My father’s hair had grown wild and unruly, and I told him, “You look like the mad Professor”, hoping for a smile from this working class guy from Buffalo turned local revolutionary hero. His strands of thin, white hair lingered in mid-air with nowhere to go, suspended in time and place, as his body recuperated from hip surgery that was probably a bad idea at age 94. Instead of feeling hopeful, he was despairing, wondering whether he had made the right decision, all the while trying to convince himself that he had. I couldn’t help but join him in this sentiment. I tried to be positive, reminding him that you can’t gauge improvement on a daily basis. It would take weeks, maybe months. But at his age, that’s playing with fire. Why the hell he insisted on having the surgery was beyond me. And why the hell his doctor didn’t say no just made me mad.
Over the years, I had become his make-shift hairdresser, a role that I relished. It was a way to connect with him in a contained window with a dollop of distance. For my atheist father, getting a haircut from me was a little like going to church, a solemn occasion filled with contemplation and calm. For me? I felt purposeful, able to help this man who had been such a stalwart support for so many years. The truth was that there was very little actual cutting of hair involved, but the ritual called for a slow pace and gentle hands. Using my scissors gingerly, I always started on the sides where the hairs were most prominent. The top hairs were next; they were sparse and the task of cutting was only a prelude to what would come later. I lingered at the back of his head because he knew it was almost over. And for the finale, I finished the job with an electronic razor to smooth it all out.
As I look back on this simple act of love, I relish in the peace I was able to bring to him. A firebrand in his day, he was losing steam, at times wondering if life was worth living. That was the hardest part for me. But this pure connection momentarily stripped away his cares and mine, and allowed us to be in the room together. When I stepped back to assess my work, I would always find wild hairs I missed. There is no perfection here. Only a work in progress. In the end, my father was quietly grateful. Not a man given to ‘thank you’s’, even in the best of times.
When I was in my early 20s, I spent a summer hitchhiking across America. I was with a good friend, Ingrid, who was ready for an adventure, and off we went with our forty-pound backpacks, starting in New York State and landing a few months later in California. Each driver who picked us up presented another set of wonders, as we listened with fascination to stories about their lives, and shared stories from our journey. One driver who picked us up in Kansas told us all about her research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which required that she travel across three states to visit research sites. A young person anxious to find a career, I was blown away with how cool that sounded, but we were nearly blown away when her tire exploded. Luckily – and luck was what you needed when you were hitchhiking – we were just pulling into a gas station. Unluckily, it was July 4th and the mechanics couldn’t fix the tire until the next day. We slept in the car that night inside a stuffy garage, which was offered to us as a safe haven.
When we were moving up the coast of California, a driver picked us up in a mobile home he was hired to transport. When we hopped in, we discovered two other hitchhikers, and soon found that both of them had just been released from a local prison. They had committed minor economic crimes, or so they said. Another ex-convict joined us along the way, and we all slept that night in the van. But something obviously went awry during the night, because we woke up the next morning to our driver speeding down the road and screaming at high volume to one of the women, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you!”.
Ingrid and I never found out what that bone was, but we mousily asked to be let off at the next rest stop because we said that was our destination. As he drove away, we hid behind a bush, waiting for him to leave, and then went back out on the road with our thumbs ready to find our next ride. He knew we were lying and drove around in a circle, finding us back out on the highway. We did not get back into his mobile home, and survived to tell the tale.
Hitchhiking in America was pretty standard fare for a sub-culture of counter-cultural Americans in the 70s. And two young women going on the road “alone” wasn’t considered outrageous, because we were caught in the tide of a rising second wave of the women’s movement where females could do (almost) anything. While we knew we were dancing with danger, we had youth on our side, and the sense that we could handle whatever we encountered. Later I took my travelling skills to a nearly year-long trip in Europe, and continued to welcome adventure along the way. Sometimes I think my sociological imagination was birthed on these trips.
