Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Woman Problem, Part Two

I’m still super riled up over Elizabeth Wurtzel’s screed in the Atlantic (based on a much more nuanced Atlantic article by Anne-Marie Slaughter) against unpaid labor. She thinks she’s writing a screed against rich lazy housewives but, really, she’s misunderstanding some basic economics. You can read my initial thoughts on Earning My Keep here, where I defend the role of unpaid work in our economy. More thoughts:

I hate Wurtzel’s silly straw man of the pampered, Chanel-wearing, pedicured princess. The one percent wives who don’t have paid jobs and out-source their household and child care duties to nannies and so forth. Notwithstanding the fact that at least these women are provding jobs (ie supporting the economy with their ‘non-work’!), it’s disingenuous to focus on these quasi-mythical unicorn ladies who are apparently such an enormous drag on the wellbeing of every other woman on earth. How sexist, because in the midst of her foolish claims that lazy-ass women are making men think we’re all dumb, she conveniently has nothing — nothing –  to say about the lazy-ass one percent men. What about men who ‘stay home’ with their kids while the wife works for pay? She punts on that question but I’m guessing she would say it’s different because men are in a position of social power and, therfore, can afford to tolerate a few losers whereas “real” women (ie her brand of feminist) have to hold the world up on shoulders of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s choosing…

If she wants to get all populist on us, fine. But why not point the finger at phenomenally wealthy men who are cashing in early so they can train full-time for Iron Man races and cage-dive with sharks in the southern hemisphere? Why not? Because it’s a smug, stupid critique; no one cares; and that small percentage of lucky men has no real bearing on the reality of most people.

I also found her view of relationships incredibly depressing: static, mean-spirited, and non-reality-based. It’s not only that she denies the interdependence of human partnerships – the fact that some wage earners also benefit, economically, as well as emotionally, from a more traditional configuration of labor, or the fact that many of these educated wives move in and out of paid work when the time is right. She claims it’s only the one percent in large urban financial centers who can “afford” to live this way. Not true: there are plenty of working class women for whom paid work is a total dead end, financially, and for whom child care and being “at home” represents the more rational work choice than cleaning toilets in a hotel or working in a factory.

And she’s writing about educated, well-off women who actually have the lowest divorce rates in decades!  Doesn’t something appear to be ‘working’ at least a little bit in those marriages? Since she has eschewed marriage herself, maybe she could lighten up on her attacks against women who have found a different way to square the circle.

Wurtzel also hauls out the claim that  “working” (by that, I mean paid) mothers spend nearly as much time with their kids as “non-working” mothers. I’m not sure I believe that statistic – having sampled the full range of mother/work statuses myself; however, even allowing for this ‘truth,’ she seems to live in a world where the sum of the parts is equal to the whole, where each individual nuclear family does exactly enough to keep itself going and little more. What about all the unpaid/underpaid work that glues communities together? She dismisses unpaid work as “the rest of life” as if anything outside the immediate drudgery or self-interest of cleaning and diapering and playing catch with your kid is just non-existent and meaningless.

Speaking of which, she also conveniently omits the incredible gendering of elder care. Our society hasn’t figured out how to manage this problem, and it’s women, thank you, who are adjusting their work lives, or forgoing paid labor entirely, to care for dependent elders.

Oh, I could go on and on. But I’m so irritated that I’m irritated. I’m irritated that the Atlantic is staying afloat publishing provocative ‘work’ (sic) seemingly designed to make women hate each other. This is, like, the 97th “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?” article and I’m damned annoyed that men get to stand by and watch these cat fights, doing nothing to ‘further the conversation,’ as they say. It’s not that I don’t like a lot of the writing in the Atlantic. Sandra Tsing Loh is generally very good and her “Daddy Issues” almost made me wet my pants; even that wacked-out scold, Catlin Flanagan, sometimes has a few interesting things to say about teenage girls. But I always feel a little dirty after reading the latest house-on-fire story about gender. I’m feeling played.

So on that conflicted note, I’m off to enjoy the unpaid labor of finishing off last night’s angel food cake!

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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2 Responses to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Woman Problem, Part Two

  1. Margaret says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Erika–esp. your observation of gaining readership by promoting ‘cat fights’. I’ve played both roles: the economic dependent, e.g. caring for children and household and community stuff, and the independent pay-my-own-way career woman. Pluses and minuses to both; both necessary; both rewarding and boring at times. But have to agree with Slaughter that the work place should change and value work produced and not just hours in the office, making balance a little easier to obtain.

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