Gender essentialism and the feminist housewife

Cross-posted at The Radical Housewife.

Hi there!  My name is Shannon, and I am a feminist housewife.

This is me in my kitchen.  Behind my arm is –NO JOKE–a loaf of homemade gluten-free bread.  I am a housewife, and a damn good one!

Do you like my apron?  it’s from the HOTDISH Militia, a group that fundraises for abortion clinics with tasty casseroles–the acronym stands for Hand Over The Decision It Should (be) Hers.  I support affordable access to the full spectrum of women’s reproductive health services, including abortion on demand, without apology.  That’s feminist, baby!

Combine my job with my passion, et voilà: you get me, a feminist housewife!

I didn’t aspire to be a feminist housewife when I grew up.  As a child, I wanted to write books.  As a child, I assumed that writing books would magically make money appear.

Ha, ha.

Six-year-old Shannon can be blamed for her ignorance, but what excuse does Kelly Makino, a self-identified feminist, have?  From New York Magazine’s March 17, 2013 cover story “The Retro Wife”:

The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.” Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multitaskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums; “women,” she says, “keep it together better than guys do.”

Oh Mrs. Makino!  You retrograde goofball, you.  In case you missed this lecture in Women’s Studies 101, let me break it down for you. Choosing your choice is feminist, sure!  But GENDER ESSENTIALISM IS NOT FEMINIST.

I can’t pick on only Kelly, though, for the author of the piece, Lisa Miller, makes some mind-boggling observations of her own:

I prepare our daughter’s lunch box every morning with ritualistic care, as if sending her off to school with a bologna sandwich made by me can work as an amulet against all the pain of my irregular, inevitable absences. I believe that I have a special gift for arranging playdates, pediatrician appointments, and piano lessons….

 “The feminist revolution started in the workplace, and now it’s happening at home,” says Makino. “I feel like in today’s society, women who don’t work are bucking the convention we were raised with … Why can’t we just be girls? Why do we have to be boys and girls at the same time?”

Again, I must ask: what makes a girl a GIRL?  Is it a baby?  An apron?  A kickass banana bread recipe?  A Pinterest account?

What makes a boy a BOY?  A wife?

I made a choice to be my kids’ caregiver, but that choice wasn’t made in a vacuum.  My hubby and I had to weigh some very harsh realities.  Who made more money?  Who would probably ALWAYS make more money?  Who could count on consistent work for the next two decades?  If you guessed the BOY, you’re right!  You win a wife.*

Understanding how patriarchal capitalism works is feminist. GENDER ESSENTIALISM IS NOT FEMINIST.

For the record, I am terrible at arranging playdates.  My vag has nothing to do with it–I am not only forgetful, I hate using the telephone.  I’d rather bake you a rice-tapioca-soy flour loaf.  If you want our kids to hang out, you’d better have my e-mail–or better yet, Matt’s!

All of this is very funny in the echo chamber of the internets.  I really don’t care whether Kelly Makino, Lisa Miller, or hell, Sheryl Sandberg is a housewife or not.  I DO care when one pretty white New Yorker’s lifestyle is trotted out as “proof” that women are this or that and feminism is a failure blah blah blah, because you know that articles like these delight conservatives eager to push back on women’s rights,  especially reproductive rights.  Sen. Rand Paul, a 2016 presidential contender, has already said he’d support a fetal personhood bill that would outlaw abortion and many forms of contraception.  Without control over their fertility, women would be stuck in the kitchen making hotdish (and this is the important part) whether they want to or not.

It’s a future too horrible to contemplate.

Maybe I’ll cook a pie.  That would make me feel better.

*offer not valid for women

Join the Conversation

  • Natasha Mott

    As much as that article burns my ass, I’ve got to say, as a neuroscientist studing sex differences in the brain and steroid hormones – women ARE hard-wired differently then men. Its not gender essentialism to say so, either. What I am interested in is leveling the playing field – not that I want my husband to be feminized, but they can be taught! Circuits can be rewired, but most people go with the grain in which they are genetically and socially woven. It is HARD to be a career mom. It goes against all of your maternal instincts to leave your child in the arms of someone else, but I do it because I think my career is important, and I want my daughter to have a good role model to show her that she can go against the grain and still be happy. All I have to say is – I try not judge those who choose not to work, so I hope they don’t judge me!