Now I am a mother whose young adult daughter is travelling – not with her thumb – but with a bike and a girlfriend – through Europe. Unlike my travels which happened sans parental approval or even knowledge, I am in the know about this trip, thanks to a very different kind of parental-child relationship in this 21st century, and a smart phone that supports that. I am caught between experiencing vicarious thrills and experiencing terror, because I know that sometimes things can go very right and sometimes they can go very wrong.
They have been biking for over a month, and still, every morning when I wake up and look at the clock, I add six hours, and imagine what my daughter and her friend are up to. Are they on a beautiful, winding country road, biking next to sheep grazing on the side of the road? Or are they on a jagged, narrow road where cars are, at best, only nearly missing them? Have they encountered the kindness of strangers? Or have they experienced “near misses”?
Both of my trips were much less structured than my daughter’s. If I ever feared for my life during my hitchhiking trip across the U.S, it vanished the second we moved on to the next ride. Even when one of our drivers had a bayonette on his dashboard, I felt invincible and maintained my faith in the goodness of people. With my trip to Europe, which I had spent one whole year saving up for, I was part of a sub-culture of young travelers like myself, populating hostels, walking the streets with our oversized backpacks, and finding bargain meals to stretch out funds for as long as possible. My daughter and her friend are more like speedy turtles, carrying minimal clothing, a tent and other supplies on their bodies and bikes, as they follow roads through small villages and towns, and bike along the side of lakes and rivers.
When they get a flat on the side of the road, they are only more fully a part of the scenery, and even a conversation piece for the locals. They are couch-surfing, taking advantage of a miraculous network of people who offer their homes to strangers, supported by an on-line forum where people post their availability and travelers contact them. Former couch-surfers can review their experience so that prospective ones can evaluate their options. Couch surfers even evaluate the travelers too. My daughter told me that after they left their first couch surf home, their host posted that she and her friend were “like sisters and made me smile the whole time of their visit”. For the most part, life for them has been pretty darn good, even great.
Unlike with my trip, where I didn’t talk to my parents at all, my daughter and I talk every few days, thanks to Skype, and when there’s a problem, we talk more than once a day. Forty years ago, I didn’t want to talk to my parents, and maybe because it wasn’t an option, I didn’t miss it one iota. Now I can’t imagine being on my parents’ end of things, not knowing where I was or what I was doing for many months at a time. I am relieved that I can check in with my daughter, and that she has a blog page that narrates her travels with glorious pictures! I doubt that I did more than send my parents a few postcards. At the same time, just because I can stay in touch, the challenge is to not hover, because the reality is that if there is a problem, there is very little I can do from thousands of miles away, other than listen and maybe help them solve it themselves.
As our children grow up, I “get” that we need to let go, to allow them to spread their wings and learn from experiences, both good and bad. But it’s a scary world, and sometimes I’m just frightened. I’m not naïve about the potential dangers out there, but at the same time, for two young women to explore the world – especially from the vantage point of a bicycle – it is just incredible. Some friends have told me how cool I am to “let her go” on the trip; others tell me they would never have approved a trip like this. But I did. (Did I really have a choice?) And in good part, I did because my parents didn’t stop me from exploring, even though they had no idea what they should have protected me from.
I imagine that for the next few weeks – the amount of time remaining in this trip – I will calculate the time zone differences and imagine where they are in their journey. I will control the amount of contact I initiate, but will steadily follow their blog and Facebook posts. I know that the life lessons gleaned from this challenge will be more potent without mommy. And I will continue to be caught in this odd place between vicarious pleasure and terror.
Yesterday, I shared a long plane ride with a Japanese woman who was coming to the States to visit a friend. She patiently helped me try to track down an old Japanese friend via Google. Yes, there was WiFi on board; yes, Google in Japanese is very cool; and no, we were not successful in tracking her down! But more importantly, we talked about work and family issues, as she described the gendered division of labor in Japan. She is employed as a translator, but took a 10 year hiatus from her paid work – actually quit her job – to care for her son. This is typical, she said, among women “in her generation.” (After our conversation I calculated her age as around 43.)
