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Labor Day: The Hard Work of Mothering

A slightly different version of the following was originally posted on Dirty Laundry on Mothers Day 2008. Some of the statistics are out-of-date, which most likely only makes them more alarming.

cartoon mothers w: kidsAs the media does every so often, CNN recently reported the latest calculation of what mothers would earn if they were actually paid, in cold hard cash, for their labor. That number would fall somewhere between $117K and $149K per year, a figure arrived at by estimating the average hourly wage for the various tasks involved in mothering: cooking, nursing, chauffeuring, etcetera. Of course, this “news” was delivered by two giggling anchors: they didn’t take it seriously, or expect their audience to either.

Mother’s work is, so received wisdom goes, performed purely for love, and the notion of financial remuneration is simply hilarious.

Never mind that we pay nannies, nurses, housekeepers, day care providers, even the teenager next door for babysitting. And never mind all those studies proving, pretty definitively by now, that women lose income over the course of a lifetime when they spend years mothering. Or that they’re sometimes left to fend for themselves during hubby’s midlife crisis, if not sooner. We seem, as a society, to be terrified of this issue. We seem to think that if mothers were paid for their work, the family as an institution would crumble.

Back in the 1970s the International Wages for Housework Campaign, a network of women in Third World and industrialized countries, formulated a list of ambitious demands “for the unwaged work that women do to be recognized as work in official government statistics, and for this work to be paid.” More active in Australia and England than in the U.S., the movement never went anywhere, and today it’s all but dead: an Internet search dug up articles that were either decades old, or in fringe publications promoting social anarchy.

In 1990 the International Labor Organization estimated that women do two-thirds of the world’s work for 5% of its income. In 1995 the UN Development Programme’s Human Moneyhouse$$Development Report announced that women’s unpaid and underpaid labor was worth $11 trillion worldwide, $1.4 trillion in the United States alone. No doubt these figures are much higher today. (I looked up more recent U.N. reports, but, I confess, found them indecipherable.)

Even more mind-blowing is the system by which governments compute productivity. In If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics, Marilyn Waring explains the complexities of our economic system, which “counts oil spills and wars as contributors to economic growth, while child-rearing and housekeeping are deemed valueless.”

Motherhood isn’t devalued in monetary terms only. In the early 1980s I enrolled in Empire State College, part of the State University of New York, to complete the requirements for my Bachelor’s degree. ESC was a school of independent study, and life experience earned college credits.  A written narrative had to detail the work and reading done in each field, and be approved by a committee. School policy excluded mothering as a field of study, but my mentor thought that raising a child with a disability, and what I’d learned of the medical system and social work organizations as a result, might be credit-worthy. I wrote up my papers for credit in that and a number of other fields. For writing I got 32 whopping credits. For public relations I got 9; for fundraising, 12; and for political activism, 15. For raising a child with a disability, after much committee debate as to whether to even include it, I got three credits, the lowest amount of all my life experience. If nothing else, I received a stunning education from SUNY.

I don’t know why the majority of the world’s population thinks mothering as work is laughable, and wages for housework a ridiculous concept. I only know that whenever some idiotic anchorperson laughingly tells me what I would have earned as a mother had my work been deemed monetarily valuable, I go into a rage.



Women’s Theater: Songlines

English: Sunset, from the Cumberland Arms, Byker

English: Sunset, from the Cumberland Arms, Byker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


My very talented friend Phyllis Christopher, whose pictures you might have seen on my blog from time to time, is working on a project in the U.K. that’s so exciting I’m sharing it here. Songlines is an installation piece created from interviews and conversations with women, primarily about the vast and inspiring ocean.Open Clasp Theatre  is a women’s company funded by…are you ready? The British Arts Council, among other governmental agencies. So, if you’re anywhere in England on the dates listed below, check it out, and if not, click on over to their website for inspiration.

Songlines takes place from Tuesday 3rd – Saturday 7th December at Byker Lives, 15 – 17 Raby Cross, Byker, Newcastle, NE6 2FF  from 11am – 4pm (late opening on Thursday until 7pm). It also takes place between Tuesday 10th – Saturday 14th December at Crossroads Community Café, 54 Borough Rd, Middlesbrough, TS1 2JH from 11am – 3pm (late opening on Thursday until 7pm).

The piece was developed in collaboration with 26 women from minority communities from Byker Sands Centre – Sure Start East, Open Door North East and West End Women & Girls Centre, working alongside photographerPhyllis Christopher, visual artist Taryn Edmonds and filmmaker Kate Sweeney.

This installation is the final phase of  A Song To Sing project which informed the play The Space Between Us, portraying the experiences of women who are Czech/Roma, Slovak/Roma, Travellers, women seeking asylum who are refused and destitute, and Arabic women from Libya, Syria and Kuwait.

Oh, to be in England!


Sisterhood in the Novels of Jane Austen


Part One

In every Jane Austen novel—they total six—the heroine has at least one biological sister, sometimes a whole slew of them. In addition to blood relations, many a heroine has—or gains in the unfolding plot—a sister-in-law or two, referred to as sisters with no qualifying laws. Additionally, a few girlfriends are usually on hand to give us more of the dynamics of relationships among women. It’s safe to say that the theme of sisterhood was of some importance to Austen.

