Reaction: One Dimensional Woman

I recently read the wonderful and engaging book “One Dimensional Woman” by Nina Power. One Dimensional Woman is a brilliant critique of feminism in the age of capitalism, and I thoroughly recommend that you pick the book up.I found, reading Nina’s book, that framing the problems of feminism from a capitalist point of view was really enlightening, and I think it is a parable to all of us to be careful of what exactly capitalism is advertising and the way in which feminism is marketable in a detrimental way.

I would like to add my own voice and views to chapter 1.0, “The Feminisation of Labor”. Nina talks lucidly but briefly about the conflict women face between being caregivers and being workers. Those of you reading who know me well will know that this is a particular hobby-horse of mine, and will also know that this is one of the many reasons why I won’t call myself a feminist. For the sake of new friends, and a slight departure for this blog, I would like to treat you to a rant about the status of women in the workplace, and why the next big step for feminism needs to be a change in men’s rights.

It has always struck me as appalling how, despite years upon years of women’s rights campaigning and so much progress in so many areas, that women still get left miles behind in the workplace. In the UK and US, women can expect a significantly lower chance of attaining a high-level job, and even on equivalent jobs can still expect to be paid less than their male counterparts. As someone embroiled to some extent in academia, the figures for female professors verses male professors is very disheartening. Even looking at the breakdown of female MPs verses male MPs can be heartbreaking at times, and to be honest is often quite a reflection on the political party concerned.

For the longest amount of time I had just assumed this would be the case everywhere, but it came as a shining revelation to me that the Scandinavian countries don’t suffer anywhere near as badly with this divide. I had to ask, why? What does Scandinavia do that we don’t?

The answer is simple. Maternity and paternity laws.

The biggest roadblock and unspoken prejudice against any woman in the workplace is her status as a potential host to a young human being, and the potential threat that, at any time unbeknownst to her employer, she will take off for 52 weeks on maternity leave, wherein she is paid 39 weeks at 90% of her wages. A male employee however would only be entitled to 2 weeks with the potential for a further 26 weeks if his partner returns to work. Now, I am not by any means against maternity leave, nor am I in any way happy that employers would discriminate against me on the mere possibility that I might pop out a baby. However, when you look at this it surely becomes rather obvious why it makes less business sense to hire a woman? An employer should not by any means make a decision on this basis, but the risk factor is so much greater.

We need, absolutely need, to make parental leave something that is shared between parents, where all parents are equally eligible to take this leave and, in my opinion, where both parents have a mandatory month of paid leave following the birth of a child. This is the only way to level the playing field, and to make women able to compete in the workplace.

Looking at this from my point of view, these expectations put me off wanting to have a child at all. I don’t want to find myself needing to take a career break of 6 – 12 months in order to start a family. Not at all. I am a career-person and not a homemaker. In my ideal world, should I decide to have a child, myself, my partner(s) and family would be in a position where we could sit down and make a rational decision about how we will distribute the caregiving for our child, and we should then be able to negotiate this with our respective employers. At no point is it fair to expect that, simply for being in possession of a womb, I should be the one to rear and raise a child mostly alone for at least 6 months. We need to start accepting men as equally capable of being caregivers in order to give women half a chance of being able to thrive in the workplace.

Tied in to all of this thinking is the whole notion of woman-as-a-caregiver, including some notions which are quite damaging that I don’t want to touch upon here, such as the burden of shame placed upon women who choose not to breastfeed their children.

I want to live in a world where my partner(s) and I could raise our children equally, and where at no point did my child ever feel that mummy was the one who stayed home to look after them and daddy (if indeed there is a daddy) was the one who went out to work and earned the money. Breaking this dichotomy starts way back at maternity and paternity leave, and the ability of women to compete with their labor in a capitalist marketplace.


5 thoughts on “Reaction: One Dimensional Woman

  1. Tom says:

    Glad to see more people reading One Dimensional Woman! It’s my favourite feminist text of the past few years.

    On the substantive points about inequality which you raise, I would be wary of locating pay differentials solely or even primarily in terms of formal legal asymmetries between men and women. I can see the case for equalising maternity and paternity leave, both in terms of influencing the behaviour of employers and in its wider symbolic and material effects on the ability to parent outside of gender-normative social roles.

    (Although you might also think that in a deeply patriarchal society, which is likely to implicitly foist an unequal amount of childrearing on women for some time yet, then going further in ameliorating a mother’s other responsibilities might be more just. Not to mention being some sort of ‘recompense’ for the physical burdens of pregnancy and birth themselves. I’m torn on this.)

    To what extent more Scandinavian maternity and paternity laws are the cause of greater equality in the workplace and a more gender-equal society, or are its effects, is hard to say. On promotion and pay differentials, I think that the other aspects of Nina’s work which you briefly touch on have a huge impact — namely, the feminisation of labour and labour of femininity.

    The first development contributes to a routing of women into relatively poorly renumerated service-oriented jobs, with the assumption that their superior ‘soft skills’ make them a natural fit. The second heading highlights the hidden affective labour that falls disproportionately to women: to care for relatives and children, to be both ‘perky’ and consoling to their colleagues, to create an atmosphere of quiet efficiency without appearing so brilliant and creative to bruise the egos of others, etc.

    While these factors are outside the explicit legal order, they are certainly not outside the public and private life of power. It’s in these area that I would be inclined to place more weight.

    Finally: could I ask why you prefer not to identify as a feminist? I guess I’ve always seen ‘feminism’ as the name of a gender-antagonism which first and foremost concerns the status of women, but which is (therefore) entangled with all sorts of issues around men and masculinists. So, I’ve never been much moved by the backlash against the label ‘feminist’ as implying a laser-like focus on the status of women, or as implying a zero-sum trade-off (i.e. benefits for women = deficits for men). This is doubly so if you think of feminism as a modality of socialism (or vice versa). But maybe I’ve missed something in this respect.