In his book,The New Paradox for Japanese Women: Greater Choice, Greater inequality, Japanese economist Toshiaki Tachibanaki presents a gendered analysis of the Japanese economy. He reports that while Japanese women now have more choices in their careers than in earlier days when their education consisted of preparing them to be “good wives,” they now face job discrimination, sexual harassment and wage inequalities on the job. My new Japanese airplane friend commented that her husband wanted her to stay home with her son, telling her that it was the most important thing she could do. He, on the other hand, was working 12+ hour days. When I asked her if he was “able to” spend time “at home,” she winced and said that he did play with their son sometimes, but didn’t do any housework or cooking.
She was surprised to hear that over 75% of American mothers of school-age children work for pay. In Japan, nearly half of all women work in the labor force, but Japanese women earn less than half of what men earn. So it’s no surprise that women take on the brunt of the caregiving responsibilities, simply from an economic perspective. By the way, the gender wage gap in the US also is a significant problem, particularly for mothers, albeit less stark than in Japan.
She also described the dissolution of the extended family in which multiple generations lived together. Without a grandparent to do childcare, women in Japan have a harder time sustaining full time employment.
While we didn’t dive into a discussion of childcare policy in Japan, her observation got me thinking about the meaning of community and the gendered division of labor during my childhood years in the 50s. The 1950s in the U.S. are portrayed much like my Japanese friend’s description of contemporary Japanese culture, with the general assumption that mothers’ most important work was to stay at home with their children.
But what did staying at home actually mean in 1950s America? I know from personal experience, as a child of the 50s, I spent hours playing on the street with my friends. Whether it was kickball, dodgeball, relay or two-person races, or making up plays, we kept each other busy (on the street, as opposed to off the streets!). When I wasn’t in school or hanging out with my buddies on the street, I was taking dance classes or piano lessons. And when I wasn’t in school, on the street or at a lesson, I was firmly planted in front of our black-and-white TV, watching “traditional family life” in shows like Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Ozzie and Harriet. While my mother was a “stay-at-home” mom, like the majority of middle-class mothers in that era, she and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time together because, frankly, I had other fish to fry!
Despite the glorification of family life in 1950s America, believe it or not, mothers today spend about the SAME amount of time as the 50s and 60s moms who did not work outside of the home! Family sociologist Suzanne Bianchi found that while the number of children with mothers in the paid labor force has gone up considerably between 1965 and 2000, there has actually been a slight INCREASE in the amount of time moms are spending with their children over these years now – from 10.6 hours per week in 1965 to 12.9 hours per week in 2000. Contemporary dads also spend a little more time with their kids these days, from 2.6 hours per week in 1965 to 6.5 hours per week in 2000.
So what’s the deal? Well it looks like a number of factors have converged to create this new reality, even though mothers and fathers spend a lot of time at their paid jobs. First of all, the work of the “at-home” mother has been greatly altered by technology and fast food. Meal preparation – especially when it comes from a takeout joint, comes out of a package, or pops out of the microwave oven – takes less time. Mothers are also spending less time cleaning the house, compared to a few decades ago. Dust bunnies prevail! And actually, fathers never spent a whole lot of time cleaning the house anyway, so no big change there.
But equally important, the notion of good parenting has shifted over the years from more hands-off to more intensive, involved parenting. From playing classical music to your in-utero fetus to knowing all your kids’ teachers to coaching her Little League team to texting daily with college age kids, the contemporary notion of “good parenting” has been redefined as engaged parenting. Based on the research, it seems that mothers who work outside the home want to “protect” the amount of time they have with their children; ergo, spend as much time with them as possible.
In her study of nurses who work night shifts, Anita Garey found these women chose night hours so they could maintain the notion of the “ideal mother” who was available to meet during the day with her child’s teachers, bake for the bake sales, and show up at school events. All this came at a cost: sleep and personal care. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild called this phenomenon the “time famine.” Bianchi argues that the increase of mothers in the paid labor force, at least in two-parent families, has shifted some of the caregiving responsibility to fathers, commenting,
“Perhaps most controversial, women’s reallocation of their time probably has changed men. The increase in women’s market work has facilitated the increase in women’s involvement in child-rearing, at least within marriage.”
