a lot to be said for getting rid of norms altogether. For many people, they're oppressive, they're restrictive, and they institutionalize disapproval of perfectly valid choices (or courses of action taken when there was no choice; i.e., many women have no "choice" whether to work outside the home or not). But this professor helped me to see norms in a different way. They're templates, common forms for how to live, he said. Norms make things less complicated, which can be a good thing. They can be useful, eliminating a great deal of the struggle of having to figure so much out at the individual level and then justify the choices made to the community at large.

Right now, for example, I'm reading Feminism, Breasts, and Breast-feeding by Pam Carter here and there on the stationary bike/stairmaster. This set of questions Carter poses helps to show the confusion that comes with the absence of a solid norm:

[N]o feminist practice has evolved around infant feeding. A number of questions can be raised: is bottle feeding in some way equivalent to medical intervention in childbirth? should it therefore be avoided? does breast-feeding offer greater possibilities of control by women? or is bottle feeding equivalent to contraception in allowing women greater control over their bodies and their lives? should feminist support pro breast-feeding policy in order to strive to recapture the time when infant feeding was within the control of lay women? should they try to recreate the kind of conditions where all women breast-feed? or does a safe and (relatively) healthy alternative offer women more control and autonomy? are middle class women being good girls in breastfeeding their babies realizing that 'doctor knows best' providing a good example to the working class? should feminists campaign for private space for lactating women or should they challenge the dominance of public space by male sexuality and refuse privacy? (p. 19-20)

What do the rest of you think? A new norm seems reasonable, at least to try as a thought experiment. Would a new norm reduce the number of mommy wars, alluded to by Linda Fishman, Laura at 11D, Dooce and over 1000 commenters there, and most recently in the New York Times? Or would it not make any difference, because a new norm may still judge implicitly some people's decision to deviate from the norm? Does feminism already point to new norms for the division of labor at home, but they're just not articulated in a way that's clear to the general population? If so, what are the new norms? As I see them, they are:

  • Destigmatize stay-at-home fathers. I've probably said here before that the SAHDs I know always seem to feel compelled to explain, even apologize for, their work. Their families don't approve of the fact that they aren't bringing money into the household, etc.
  • Destigmatize young mothers (also single mothers). Provide more support for young women who want to have children before starting a career. This would come in the form of social support and free daycare for student parents in high school and college so that they can continue to pursue their studies.
  • Provide on-site daycare at work and school.

Other than that, I guess there are only individual systems in which domestic partners split up the chores in a way that approximates 50/50. But that's not as easy as it looks when there are pervasive older norms lurking in the background. Plus, these new norms I've listed only tell social institutions what to do, not individual people. A solid new feminist norm, assuming we're going to try to think of one here, should (I use a heteronormative model here tactically) tell everyone what to do: the woman, the man, and the corporation, school, society, etc. I'd be interested to know others' thoughts about this; I believe I've written myself into a corner here.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

More on norms

I should have lifted out what I'm seeing as Hirshman's norms in the article:

There are three rules: Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.
[...]avoid taking on more than a fair share of the second shift.
[...]find a spouse with less social power than you or find one with an ideological commitment to gender equality.
[...]It is possible that marrying a liberal might be the better course. After all, conservatives justified the unequal family in two modes: “God ordained it” and “biology is destiny.” Most men (and most women), including the liberals, think women are responsible for the home. But at least the liberal men should feel squeamish about it.
[...]Have a baby. Just don’t have two.

It should hopefully be clear why I don't think these are suitable norms. As I said, with the kind of norm I'm talking about, everyone needs to be told what to do. These rules just put the responsibility right back on women to manage everything. It might be good to add here, too, that I don't think there's ever going to be a norm that encompasses all people from all socioeconomic backgrounds and sexualities. I'm not sure it's productive to try to think of one that does. This doesn't mean that differences should be ignored, only that they can't be subsumed.

More on norms

This is sounding like the real life version of Gerda Lerner's comments on writing history from the 1970s -- the idea that compensatory history is a necessary first step that addresses the absence of women in history, but does not address the reasons women are missing in the first place. For that we need something else -- we need to establish new norms for history.