Cassandra Austen Wikipedia

Cassandra Austen

Austen herself had one sister: Cassandra Elizabeth, her senior by two years.  She and Jane were the only girls among eight siblings; amid so much testosterone, they kept each other close, and remained best friends and confidantes throughout their lives. Over 100 letters from Jane to Cassandra survive, and have assisted  historians and biographers constructing the details of Austen’s life. In some ways Jane seems to have been a typical younger sister; their mother once noted, “If Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.”

No wonder that in Austen’s first novel, Sense & Sensibility, the relationship between Marianne and Elinor,  grown sisters, is central. Oh, sure, the plot revolves around the bumpy road to love and the men they hope to marry—but the sisterly relationship carries the emotional weight of the story, more than all their love affairs combined. Though devoted to their baby sister Margaret as well as to their mother, Marianne and Elinor are each other’s primary relationship in life.

Marianne spends most of her time enjoying—some say wallowing—in sensory reactions to the world around her. She frequently mocks Elinor for being, in her estimation, far too sensible—which in Marianne’s worldview means stodgy. After her devastating affair with Willoughby, however, and her return to good health, she comes to see her big sister much differently, and examines her own behavior in a harsh and glaring light. She confesses to Elinor, somewhat as apology, that she’s ashamed when she compares her behavior to her sister’s lonely fortitude under similar tribulations, and finally sees her as a worthy role model.

Though the demonstrations of love and tenderness between Elinor and Marianne are rarely exhibited in contemporary relationships, their sisterly dynamics are familiar to modern readers.  Jane Austen’s insights, rendered two centuries ago, still hold the ring of truth.

220px-AustenTeapotCookiesPride & Prejudice—In Austen’s second book she pulls out all the sister stops, giving us the five–count ‘em, 5!—Bennett sisters:  Jane, Lizzy, Lydia, Kitty and Mary, who range from early teens to 20’s. To spice up the pot, she adds Lizzy’s best friend Charlotte, and a pair of sisters the likes of which haven’t been seen outside of Cinderella (the Bingleys), who sabotage their brother Charles’ love affair with Jane Bennett at every turn.

While Austen doesn’t delve deeply into each of the sisters’ relationships with one another, she’s the kind of writer who imparts a great deal of information about her characters with elegant economy, painting a full and vivid picture. The elder sisters, Jane and Lizzy, are close, like the real-life Jane and Cassandra. Both are sensible girls, especially compared to their mother and younger sisters. Jane sees the best, and only the best, in people, while Lizzy is much more discerning, and mentally sharper than any one of the Bennetts, including her intellectual father, who’s clueless when it comes to relationships among humans. Lydia would be considered a slut even by today’s standards, though not so harshly judged for it; Kitty worships and emulates Lydia. Mary is possibly the only brainiac character in history without a brain. She escapes their chaotic family life holed up in her room studying, emerging on rare occasions to exhibit her questionable talents and deliver philosophical opinions. Each sister manages, in her own way, to publicly mortify Jane and Lizzy, outdone only by their mother, who talks about people right in front of them, and blurts inappropriate announcements and impertinent questions.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennett are without parenting instincts or skills. Each makes no secret of their favorite child: Mrs. B. adores Lydia for her gay, party personality, while Papa B. favors Lizzy for her intelligence and wit. Austen doesn’t say how the girls feel being aware of this, but it might be partly responsible for much distress and confusion.

When Lydia scandalizes the Bennetts by running off with the dastardly Mr. Wickham, she gloats as if it were a great accomplishment. In  the  Austenrecent past Lizzy had herself been enamored by the same man, before learning of his disreputable character. Knowing what we do of sisterly competition, we have to wonder if Lydia boasts so immodestly for managing to snag a man once prized by an older sister. Having no real knowledge of Lizzy’s reasons for turning against Wickham, she might even assume Lizzy still cares for him. A baby sister trumping one several years her senior—now that is an accomplishment!—or at least it is to a girl who, while favored by her mother, never won the same from her father, who reserved that position for Lizzy, turning the two of them into unspoken rivals.

That’s just a smidgen of the sisterly dynamics among dozens in P&P, but to analyze them all is beyond the scope of this blog. Time to go to…

Mansfield Park. This is Austen’s third novel, deemed a literary comedown by most critics and fans after the miracle of Pride & Prejudice. Here is yet another retelling of the Cinderella story, played out in hundreds of movies, plays and novels across time and cultural variations. Fanny Price is the girl in the cinders of Mansfield Park, dragged out of her dirt-poor family home to be raised by wealthy relatives, who imagine themselves magnanimous. Cousins Maria and Julia stand in for the wicked stepsisters. Sir and Mrs. Bertram are too clueless or lazy to play stepmother, but not to worry: Aunt Norris is, conveniently, a secret sadist next to whom the  typical fairy-tale stepmother appears angelic. Fanny’s fairy godmother is Mary Crawford; unfortunately, she fails to recognize her as such. Worse yet, Fanny mistakes the younger Bertram son, Edmund, as her Prince Charming just for being kind to her. Meanwhile she lets the real Prince—Henry Crawford—slip right though her fingers.