Clearly, the economy is the driver in the U.S. and other parts of the world, creating an imperative for women to participate in the paid labor force. But women, like men, derive meaning from paid work, and the women’s movement of the 1970s – while rarely mentioned these days – had a powerful impact on women’s sense of entitlement in the workforce.
While we are not battling the level of tradition that exists within Japanese culture, we have a long way to go to achieve equity, particularly for mothers in the paid labor force.
To achieve real equity in the labor force, we need concrete changes in government policies that promote and protect wage equity for women, and protect against gender- and parent-based job discrimination. We need a paid parental leave policy, and support for shorter work hours so that parents of young children can choose to gradually return to full employment after taking a parental leave from the jobs. We need universal child care so that all young children have access to high-quality early education and care, and not just those in families that can afford it. And we need universal health care, so that workers are not reliant on a job for their health insurance. That’s too dangerous in this economic climate, and even with employer-based insurance, there is too much variability in the type of care provided.
Tall order? Maybe, but we need a comprehensive set of solutions to achieve “good parenting” in this age of work-family imbalance.
When I first visited my father’s assisted living facility, some guy shuffled up to me and asked, “Am I going to dinner or lunch?” I managed to reply as if it were the most normal question in the world, but felt like I had landed in the Twilight Zone. Over the past year, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing just about anything that anyone says. For example, over dinner this guy I really like, Harry, whispers to me in a conspiratorial tone, “How old is your father?” I tell him, for the umpteenth billion time, that he is 97-years-old. And as if this is the first time he’s heard this news, he responds with shock, telling me that my father looks so young! Harry tells me he’s 90 and then turns to his girlfriend, Millie, who is only 80, and says, “Isn’t that right?” She replies patiently, “Yes.”
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of weekends with my father, as his health is rapidly declining. Despite the fact that he’s officially in home hospice, he is enjoying lunch and dinner visits with friends, and he goes to exercise class every day at the facility. On Sunday, he was too tired to go and as he was contemplating what to do, admitted that he felt guilty for not going. He’s not even Catholic!
I started looking forward to joining him at his morning weight exercise class, where a young and very perky teacher gets things rolling with balloon volleyball, a “game” I associate with young children. It’s pretty straightforward. She stands in the middle of the circle of residents who are all seated in their chairs or wheelchairs, and she flips the ball around the room, making sure everyone has a turn. Some are very cautious with the balloon; others give it a big whack and laugh out loud.
I’m amazed at how long folks enjoy playing this game. Even though the class is called weight exercise, this weightless balloon game constitutes about three quarters of the class. I get into it, mixing up my “moves” with actual hard punches and an occasional soccer head hit, which is entertaining for this crowd. Later in the dining hall, I see some of my volleyball team and we have a special connection.
For a moment, I imagine what it would be like if I actually lived here. And then I realize that by the time I had to live there, I probably would have some fairly significant things missing, like my ability to move freely and maybe even my mind.
Of course, all of this fun and games is punctuated by an undercurrent of failing health, as residents notice who is not showing up at bingo or as someone is rushed out of the building on a stretcher. Harry often asks me how my father is doing, calling him “Mack” even though that’s not his name. His girlfriend reminds him, with a touch of annoyance sprinkled with humor. He says to me hopefully, “Mack looks really good, just the same as when he first moved in, doesn’t he?” The fact is that “Mack” isn’t doing too well at all, but I don’t have the heart to tell Harry.
I feel grateful that we found a place where the staff are kind and mostly competent, and the residents aren’t all out-of-it. My father first moved in after a serious fall and it was evident that he could no longer live independently. He was willing to move, but angry just the same, and at times, said he had to get out of there. He felt alienated. These weren’t “his” people. He assumed they weren’t into what he was into, like theater, literature and politics. He certainly wasn’t a bingo kind of guy, either, which is one of the big pastimes in that place. But over the year, he has succumbed to “gambling”, as he calls it, and takes pleasure in being in the company of others. Happy hours – which include cocktails like Margaritas served in little paper cups- seem to tickle his fancy.