    • Sam L-L

      I am not a neuroscientist but have a scientific background and I’m always happy to hear from the professionals. The last thing I read about this topic was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender which argued (to me fairly convincingly) that “hard-wired” differences by sex are relatively small and usually over-exaggerated. I remember the book as a satisfying takedown of some bad science, which is something I enjoy in any discipline. Are you familiar with Ms. Fine’s work? If so, do you consider it accurate?

    • Stella

      OK, Natasha, just for the sake of argument, I am going to grant you your “its HARD to leave your child in the care of someone else” belief, even though, after an appropriately long maternity leave I was happy to do so for several hours per day in order to pay the mortgage. But do you think the same is not also true for men? And if so, how is your argument coherent at all? For most of human history, folks worked at home farming land and neither parent had to routinely leave the kids to go to an office or factory to make money. That arrangement is a recent invention of the industrial revolution.

      And what do you mean about your husband being “feminized.” Please describe to me what having a penis and a Y chromosome has to do with working for pay or loading a dishwasher or arranging playdates or shopping for food?

      Its all gender essentialism, even if you have manged to find some post-hoc rationale for it in piles of data. Men and women are different. Neurons and horomones, however, cannot be neatly mapped on to who gets to have the right to reproduce and earn a living, and who has to choose one of the above. Patriarchal capitalism is what makes that decision.

    • erin

      The thing that burns me up when people say this is that not all of us have maternal instincts. I don’t have children. I hate being judged by people who assume I’m a breeder. I don’t want children. I’m in my 30s now and I’d rather be seen as a professional. I would feel nothing for my kids most likely which is why I don’t have any. This doesn’t make me subhuman, and I’m sick to death of being put in this pussy binary state of BUT BABIES.

  • Halie

    Hi Natasha,
    Not to be that annoying grad student, but wouldn’t it be more correct to assert that there are neurological differences on average between men and women? I’m not quite sure which differences you’re referring to here (yes, of course cis-women are going to experience universally higher levels of oxytocin after childbirth or breast-feeding than cis-men are), but in general, when we see sex differences in genetically influenced personality/behavioral traits, don’t they tend to follow more of a sex-differentiated-but-largely-overlapping normal-ish distribution, rather than a dichotomous, bimodal one? And based on what you’re saying, couldn’t some of that differentiation be attributed to differences in environment influencing neurological wiring? Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s “Mothers and Others” has me convinced that the lack of an automatic postpartum oxytocin kick is hardly stopping men from being fantastic, heavily-involved dads. (And check out this article as well, about adoption).

  • Whitney

    While I very much support the article (yay for helping out with trans*feminism), I also feel that there is a problematic bit in here as well that should be addressed.

    It confuses me that while you are on the topic of gender essentialism, you bring up your HOTDISH (“Hand Over The Decision It Should (be) Hers”) apron without addressing the gender essentialism of the group/acronym that implies that all people looking for abortions are female, which obviously is not the case when FAAB (female assigned at birth) trans* people exist and are undoubtedly using the services provided at abortion clinics.

    So I’d urge you to reconsider your stance somewhat on reproductive issues: Be pro-choice, but don’t be pro-choice with a side of gender essentialism.

    Thank you.

  • Shannon

    I worked in neuropsychology research before having my daughter. I chose to be a stay-at-home-parent (I hate that term by the way, but it’s better than the cringe-inducing term housewife IMHO) during her early childhood, because of my knowledge of neurodevelopment and how critical the first two years specifically are. I value this time with her in which I’m able to be completely involved in her experiential learning and nutrition. I realize not everyone has that option, and I realize that even those with that option choose to work outside of the home for a variety of valid reasons. I appreciate the protections granted to women who are full-time moms that are the result of feminism. I advocate for affordable quality childcare, extended maternity leave and laws/policies supporting breastfeeding in the workplace. I think a core belief of feminism is the respect of choice when it comes to such personal, circumstantial factors. So to paraphrase Natasha, I try not to judge those who make different life decisions than me.

  • Kathleen

    This author’s life and perspective sound so much like mine, I’d bet a chicken dinner we’re even cycling together.