    • Existential Elevator says:

      Thank you for your comment, I think you’ve raised some interesting and useful points.

      I do see the problem of the type-casting of women into roles because of their “soft skills” as particularly damaging, and we see this time and time again reinforced across all kinds of gender conditioning, from simple but trivial things like girl children playing with dolls, boy children playing with cars. I’m struggling to find the link to the exact study I’m after, but to illustrate the point with a tiny exert from “Gender Development” ( it is even embedded so deeply that parents will, in infancy, talk more to daughters and play more with sons. It is completely and utterly ingrained in a way that is so difficult to fix.

      The reason I focus on maternity and paternity law is that this would be, comparatively, so easy to fix.

      I am very much an action-oriented person when I see problems like this, and I want to know the most efficient way of causing the greatest effect. I genuinely believe that facilitating more men into caregiving roles by allowing greater flexibility during parental leave would have the biggest impact. It gives daughters aspirations and will help sons value the work of women. It means that there is a greater balance of the kinds of parenting children experience.

      I know that it won’t magically help female representation in traditionally low-participation areas, such as engineering. But you know what? If you’re a young girl and your dad is himself an engineer, but suddenly feels that society is more accepting of the male caregiver and feels able to adopt a 9:30 – 15:00 working day (like so many working mothers do) perhaps he will influence her schoolwork and interests more than if he were working the traditional 8:30 – 17:00 day while mum works part-time. I see so few men adopting these kinds of working patterns later on unless they are single parents, and honestly, I really believe facilitating that would make a massive difference. Importantly, it really isn’t an impossible change to facilitate.

      With regard to your last question, there are a number of reasons why I don’t feel comfortable identifying as a feminist, though I am happy to consider myself a “feminist ally” or to champion feminist concerns. I’m well aware of the can of worms that comes with wanting to distance yourself from certain groups of people. I’ve seen some very reprehensible things fall out of feminism in my time, one example I can give from recent experience is in relation to the rejection of transwomen as not being able to be “real” feminists. Overall, what I normally say when people ask me why I’m not a feminist is this: I believe in equality, and I do not think that you can champion equality while adopting the name of any one particular group among the set of groups which you wish to make equal. Names are important. I’m an egalitarian, not a feminist.

      • Tom says:

        The way I think about it, in conditions of female-male gender inequality, commitment to egalitarianism entails a commitment to feminism rather than precludes it.

        Some shitty transphobic currents exist within putatively radical feminism, but these are roundly opposed by the majority of feminists. Indeed, one could make a similar case against egalitarianism (e.g. the hijab ban in France).

        As you say, names are important, but that’s precisely why it is important to name the antagonism to be faced: the label ‘feminism’ recognises that women are disproportionately and systematically marginalised, denigrated and subject to illegitimate power. If there was ever a world in which that was no longer the case, perhaps feminism as a distinctive political project might justifiably wither away. But as it stands, I worry that a commitment merely to an abstract egalitarianism tends to be self-defeating by orienting thought and action away from a recognition of the concrete forms that inequality takes. It reminds me of a similar (but obviously much more pernicious) rhetorical move: namely, when people claim to be against ‘gay rights’ because gay people shouldn’t have any more rights than anyone else. In one sense this is true, but it seems to miss the point of organising a movement around the notion of ‘gay rights’.

      • Existential Elevator says:

        No, I completely agree, egalitarianism should champion feminist causes, and many other causes, too.

        My problem perhaps is that I don’t want to call myself “feminist” because I don’t feel that the oppression of women is the only oppression to be concerned with. I appreciate that I am likely to be projecting on to your comments some of the sorts of things I have discussed at length with other (male) feminists, whereby I have been told that I “must” consider myself feminist, and that “feminism” is the appropriate banner under which to champion the fights against ableism, racism, etc etc.* This is itself a position I strongly disagree with, and I am very happy to produce some coherent reasoning to help establish why this is the case. However, I’ve gone back and read what you’ve said again and have a feeling I’m seeing rabbits instead of ducks.

        So, to clarify:
        – I completely agree we need to be able to put a name to those movements which oppose oppression of all sorts and varieties
        – I am completely happy for people to wish to identify themselves as someone who champions that cause by adopting the name of that group
        – I am not comfortable with identifying myself as a feminist, though I am comfortable with championing feminist causes
        – This is because I want a wider word to sit under, which can acknowledge that I’m equally invested in understanding other kinds of oppression

        *Why yes, I’ve had many men mansplain to me why I don’t understand feminism and should be feminist. I’m waiting for the irony police to find them.

  2. […] As a final note on theory, I think a good slogan for the accelerationist approach to these issues, at least from my perspective, is NORMS NOT NORMALISATION. I won’t address how this applies to gender issues, but I will briefly show how it applies to mental health issues, which are closer to my own experience. If we are to deal with mental health problems (as so many other social problems), we cannot abandon the language of pathology, even if we must be vigilant in identifying how such language can become the stalking ground of implicit forms of oppression (as Foucault showed us). The crucial issues is to recognise that the norms of cognitive functioning in terms of which pathology is to be understood (as malfunctioning) have nothing to do with normality, or average behaviours. The words are unfortunately close here, but that at least makes for a good slogan. Everyone is neuro-atypical, but some people are cognitively pathological. We have to be able accept both of these facts, and that means being willing to identify norms of cognitive functioning that transcend questions of normality. I think this same strategy can be rolled out elsewhere, to include political problems of gender, race, and other modes of oppression (see Tanya Osborne). […]

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