Slate: Dutch Backtrack on Gender Equality in Employment

Back in the 1970s, if you read newspapers or magazines, watched TV or the movies, you got a pretty steady dose of feminists hymning the wonders of working for a living.  According to that narrative, paid work was a promised land which, if women could just reach it, they would know fulfillment never before imagined.

And of course there was a small nut of truth to that; some people do indeed find great satisfaction in their work.  For them, it’s not just a way to pay the mortgage, but something they look forward to doing every morning.  My dad was one of those people and good for them.

And what feminists were saying was true in another way; by being self-supporting, women could become financially independent of men.  A husband’s death or disability would no longer spell financial ruin for them; neither would divorce.

All of that was perfectly sensible, but often feminists promoting work ignored a certain fact that was obvious to many – much paid work is thankless drudgery.  I often wondered if, as children, they’d heard their own fathers call what they did every day “the rat race” or a “jungle” – not exactly paeans to the working life.

And it goes without saying that many of the ones singing the praises of gainful employment were those privileged few who had a real chance at the type of fulfillment they described.  Betty Friedan, for example, was Smith College ’42; what were the chances we’d find her waiting tables?  More to the point, what were the chances she’d have to wait tables to keep the power turned on?

It’s no accident that second wave feminism was a child of post-World War II America, perhaps the single most prosperous time and place in history.  Before that, the vast majority of women worked (mostly on farms) because they had to and many counted themselves lucky to do so.  Not working was a sure sign of either dire privation or its opposite – luxury far out of reach of most people.

For about one generation after World War II, America knew the type of proseperity that allowed significant numbers of women to behave like only a very few could before.  June Cleaver was always an aberration, a product of a particular place and time.  So was Archie Bunkder, the high-school-educated man supporting a family of four with only a blue-collar job.

More recently still, Barbara Ehrenreich decided she’d go out and see how the other 90% live.  Ehrenreich of course is highly educated and wouldn’t know a wolf if it were sitting on her doorstep, and, in that way, she was like so many other white, well-heeled feminists like Friedan.  So she decided to pretend she was poor and really needed a job, any job, and for a few months worked as a maid and a waitress, lived in cheap hotels and took public transportation.

And what a revelation that was!  It turned out that she found the work hard, her bosses callous and making ends meet at the end of the month uncertain at best.  Exactly why it took a highly educated white writer to tell women this, I’ve never understood.  There are millions of women who know a lot more about the bad jobs and bad pay than Ehrenreich ever will.  Why not just ask one of them?

Now of course, try as she might, nothing Ehrenreich could do could truly emulate the conditions faced by poor, uneducated women.  Among other things, the knowledge that one’s conditions are self-imposed, that one can end the game at any time makes what Ehrenreich did little more than an interesting parlor trick.  The ever-present knowledge that this is not your life, but a temporary exercise for the sake of a book contract makes all the difference between the pretense and the real thing.

Even in these bad economic times in which male unemployment is at highs not seen in decades, women still aren’t completely buying into feminism’s promise of a brave new world.  Fewer women work at all than do men, and, of those who do, vastly more choose part-time work.  Much of that reflects their greater desire to care for their children, a desire widely disdained among many feminists.  But some of it reflects a desire to be free from the obligations of the workplace, and I, for one, don’t blame them.

So recently there’s been quite a whoop-de-doo about a study of Dutch women, compared to whom American women are workaholics.  The articles about that phenomenon, like this one, are interesting for a number of reasons (Slate, 11/19/10).

Put simply, Dutch women don’t work much.

Though the Netherlands is consistently ranked in the top five countries for women, less than 10 percent of women here are employed full-time. And they like it this way. Incentives to nudge women into full-time work have consistently failed. Less than 4 percent of women wish they had more working hours or increased responsibility in the workplace, and most refuse extended hours even when the opportunity for advancement arises. Some women cite the high cost of child care as a major factor in their shorter hours, but 62 percent of women working part time in the Netherlands don’t have young children in the house, and mothers rarely increase their working hours even when their children leave home.

The article’s writer, Jessica Olien, adds that “25 percent of Dutch women do not even make enough money to be considered financially independent.”

All of that raises the obvious question, “where does the money come from?”  And the unavoidable answer is “men.”  In fact, the United Nations conducted a study and found that, in the Netherlands,

Attempts to get more women working full-time are doomed to failure because nobody has a desire for this.

As Olien said, ” they like it this way.”

In short, women prefer to spend their time the way they want instead of the way some boss in some corporation wants them to, and they can do this because their male partner supports them.  To coin a phrase, that’s good work if you can get it.

Now, as Olien tells it, the Netherlands is considered a bit of a feminist paradise.  It’s “consistently ranked in the top five countries for women.”   And

Dutch women could be considered extremely progressive when compared with most other women in the world–they have enviable reproductive rights and rates of political participation.

But whatever happened to the feminist’s ace in the hole, the claim that financial self-reliance was necessary because one’s husband might not be there to support you?  Isn’t that the one irrefutable argument for women’s working and earning equally to men?  How do Dutch women finesse that one?

Tellingly, the article doesn’t ask those questions, but my guess is that one answer is “alimony.”  After all, if you’ve got a husband or partner who makes the bulk of the family’s income, isn’t the reason that you feel no urge to pull your own weight financially that there’s a net there to catch you in case of divorce?

I don’t know Dutch law on the subject, so as I said, mine is only a guess, but I’d be surprised if alimony isn’t a lot of the underpinning of all those women sipping coffee with friends and planting tulips.

The other would be the social safety net that frees women from having to concern themselves with how they’ll support themselves if hubby dies or becomes disabled.  And where does the money for that safety net come from?  Well, income taxation provides a lot of it and, if men earn the lion’s share of the income, they pay the lion’s share of the taxes.

Olien likes the Dutch approach.  Is work onerous, a strain on one’s physical and emotional wellbeing?  Let the man do it.  As she says, let’s just “go Dutch” and avoid those nagging problems.

But of course Olien’s use of the phrase “go Dutch” is ironic, whether she knows it or not.  “Going Dutch” means to share the costs of a date equally between the two people.  And that’s exactly the opposite of what Olien likes about the Dutch way in which, to a degree unheard of in the United States, the men pay and the women play.

So whatever happened to gender equality?  Where’d we lose the notion that men and women should work equally, earn equally and do equal childcare?  When and how did the Dutch return to women living off the work of men both during and after marriage?  And when did that become a feminist ideal?

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.

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