In Mansfield Park female competition for male attention is overt: Maria and Julia, normally close, both fall in love with Henry Crawford, giving rise to jealous hostility and almost open warfare. Similarly, Fanny and Mary Crawford are both in love with Edmund. Mary, being unaware of Fanny’s feelings for him, extends genuine sisterhood to her; Fanny is, however, engaged in a life-and-death battle for Edmund’s heart, and cannot reciprocate.

English: "Lizzy, my dear, I want to speak...

London: George Allen, 1894. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not just love for Edmund that interferes with Fanny’s ability to form a friendship with Mary: abused by Aunt Norris and belittled by her girl cousins, Fanny harbors a deep distrust of women, and might never be able to form any decent sisterly relationships. She does extend herself to a younger sister when visiting her birth family, but exhibits little love towards the girl, particularly compared to her feelings and behavior towards her brother William.

End Part One. Sisterly connections in Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey will be analyzed in Part Two.

Abducted Women and Toxic Masculinity

Posted on

WARNING: This post may devolve into uncontrollable cursing. Sometimes it’s the only kind of language appropriate for the subject/ event.

from abcnews

from abcnews

Cruel men. Lack of appropriate sex education and fight-back mentality for girlchildren. Stupid cops. A culture of toxic masculinity. All are part of the complex web that led to the abduction, torture, rape and imprisonment of three teenage girls. Neighbors ay they repeatedly called local police with reports of naked women chained up outside and other strange happenings at a house in Cleveland, Ohio. The cops claim to have no records of such reports. As Marvin Gaye sang, “Makes me wanna holler.”

book cover

Most of the news reports I’ve read and heard have been a bit gentler on the police, but Democracy Now goes straight for the jugular, interviewing  reporters for the Cleveland Scene, Eric Taylor and Jaclyn Friedman. The latter is also co-author of a book in which she writes about our culture of “toxic masculinity,” Yes Means Yes:Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.

Ariel Castro A Real Charmer

Ariel Castro
A Real Charmer

There’s not much to say that you won’t find elsewhere–this story’s being looked at and published from every conceivable angle. Hopefully the stupid cops who ignored the plight of women once again–remember Jaycee Dugard?–will not go unpunished. But, as Jaclyn Friedman said, “Until we create justice structures” that recognize and try to prevent male dominance over women, this kind of shit is unlikely to stop, or to be effectively punished when it does occur.

I am just so pissed off. Fuck Ariel Castro and men like him. Fuck cops who don’t give a shit about women. Fuck incompetence and stupidity. Fuck dominating men who fuck up the planet and everyone on it. Fuck ’em all.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail/Book Review

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl in the Wild

Cheryl in the Wild

Cheryl Strayed. She strayed from her home, from the pain of her mother’s death, and from her stepfather’s remarriage. She strayed from the husband she claimed to love, and from the senseless way she had been living. Almost without thought, Cheryl strayed onto the 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and with no previous hiking experience she hoofed it from California to Oregon.

I suppose I should apologize for such inexcusable literary opportunism, abusing, or exploiting, a hokey last name like that. Had Strayed been the author’s true birth name, I wouldn’t have done so, but since it’s a name she actually chose—and it’s one of the things about this woman I couldn’t help but look down on—I just couldn’t resist. Because she’s so open and honest in her writing there’s a lot more to poke fun at—but as it turns out, there’s just as much to admire, even love.

As of today, January 30th, Amazon lists 1382 reviews of Wild on their site, most awarding the book four out of five stars, none less than three. It helps that Wild is an Oprah selection, but even if it wasn’t this book would still generate a great deal of interest. When was the last time you read an outdoor adventure story written by a woman? And because it’s by a woman, there are many more levels to the story than rugged adventure. The author’s life events, her feelings and insights, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams are woven almost seamlessly into heart-stopping encounters with rattlesnakes, bears, and the quirky people she meets on the trail. It adds up to a fascinating, gripping memoir.

One Amazon writer did a fantastic job on her review, and I highly recommend reading it. I’m not sure I agree with all of her analysis, though; she says that Strayed “speaks for so many women who have suffered similar insults and assaults and have never had such an articulate writer to tell their story.” I didn’t see the book this way, not as a universal female story at all. Though more than just adventure, at its heart the book still is a tale of adventure. For someone like me who’s averse to physical exertion, this kind of book offers transcendence. Never in my wildest dreams would I attempt or even want to attempt a rigorous journey like hiking the PCT–but because I’m averse to living it, I love reading it. I particularly love that another woman did it.

Cheryl Strayed dared step into the unknown, handling every challenge that arose so well she survived more or less intact. She even waited another 15 years to tell her story, proving she didn’t do it just so she could write the book. (So many people do things like that nowadays.) I probably have no right to feel proud of Cheryl, but in some crazy sisterly way I do. This woman did something extraordinary, and she deserves all the accolades she’s getting  for it.