It’s harder for him to follow conversations, and there’s no point in bringing him to the theater now, because he is now legally blind, and anyway, he’d have trouble following the action and would end up sleeping through the whole thing. Not to mention that getting there and back would be very hard.
How do we want to live the “end-stage” of our lives? The research says that a critical factor that keeps people going – no surprise – is engagement in meaningful activities. Another important thing that keeps us alive is giving to others. The bottom line is that we all need to feel that our lives have meaning, that were contributing to society, more broadly, or to our friends and loved ones at a personal level. We all want a life well-lived.
But how do we maintain engagement? Perhaps we need to ask: What are we doing now in our lives that will sustain our sense of engagement? What kind of networks will we still have if and when we live long? How do we maintain a network of younger friends? Because chances are, all or most of our contemporaries will be gone if we live very long. And what about housing? My father lived on his own until he was in his mid-90s, resisting our efforts to consider safer options. We could never imagine him in an institutional setting, but we’re lucky that he can afford a decent assisted living facility and extra care, as needed. But what about the thousands of elders who don’t have the resources to live this end-stage of their lives surrounded, as he is, with dignity and love?
I leave my weekends with my father feeling exhausted but glad I was there with him. And I can’t help but wonder whether I’ll live to his age or older, and if I do, what kind of options will be available for the old woman I become.
A sociologist buddy of mine just told me that she may be using my book on parental leave in a new class she’s teaching (Taking Time: Parental Leave Policy and Corporate Culture). While I should be overjoyed, I am not. Why? Because the book is 12 years old and it’s sadly as relevant today as it was twelve years ago!
Taking Time is based on an ethnographic study. In other words, I went native and hung out for a year in a financial services corporation I called Premium, Inc., studying its corporate culture. I wanted to understand how the culture of the workplace affected employees’ attitudes towards the company’s generous parental leave policy and ultimately, who used it.
I happened to be doing this study right after the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA.), which was the first bill President Clinton signed in 1993. The bill mandates employers to allow their workers – women and men – to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to parent their newly arrived baby (biological or adoptive). This federal policy provided basic rights to Premium employees, in addition to the company’s own parental leave policy.
To my dismay, I found a strange and insidious blend of economics and culture that seriously undercut the use of parental leave policy at Premium. Of the 143 parental leave takers I interviewed, 140 were women and 3 were men! Women in high-level positions barely took leaves. In fact, only two female vice presidents took five weeks; the three senior female managers took five, nine and 10 weeks respectively. As one female senior manager said,
“Old-time management in the company still has an old mind-set about about women and work and family…The women who generally get to the higher top are the women who don’t have the children. You have to sacrifice something to get there.” Not a single male senior manager took a parenting leave. Instead, new fathers tended to take 2-week vacations after the arrival of their new baby. One male manager I interviewed told me,
“It was simple economics. I was going to work full-time and (my wife) was going to work part-time. We joke about her job being a hobby because she’s hardly covering the cost of daycare.”
Most men facing new parenthood didn’t even consider taking time away from their jobs to parent a newly arrived infant, because they were worried their careers would suffer. For them, the cultural norms of the workplace mitigated against taking time to do what is still considered “women’s work”. Simply put, for both high-level female and male managers, babies and briefcases didn’t go together. This cultural norm trickled down to the organizational culture…
The largest group of workers who used the leave policy were women in non-management positions. Professional non-management women took an average of 10 weeks leave, two weeks less than the 12 weeks allowed by the FMLA! And nonprofessional women – women who earned less than those in professional positions – took an average of 8 weeks, with half taking 7 weeks or less. These women simply couldn’t afford to take longer leaves. Unless they had family lining up to care for their babies, much of their time was spent worrying about setting up quality, affordable childcare. This short leave-time falls far short of the six-month leave that T. Berry Brazelton, child development expert, recommends to support parent-child bonding.
