Sunday, April 29, 2007

equal vs. difference

I just finished reading a not-so-great autobiography, called Not One of the Boys by Brenda Feigen. It was made more entertaining by the notes my friend Michelle wrote in the margins in red. At one point, Feigan meets Madeleine Albright and says, "I was impressed by [Albright's] command of foreign policy." Michelle observed, "I'll bet Madeleine was gratified."
Anyway, as many books do, it started out fine, chronicling Feigan's time in law school, suffering under blatant sexism. Then it sort of got less interesting as the book went on (lots of name-dropping, less personal connection, I think). What made me think, though, was one of the final chapters, where she discusses two types of feminism: difference and equality feminism.
Feigan is definitely an equality feminist. I think I'm a difference feminist.
She discusses pregnancy leave and various Supreme Court cases and their effects on women. Apparently, some people (difference feminists) advocate for specific pregnancy leave, while others (equality feminists) want pregnancy to be covered by disability leave (those of you who know more about this than me, forgive me if I'm getting it wrong). By making a special case of women and pregnancy, equality feminists argue, you make it easier to discriminate against women. Better to treat women absolutely equal--no special priviledges or categories--and avoid that.
While to some extent I understand the rationale behind this argument, it is one of the reasons I've decided not to be a feminist all of these years. And after actually being pregnant and nursing, I have even more of a problem with it. Here's why.
1) Why categorize pregnancy as sickness or disability? This is a perfectly normal state of humanity. Perhaps it's just semantic; pregnancy certainly disables women in that while pregnancy we aren't able to do certain things, like drink, or lift heavy objects, or ride mechanical bulls. But on the other hand, it kind of rubs me the wrong way, like having to be a "patient" at a doctor's office for prenatal visits (when you're not sick at all). Our whole society--doctors, employers--feminists--seem to view pregnancy as a problem, a disease, something out of the ordinary. But what could be more normal than procreation?
2) Don't a lot of European countries (which are arguably more progressive on womens rights issues than ours) offer specifically maternity leave? I could be wrong, but it doesn't seem that offering this keeps women down.
3) It seems fictitious to say that women aren't different. Faigen argues that expecting women to do the nurturing of the child (by offering maternity leave) keeps men from having to commit to their share of the parenting. I'm all for men doing their part (in fact, some paternity leave would be nice) but in reality, women's burden of childcare is biologically heavier. We're the ones who are pregnant, we're the ones that nurse. Faigan's answer to this is that "nursing mothers might be an exception: perhaps the breast pump is the answer". Again, nothing against pumping (for other people, anyway), but pumping is sort of a fiction, too. Does that mean that we need technology to make our society equal? That unless women use some sort of technological intervention, there's no way to make their burden less onerous? The reality is that women have a 10-12 hour a day burden after their child is born for the first few months. A pump helps, but only somewhat: it means you don't have to be physically there for all the feedings, but you still have to 'nurse' the machine. So is that really the answer? And what about those women (myself included) that don't want to leave their children?
4) This is kind of related. It strikes me that the 'equality' answer is to neuter everyone and treat everyone as kind of replacable cogs. Or, really, to neuter women and make them into pretend men. We aren't pretend men. Our reproductive systems are far more complicated, and the full range of our bodies' possibility far wider. Not that you must be a mom to be a 'real' woman (no sirree!) but the possibility of it is only ours. So to say that you have to treat everyone the same: as if there was no pregnancy, no breastfeeding, is to strip us of part of our humanity. Why must we pretend that part of ourselves doesn't exist in order to get equal treatment?

Okay, that's enough ranting for the day. Dyami wants to go to bed, and I should probably talk to him some before we close our eyes.


Corrie said...

Well, we could solve the problem by having "Patental Leave" for all parents, like they do in Europe and Canada. The US has “the most family-hostile public policy in the Western world.” See what it's like in other parts of the world, especially Bulgaria!
Parental Leave

Egalitarians advocate "equality", but they do not deny biological differences (being female is a fact of sexual biology). Being "feminine" on the other hand is a cultural concept that changes depending on when and where you live. A hundred years ago in this country, for example, female violinists were encouraged to switch to a more "ladylike" activity like singing.

I can't remember what book it was (if I find it, I'll share it), but I remember reading about how this kind of "treat everyone the same" feminism is not feminism at all. Under the banner of equality, "masculine" becomes the ideal, and women have to squash their female sex into the form of "male" in order to be 'equal'. That doesn't help anybody.

I think you can solve the labeling issue by offering "parental leave" for mothers AND fathers.

Heather said...

Yes, I like the parental leave idea. Because it's about families, and not just about women.
So Corrie, I'm confused: would you call yourself more in the 'difference' or 'equality' camp?
It just bums me out that pregnancy leave is considered "disability". That just implies that there's something _wrong_ with you, a negative event that you have to take time away from work for. When in reality, parental leave is about both parents placing family as a priority over work. And the governement and work doing the same.
For a country that pays a lot of lip service to "family values" we don't back it up with much cultural clout, at all.

Melissa said...

To muddle the issue further, I would suggest that the equality vs. difference idea is a false dichotomy-- I wouldn't ascribe to either ideology.

While PREGNANCY is not a disability (without other complicating issues), RECOVERING FROM CHILDBIRTH generally is considered so-- which is why, under our current system of unpaid leave and scantly-paid disability leave, cesearean delivery gets you more time off than vaginal delivery. It's also the justification for adoptive parents getting no leave at all. (Though FMLA changes that a bit, if your company qualifies.)

About Europe: most commentaries seem to agree that sexism is simply more institutionalized and accepted; women of childbearing age have a harder time finding employment and understand their assignments will be less challenging/interesting after coming back from leave. (See-- for all its flaws!-- Perfect Madness, for one example.)

All of which suggests to me that an argument for family leave may need to be based on needs of children-- see the What Children Need article on the MMO, for example, on how infant mortality rates go down when children have one parental caregiver throughout the first year of life.

See why I never comment on these? When will you ever have time to read this COMMENT, let alone the references?!