Men, women and retro recession politics

A writer asks whether we should celebrate the shifting workplace.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published February 24, 2009 11:19AM (EST)

It's looking like mama's got a brand-new role: the breadwinner. The recession is booting men out of the office and into the home and, any minute now, women will actually outnumber men in the workplace. Some hope this is the silver lining to our dark economic cloud: Maybe the gender divide will dissolve, stay-at-home dads will conquer the kitchen and laundry detergent will be marketed to both sexes! Could it be that the financial crisis is accidentally ... feminist?

Sorry, but no, says Emily Bazelon in an article for Slate. This recent rebalancing of the work world's gender scales has been forced, not chosen. "Rosie the Riveter was also born of necessity during World War II -- and when the war was over, she had to go home and stay there," Bazelon writes. Feminism is about actively bringing about social change, not looting through the rubble of a national disaster. As Bazelon puts it: "This seems like a really risky way to get where feminists want to go." Not to mention, do we really want women to rise at the expense of men? (I wish it could go unstated, but the answer is: No.)

Also, this rebalancing isn't what it first appears: Women have better escaped the wrath of the recession largely because they pull in smaller salaries and work in fields that are less vulnerable to economic turmoil; the financial collapse is hardly sending women crashing through the glass ceiling.

With that silliness debunked, Bazelon turns to the legions of unemployed husbands and fathers and asks: Will they actually help out at home? She imagines men sending out their résumés or sitting "around staring into their coffee dregs. (In my mind's eye, I confess, they're not so quick to wash their mugs.)" Hence, the article's headline: "Unwashed Coffee Mugs." She writes:

Men who are depressed about staying home don't seem like great prospects for resolving the famous conflict of the second shift -- the familiar dynamic in which the woman in a two-career couple does most of the chores and the child care on either end of the working day. And indeed, the latest time-use data show that men don't do more child care than they did before ... they lose their jobs. Instead, "they spend more time sleeping, watching TV, and looking for a job."

(As might a recently laid-off woman, I would add.) Later, she says: "That leaves me to imagine a family with a husband rattling around the house, unemployed and unsettled about it, while his wife keeps working but brings home a paycheck that's less than half the income the two of them used to make together." In a similar vein, a New York Times trend piece from January described sacked Wall Street men who "sit on the couch all day, holding the remote and watching TV, unable to step up and take over some of the household tasks and chores associated with raising the kids," while their wives are off at work. It was a picture of wealthy families with rigid and traditional gender roles; after losing their role as provider, the men were without any direction or purpose.

With economic recovery seeming farther away every day, I'd bet this domestic debate will explode any minute now -- and, truthfully, it makes me nervous. On the one hand, the laid-off dad who refuses to help at all domestically seems a good example of why feminists shouldn't expect the recession to bring any real social change (or, at least, the kind we want). It won't revolutionize strictly traditional families; women who were doing the second shift before will keep on doing it. On the other hand, there are many laid-off men who will ultimately take perfectly well to the second shift and much of the speculation about the loads of "unwashed coffee mugs" and such that will be left in jobless men's wakes reads to me as sexist.

After all, I'd leave quite a few things unwashed -- dishes, clothes and sheets -- after being laid off, and I'm a lady.

Tracy Clark-Flory

MORE FROM Tracy Clark-FloryFOLLOW TracyClarkFloryLIKE Tracy Clark-Flory

Related Topics ------------------------------------------