In terms of your list of norms in need of revision, I would add something about our attitudes toward domestic work. One thing the feminist movement has done (whether it meant to or not) is reinforce the idea that domestic work is necessarily inferior to work outside the home. In many respects this just plays into the norms (women=home/private=inferior; men=workplace/public=superior). But if we're changing our norms for the public sphere to increase access for women, minorities and anyone else who has been excluded, we need to change the private sphere too. This doesn't simply mean making it more comfortable for stay-at-home dads and equal partnership in chores. It means fundamentally changing our ideas about the value of domestic labor. The system will not equalize until we value domestic labor at or near the same level as work outside the home. I'm not sure how or if this can be accomplished or even how one would quantify the value of domestic work. Certainly not through the puerile tallying of the literal monetary value of each of the innumerable small tasks involved in housekeeping/childcare, as we've seen before. But, if recent media is to be believed and there really is a new trend of highly educated, experienced women staying home with children, that might help. If we were to recognize the knowledge and earning power of the women and recognize the choice of employment that they've made, perhaps we'd learn to increase the value we assign to the work that they do. I'm not optimistic, but it's possible. Ultimately, of course, a greater valuation of domestic work would also help improve the profile of the stay-at-home father, because he would not be seen as moving from a position of higher to lower power/value.

On the other hand

See, I think Hirshman's norms are right on. *Should* housework be valued as little as it is? No. But, in all honesty, should it be valued less than things like teaching, writing, political achievement, etc? Yes. Because it affects many fewer people, it has only a small impact on the world. Like here's an analogy: Martin Luther King was a great leader. He was also, by all appearances, an indifferent, even a bad, husband. Which matters more?

What I would say, therefore, is that we need not just to destigmatize housework for men, but to positively require it of them. Not to make it an option--because if the fact is that it is undervalued and underpaid, they'd be fools to do it in any kind of numbers--but to require it from them in the same way we require kids to wipe their own butts. As a matter of equity, of adult responsibility, etc.

Bitch. Ph.D.

Re: On the other hand

You're right, the number affected is much less and in that sense the value of domestic work is and probably should be less. Although the same kinds of work done elsewhere for more people are still low on the socioeconomic scale. The work of a school custodian, for example, probably affects even more people than an elementary school teacher (although those people being affected probably aren't aware of it until something goes wrong), but we still don't value the work at the same level. The issue of training and expertise is an issue in this case of course. And the issue of childcare is not involved, which is the major reason women choose not to work outside the home in the first place.

Teachers are caught up in the fallout to, though, at least at the elementary school level. They are not paid especially well in most places. And they, too, are predominantly female.

I do also think Hirshman's norms make a lot of sense. I'm just asking for a bit more consideration of the other side of things too, even if it's more theoretical than practical. Hirshman's norms are most definitely practical and I wholeheartedly agree on housework for all family members. Because even if housework came to be highly esteemed, I still will never ever enjoy cleaning the toilet.


This is one of the cool things about the blogosphere. We're all interested in the same thing, but approach it with such different approaches. Political scientists just don't use words like norms. Just learned a lot from this post. Big hug for the blogosphere.

I have to admit that this notion of norms does rub me the wrong way. I don't like anyone telling me what I should do. I also think that it assumes that personal preferences are constant, which they aren't. For example, I detest cleaning, but my friend, Toni, enjoys it. Our difference preferences is going to affect our bargaining over housework with our partners.

I see Hirshman's points about choosing a SAHD and having one kid not as norms, but as tragic compromises. If you want to make it ahead in the business world, you should do these things. No question about it. Should everyone follow these rules? Absolutely not. Not everybody desires elite positions or has the ability to pursue them. Norms are something that have to applied universally, if I understood you correctly, and her points are only for a small few.

Should childrearing be valued less than being a corporate lawyer or a paper pusher at an investment bank or an executive at a corporation notorious for environmental devastation?

Yeah, we need a better term

I hear you, Laura, and I'm not so sure "norms" works very well. Maybe something like "coherent alternative arrangement"? I'm still intrigued with my professor's differing take on norms as "templates" or common forms. I find the idea of having common points of reference at least potentially useful.

Also, Prof. B., I definitely think a lot of what Hirshman says is on the money; it's just that the women (again) are the only ones getting the instructions. I'd love to see Hirshman write a similar article directed toward men. Actually, you'd do at least as good a job as Hirshman yourself, B! :-) I was just looking over your Radical Married Feminist Manifesto again and your follow-up Good stuff.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.