13 April 2006

Working Girls: sister thesis sells us short

In 'Sister' Thesis Sells Us Short (TO Star, Apr 8, 2006), Jennifer Wells comments on Professor Alison Wolf's article Working Girls (Prospect, Apr issue, 2006.) Briefly mentioning the first point Professor Wolf makes in her article, Jennifer Wells reiterates the generally-known fact that women never were viewed as a homogenous group under feminism, turning to the unspoken notion of the goal of equality between the sexes, one must assume, to uphold her point. But, as Wolf claims, at one time women did have a more-or-less shared experience of life-as second-class citizens-and in that sense would have shared a sisterhood. In today's world, however, the lived experience of an increasing number of women is very different than the second-class experience, and different from the way most women once lived.

The emphasis in Wells's response is on female altruism, which Wolf sees as currently in decline. Many women of earlier eras really did see their lives in the service of others as vocations, as the natural order of things or because of their religious values. Any notion that they were second-class citizens may not have even entered their minds. Feminists have often complained that men were androcentric in their views of women's lives; in the same way, women of today might well have difficulty understanding the lives of women who came before, or of women unlike themselves. But this is the way it was, for many women, and for some, still is.

Working women's concerns in today's world often ends at the immediate family, as Wells herself has noticed, others outside of that small sphere being out of their realm of responsibility and altruism as working women - independent, with families. On this issue I think Wolf is for the most part right; female altruism has changed. In a society that claims to value individualism, and in which religious values are in decline, what seems to matter most is no longer one's neighbours or even one's country, or doing the right thing, but putting the family first.

Wells has yet to come to see how the idea of work has affected our lives, as women, in recent decades. Work - especially paid work - is a major source of a person's identity. It always was, for men, and feminism has made it so for women, in fact, has practically made it a requirement for women. Wells is critical of Wolf, seeing work not as self-actualisation but as "busyness," a slight on the very real power that having a career has on a person's ability to speak and be heard, to be granted recognition, and have one's views validated. Self-actualisation, in a way, is being able to put into practice what one believes is best. For many women, work is simply "busyness," but it may be that they are not working in the field that suits them best.

Wells raises one final point, though not on Wolf's third point, a concern with women's growing disincentives to bear children. Wells tells us that women talk about wanting to give back in some way, when they are older. But after years of proving themselves on the job, is volunteering really what the majority of working women of today will want to do in their later years? Even on that front there is competition. And ageism is another factor. Sometimes when individuals appear to have withdrawn it is in part due to being pushed.

For women who have chosen to pursue a career, and who find recognition and a certain sense of fulfilment through doing so, there may be benefits for themselves and their families, whether chosen or blood-related. But I'm not sure that society on the whole will benefit. It may be that some women have chosen work and family, and will stand to benefit, but at what cost to society, never mind the sisterhood? Women, and men, whose life experience falls outside of the ideal of having it all, may be left with less, or even nothing. In the long term, if there are greater benefits for some women and men, more than likely there will be greater losses for others.

`Sister' thesis sells us short
By Jennifer Wells
Toronto Star
Apr 8, 2006

Working girls
By Alison Wolf
Prospect magazine
April, 2006 — Issue 121 (now listed as Apr 23, 2006)

Added Apr 18, 2012

Blame the neoliberals – a reply to Alison Wolf
By Rosemary Crompton
Prospect magazine
May 20, 2006 — Issue 122


Response to Wells on Wolf (short version of blog entry)
By Sue McPherson
Submitted to TO Star
Apr 13, 2006

Sisterhood reborn - a reply to Alison Wolf
By Pat Thane
Prospect magazine
May 20, 2006 — Issue 122


Links updated Apr 18, 2012