In a 2009 study of current leave-taking practices, researchers found a a similar picture. There has been a very small increase in the amount of leave-time taken in the birth month (5.4%) by “highly educated and married mothers” and an increase of 13% in the next two months (Han, Ruhm and Waldfogel, 2009). Single mothers, on the other hand, are less able to afford unpaid leave. And fathers continue to take extremely short leaves or none at all. This data confirms what I found in my study 12 years ago: that uppaid leave policy discriminates against those at the lower rungs of the income ladder who cannot afford to take longer leaves. With the absence of a mechanism to replace workers’ wages during the leave period, non-management female employees shorten their leaves; management employees take short leaves; and men don’t take parental leaves at all.
While lower paid workers would be the most obvious beneficiaries of paid leave, in fact, ALL employees would benefit from such a policy. The U.S. is the only wealthy nation in the world that does not offer parental leave, according to political scientist Janet Gornick, who conducted a cross- national study of parental leave policies.
“The United States has the least generous parental leave policies of all 21 economies compared in the study. We pay a high price for our meager policy, because parental leave improves the health and well-being of children and their parents, and paid leaves provide families with crucial economic support at such an important time.”
Gornick and her colleagues report that European countries, led by Finland, Norway and Sweden, rank far ahead of the United States in providing guaranteed parental leave, with Sweden ranking highest for gender equality and parental leave practices. Germany also offers a generous paid leave policy, and four countries show high levels of both generosity and gender equality: three Nordic countries (Finland, Norway and Sweden), and Greece.
We have a long way to go in the U.S.! California finally passed paid parental leave legislation in 2002, and the U.S. military even offers paid leave to its members. But a recent effort to extend paid leave to civilian employees got stuck in the Senate. And other initiatives to create paid leave through “baby unemployment insurance” – in which some small portion of the state unemployment insurance fund would go towards a paid leave fund – has hit a wall, given high employment rates.
Nonetheless, the issue will not go away for the thousands of mothers and fathers around this nation who want to spend more time with their babies. It may seem counterintuitive to push for paid parental leave in this economic crisis, especially as people are being laid off from their jobs. You might argue that laid-off workers have more time to hang out with their kids anyway. And besides, why would employers want to add incentives for their existing labor force to take time away from the job? But those laid-off workers will return to the workforce when the economy improves, and those employers should care about creating humane work environments that don’t burn out their workers. And why shouldn’t we join the rest of the Western industrialized world in providing social policies that support mothers and fathers in the workplace?
Without a federal policy that provides the foundation of support for leavetaking, I fear that we will continue to see the patterns of leave-taking I found in my study twelve years ago. And that’s just not fair.
Meanwhile, my sociologist buddy asked if I could come to her class to talk about my book. I wish it were old news…
This is a picture of me and my mother. You’d never know from looking at the expression on her face that she hated being a “homemaker”. In fact, she looked pretty happy hanging out with me, even if we were washing dishes! In her younger years, prior to the birth of her two daughters, she wrote sultry torch songs and had her own radio show. Later, she studied painting and then continued to paint portraits until her final days. When I was a teenager, she exhibited her paintings every year in an outdoor art festival, near a studio she rented in what was considered the bohemian part of Buffalo, New York, my home town. Despite being an adolescent, this was the one and only weekend – every year – that I thought my mother was really cool.
Here is one of her watercolors that I still really love. Middle-class women of my mother’s generation – caught between the suffragettes of the early twentieth century and the second wave of the women’s movement of the 1970s – did not have an organized “sisterhood” of women supporting them to step out of the kitchen. As an artist, my mother was passionate about her work, but it was never considered a career, nor did it generate much income, even though she taught painting and sold commissioned portraits. In fact, in her era of young motherhood – the 40s and 50s – single middle-class women who worked for pay were expected to leave their jobs once they were married. As we know now, the independence of women is often tied to their earning capacity, and not being considered a professional was hard on her. This phenomenon was eventually coined the “problem without a name” by Betty Friedan.
