Monday, July 02, 2012

Having (and Dusting) It All

Posted by Amy E. Slaton on 07/02 at 10:19 AM

A recent piece in the Atlantic by Ann-Marie Slaughter, lamenting the difficulties facing women in America who both work and raise families, has gone viral.  Interest in the issue of whether women can “have it all,” why they would want to, what “it” is, what “all” is… has spiked in the media. But a lot of the conversation seems superficial to me, including much of Slaughter’s original lamentation. Turning to some classic works in the history of technology breaks open this issue.  Work done in that field decades ago shows us that people with authentically progressive aims, engaged in deeply contextual thinking about gender, wouldn’t even be using the same terms Slaughter chooses.

Our homes, our selves (Source: New York Times article: “The Way We Live: Drowning in Stuff” by Penelope Green)

Slaughter’s original piece struck me immediately as a curtailed inquiry in a number of ways. On the plus side, she points to a lot of workplace norms that subtly or not so subtly devalue our family and personal lives. Crucially, Slaughter, a former high ranking state department policy analyst, admits that the problems she has identified—a feeling of inadequacy in both career and parenting realms, tensions as women’s expectations and realities confront one another in workplace and home—are primarily afflictions of affluent, well-employed women.  She notes that simply finding a job and putting food on the table occupies many American families and the pursuit of career advancement is itself a luxury.

What Slaughter fails to acknowledge is that the inequitable social structures to which she gestures here are actually contributing to the problems she herself must grapple with as a worker and parent.  Socially conservative legislation over the last 20 years has gutted public daycare, education and related services for all of our kids; undermined family leave legislation; and legitimated wage stagnation to support a stratified society in which people of particular ethnicities, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds are increasingly assumed to deserve the economic advantages or disadvantages that shape their daily lives.  Your domestic woes (and privileges) are your own. These trends are far harder on the poor than the affluent, but that’s all the more reason to pay attention.

I want to ask Slaughter: Why stop your analysis short of these political and structural points?

That’s where I left my thinking on this, until I read a recent piece in the New York Times about a UCLA study of the material possessions of middle class Los Angeles families. The UCLA researchers observed the acquisition habits of 22 middle class families with at least two children…enumerating the objects that entered each family’s home, from foodstuffs to toys to refrigerator magnets.  The ways those objects actually come into many Americans’ homes—as holiday and birthday gifts, through bulk-shopping expeditions to Costco or Wal-Mart—are also studied. Duly noted, too, is the fact that there are far fewer objects leaving our homes than entering.  (A longer New Yorker article expands on this.)

It doesn’t take many images from the NYT piece—a shelving unit crammed with hundreds of dolls; a fridge covered with magnets, indistinguishable from my own—to realize that a lot of the stuff we acquire has very little to do with our families’ health and comfort and much more to do with our bloated idea of what counts as material sufficiency. Procuring and maintaining this kind of domestic arrangement (the physical infrastructure of the single family home, its decorative trappings, the relentless accrual of new things) has “parents stretched to the thinnest,” according to one researcher on the study, anthropologist Anthony Graesch.

I think the history of technology can help us make a connection between the ideologies of consumption highlighted by the UCLA study and some of the structural issues that Slaughter would do well to acknowledge.  Think back to the seminal studies in the history of technology that have shown us just how contingent this whole situation is: Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want, Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother, and others that expose the social and gender inequities behind our consumption-centered economy.

Americans are enslaved to consumption and even demand-side economic agendas (which unlike supply-side analyses supposedly privilege workers over business owners) naturalize expanding production and consumption as the best measures of social progress. Strasser and Cowan beautifully demonstrated that our acquisition of new things in promotion of our families’ health and comfort long ago morphed into an equation of private ownership with status; otherwise we would have remained content with small arrays of clothing and household goods (unchanging with fashion). We would have embraced options like collective kitchens, co-housing opportunities, and co-operative laundry or meal services that are instead rare to the point of exoticism, or lost to history entirely as our individually owned dishwashers, washing machines, and lawnmowers proliferate.

And a rejection of collectivism isn’t the only issue. Modern technology may have altered the physical nature of housework, but, Cowan showed, it did not reduce the time and effort spent by women on the home; just the opposite, as women felt pressured to maintain larger houses and wardrobes, and produce more varied diets for the their families, in pursuit of what had come to represent middle class respectability and perhaps more tellingly, security.

Look at any newsstand magazine for women today and you’ll see an article on “decluttering” your home (and ironically, the containers, label-maker, and closet accessories you should purchase in service to that aim); managing, not curtailing, household consumption is the prescription. And more management means, yes, more work, for whomever maintains the household.  Zip-cars notwithstanding, private ownership of things remains the wellspring of self-esteem in our culture today. 

What if instead we imagined smaller homes with fewer homemaking demands, fewer rooms to mop, fewer toilets to clean, fewer shelves holding fewer objects to dust?  How about far less emphasis on the individual ownership of stuff, so that a house with a rarely-used living room next to a well-used family room comes to seem downright silly, not elegant?  Folks who actually choose simplified material circumstances are still seen as strange outliers or eco-extremists, worthy of quirky-news coverage.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, in a culture where the idea of neighbors co-owning a snowblower is considered a potential violation of privacy, let alone such “intimacies” as a shared washing machine or weeknight dinner preparation.

The idea that only mass-production and –consumption can sustain our economy is flawed; British sustainability expert Tim Jackson has painted a picture of how a lessening of productivity could actually sustain employment. By extension we might see that it is not the wage system per se that erodes social equity but the scale of spending and acquisition (and corporate profits) that it has come to support. Perhaps, however, for Jackson’s scale-down to really make a difference, top CEO salaries might have to be reigned in; property developers’ profit margins might have to shrink.  Those occupations produce some of our wealthiest citizens, so that’s where the redistributive justice would come in. And if Slaughter is serious in her regret about middle-class women’s burdensome work/life situation, she should be willing to think in these exact terms, rather than simply seeking more gender-equitable means of achieving the same amount of output, the same buying power, the same hulking, stuff-jammed homes we currently carry.

The idea that our homes should be privately curated collections of consumer goods is not new; that’s the point of reading these histories.  The demarcation of social advantage through consumption was at the heart of the industrial revolution, and the ability to purchase things beyond those necessary for health and comfort is intensely seductive, without question.  Social historians in the 1970s and 1980s (that pre-post-feminist era) did a tremendous job of demonstrating how the American middle-class came to exist as a distinct (if broadly defined) entity through the creation of this possibility.  Why have we not learned from their findings?

Put another way: Can’t we look head-on at the seduction of ownership? At what Mumford called the “magnificent bribe”of technology? I am guilty of almost every self-fashioning acquisitive behavior I question here.  But Slaughter seems to suggest that we have no choice.  Historians of technology and other folks who think systemically about the material character of Western lifestyles suggest otherwise.

Tags: ann-marie slaughter, anthony graesch, center on the everyday life of families, history of technology, lewis mumford, more work for mother, natwerk, ruth schwartz cowan, susan strasser, ucla, waste and want