Sunday, March 26, 2006

Why Women Lawyers Quit Their Jobs and Feminism is still Necessary

A Forum I am on is chatting about whether feminism has outlived its usefulness and what we should think about women who give up careers to stay home with their kids. Some of my thoughts:

Many "career" jobs require two people to be done properly--one to concentrate on the job itself and one to provide for the needs of that worker. Take law. A law firm needs lawyers who are born, reared, educated, fed and clothed, and who receive enough emotional support at home to tolerate the mindlessness or stress of work. But the employer pays only for the lawyer's work. Traditionally, the rest is handled by wives without compensation or even recognition that their labor is benefitting the husband's firm. Career women seldom have wives or wife-equivalents (at my law firm, the two most "successful" women partners had unemployed stay-at-home husbands). Without a wife, it is extremely difficult to succeed in a professional career and impossible to do so and also maintain a full family life. Women who try to do both tend to fall behind their male colleagues--either they work for enlightened and benevolent firms who accommodate their needs with part-time arrangements or mommy tracks that slow their career progress or they work for inflexible employers and lose professional ground through their inability to travel at the drop of a hat, entertain in their own homes, devote long hours to rain-making community events and charities, etc.

If a career woman is married to a career man, his ability to perform and advance is also hindered by his lack of a traditional "wife", but except in the most unusual case not as badly as hers. For one thing, even the most cooperative husband can't give birth or nurse. For another, employers who are barely capable of understanding why a woman might have to take time from work for domestic tasks don't tolerate a man having the same "problem" so more of the domestic duties fall to the career woman than the career man. She loses more ground and her career seems stalled and unsatisfying. She sees her family and career conflicting with each other and feels torn; he sees her job holding him back (relative to his colleagues with wives) and feels pissed. He can make more money than she can, enough to support them both. She takes a year off and never goes back. Her male collegues say she burnt out and tell each other privately that women aren't cut out to be lawyers.

My point is that it takes the cooperation of two people to handle one family and one high-status job. It is insane to expect the same job to be done in the same way by one person without assistance. When women try to work these jobs without wives and don't "succeed" to the same level as men, it is wrong to think there is something wrong with the woman. There is something wrong with the job.

I'm a feminist. But half the time when people ask if I am a feminist, I say "no, I'm a communist." Sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. are all ways of dividing people with a common interest in justice from each other. All of us are exploited to favor a minute wealthy white male sliver of the world's population. In the US, the only oppressed group with the potential to overthrow this exploitative economic structure is white males--women will always devote a certain amount of time and attention to child-rearing and no other group is large enough. As the result of sexism, racism, etc., ordinary white American males identify with the corporate ruling class (which I'm sure the corporate ruling class regards as a huge joke). The white male masses still think they can be rich if they are smart enough and work hard enough, like those guys just like them at the top of the food chain.

The ratio of women's wages to men's in the US has risen, but I doubt that much of the change reflects progress. The majority of employers have ceased paying anybody enough to support a family on one income. Men will now work for less (in real dollars, much less) and because the adult women in their families are also expected to work so it is still possible to make ends meet. This is in part a response to the threat that jobs will move abroad where labor is cheaper. The oppressed group has simply changed.

Women are still horribly oppressed around the world and we do little about it because they are foreign. Some very important but invisible and (I would say) immoral line divides women and people we need to be concerned about from those who aren't our problem. The we/they line, whether it is between genders, nationalities, religions, races or what have you, always serves to strengthen exploitation all round. All discrimination has to be addressed at once, and seen for what it is: discrimination in favor of a small privileged clique, or any improvement for one downtrodden group will always be at the expense of another.


CRT Law Mama said...

great post. thanks for coming by the CRT blog I started. look forward to hearing more of what you have to say. as soon as I get a free moment, I will link up to you as well.

Moi said...

Great post. I agree 100% and post about this issue frequently on my own blog (in fact, it's the primary focus of my blog). I'm continually frustrated by the underhanded sexism inherent in the legal field (along with other professional fields)--especially in law firms.

Moni the Reviewer said...

I totally agree with your post. It makes me a little sad because I am thinking of getting into the field of law, but I also want kids and I know how maternally-challenged the workforce in this country is. It's ridiculous! I may just go to Sweden or something. >< You sound like an interesting woman. I shall come back and check out your blog. If you are into movies, music or books you should check out my new blog at

Pvblivs said...

I will believe that women are oppressed when women make up the majority of the homeless, the majority of the prison population and the majority of workplace deaths. The reality is that women are not oppressed. They never have been. The indicators of oppression are homelessness rates, incarceration rates, having to take dangerous, unpleasant, low-paying jobs. Feminists see such burdens as men's responsibility -- always have and always will. But they see that, despite all that, a limited few (the 1 percent) have managed to get some perks. And feminists think that women should get those perks for free without any of the associated male burdens. And that is why feminism is not needed now and has never been needed.

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