My mother’s favorite artist, Mary Cassatt, is quoted as saying:
“There’s only one thing in life for a woman; it’s to be a mother…A woman artist must be…capable of making primary sacrifices.”
How ironic, given that Cassatt never married, nor did she have children; and for many years she painted portraits of mothers and children!
Reflecting the schizophrenic existence of a strong-willed woman of that era, Cassatt also said,
“I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work!”
Even though her family objected to her becoming a professional artist, Cassatt began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia – where my mother also studied art for one year. I never spoke to mymother about why she left, but Cassatt also left after one year, complaining that “there was no teaching” at the Academy. Unlike male students, females couldn’t use live models. This is likely just one of the inequities she encountered there. When she left, Cassatt moved to Paris. When my mother left, she moved back to Buffalo, New York…
My mother’s life was one of sacrifices, like so many women of her generation. The arts were a place for talented and creative women for whom other professional careers were closed. Maybe it was a vestige of the Victorian era when it was considered proper for upper-class girls and women to “dabble” in the arts. To be considered a serious artist was another thing though. And my mother always struggled to be considered a professional. It irked her when the realists or even the abstract expressionists – always male – won the competitions she entered. She intuitively understood that there was gender bias, but the proof was invisible. To be an artist means expressing oneself – putting one’s vision into the universe to challenge and inspire or simply to portray beauty. In an era where women’s voices were not heard, being a woman artist was revolutionary.
In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin published an article called “Why are there no great women artists?”, in which she identified a number of institutional barriers that explain why women artists had historically been on the periphery and not considered real artists. For example, in the 19th century, women couldn’t join the the painters guild; they were barred from official art schools; and they were not allowed to attend nude drawing classes. In a film about women artists called “Who does she think she is? – produced by Pamela Tanner Boll (who also produced Born into Brothels) – artists reflect on the challenges they face balancing their work and family demands.
They talk about how they’re not taken seriously precisely because they’re women. In fact, while 80% of students in visual arts schools are women, “in the real world,” 70-80% of artists whose works are shown in galleries and museums are male.
In an article in the New York Times, Marci Alboher says these statistics “sound alarmingly like the numbers released by organizations that track the presence of women in the highest echelons of professions like law, journalism, engineering or finance.” The women artists in the film also argue that they are dissuaded from focusing their art on the subject of mothers and children, because it is not considered “real” material. Both artist and subject are devalued…
Outside the art world, says Alboher, people rarely discuss the challenges faced by women artists “moving up the ranks.” This has a lot to do with the fact that women are still considered primary caregivers in this society. Despite the large percentage of mothers in the labor force, we are still defined primarily by our capacity to bear children. Most workplaces do not accommodate the need for work-life balance for their employees, be they women or men.
As a teenager, I was often frustrated by my mother’s lack of confidence in her work. I wanted her to be a strong role model in many ways, someone who followed her passion and knew she had talent as an artist. But now I have an increased understanding of the effects of working in isolation, in a society that didn’t value the work of women artists, and in the microcosm of that society, in a family that expected her to have dinner on the table every night. (No wonder she hated to cook!)
I love the comment by Georgia O’Keefe who once said,
“I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking the time to look at it. I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
It takes guts to think that your painting will stop New Yorkers in their tracks! But while guts are good, women’s voices need to be valued; the balance of caregiving must be shared; workplaces need to accommodate the work-life balance needs of parents; and social policy must broaden to include paid parental leave and universal, free early care and education.
According to a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts report called “Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005”, women artists are as likely to marry as women workers in general, but… they are less likely to have children! Only 29% of women artists had children under 18, almost six percentage points lower than for women workers in general. So like Cassatt, it appears that many contemporary women artists have decided to avoid the social institution of motherhood.
The incredible Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, once said, “Painting completed my life.” I think my mother felt the same way, even though she never achieved traditional “success” as a painter…