    I’m a post academic, and the realities of the academic job market made me a stay at home mom. I use my free time to volunteer for political causes and to generally be a bad ass in the kitchen. The people in my house are well fed.

    I just want to add that maybe we should stop thinking of staying at home or not as a dichotomy. It’s not an irreversible choice, and the work one does at home is still work. We’re all working moms; it’s just that the primary location of our work (office, school, house) will change throughout our lives, as will the way in which we are compensated (monetarily or not). Just because my contribution doesn’t have a dollar sign attached, doesn’t make me any less a contributor to our household economy, so it always rubs me the wrong way when people contrast working moms with those of us staying at home, as if we’re just sitting on the sofa eating bon bons.

    Anyway, my point is that circumstances change throughout life, and women should have more freedom to move around within these categories as our needs and the needs of our families change. I think we get too fixated on these labels, because the “mommy wars” lead to a borderline obsession with justifying our choices, when we should all just say “eff that” whenever somebody tries to make us feel guilty for doing what is right for ourselves and our families.

    • Melanie

      I love the way you put this, Kathleen – it’s not a irreversible decision and there are many kinds of work.

  • Laura

    These articles get to me every time. While anecdotal evidence may not be worth much, this is something that has affected my personal identity and viewpoint throughout my life.

    I’m a woman. I am terrible with children. I don’t have any desire to be anywhere near them. I don’t know how to take care of them (and don’t want to). And nobody ever believes me.

    “Oh, you just wait until you’re older,” they’ve always said. I’ve heard it since I explained my complete rejection of dolls as a young child. I’ve heard it since I explained my desire for a career rather than children in adolescence. I’ve heard it since trying to defend my choice of a profession that takes years of very long hours at the office. I’m 27 now. How old do I have to be before it’s accepted that I’m not confused or ignorant about my own desire for children (or lack thereof)?

    I’m the last person you want watching your kids. I don’t even know how to hold your baby safely. Yet people assume I want a mucus-oozing infant thrust at me at any given opportunity or to hear their mind-bogglingly boring stories about their kindergartner’s hobbies.

    And it cuts both ways. My boyfriend–a solidly-muscular 6’6″ African American man–adores children and they always love being around him. But parents tend to usher their kids away from him, from the big scary man who will do something awful to them. He’s not oblivious to this; it hurts every time, and it cuts deep.

    This is why gender essentialism isn’t good for anybody. It hurts me to constantly be on the defensive, constantly trying to separate myself from a presumed identity that isn’t mine. It hurts my boyfriend to do exactly the same thing. It hurts everybody who feels like they’re doing something wrong through nothing more than just not feeling like someone of their gender is “supposed to” (and I think there are more of us than many people assume).

    • honeybee

      I’m honestly not trying to be a jerk or do what others do but I have to say I was the EXACT same way. I never liked children, never had interest in them, never had younger siblings or cousins, never babysat, nothing.

      But then I became a Mom and things changed pretty quick. We clearly all have parental instincts (men too!) as I now know. It really changes things and at times I’ve found myself thinking – who am I? How did I become like this? I don’t begrudge it – actually I like that this happened (in retrospect) I just didn’t expect it.

      Having kids fundamentally changes who you are, that’s all I can say.

      However if you don’t want to have kids don’t feel you need to. They aren’t for everyone. But just know that if you ever do become a Mom you’ll be great at and will find you have more instincts then you realize.

      • erin

        My grandmother beat her children nearly to death as infants for bothering her. No, we do NOT all have magic mommy instincts and the sooner we realize that the sooner we will be able to help abused children.

        • honeybee

          I was trying to make you feel better not worse…

          I do think that parental instincts are innate to all living creatures. Only a sociopath would lack those instincts for their own children. However I agree the instincts vary from person to person. and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with never having children. My point was to simply say that if you do have children you will find a surprisingly amount of attachment and instinct arises even when you thought you didn’t have it. That’s a good thing not a bad thing.

  • Heidi

    I hear you, Laura. I’m going to be 40 soon, and I feel the same way about kids that you do. Not only do I not want kids, I’m also not the slightest bit interested in marriage. I’m in a great poly relationship that I expect to last for a long time, and it suits me just fine the way it is.

    I often get these confused looks or looks of pity when people ask, “Are you married?” and I say “No, and I don’t want to be”. It makes me laugh. :)