Are men shit? In the words of Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, “Shit men don’t explain everything or nothing.” Okay, maybe she didn’t say that, but I like to think she would have — if asked.
On Friday, an article entitled “I had to choose being a mother” was published in The Lily, a product of The Washington Post devoted to “women’s interests” and named after the first US newspaper owned, edited and published by women.
The article exploring the impacts of COVID-19 on women’s paid and unpaid work set the internet alight. Specifically, the story of Aimee, a married tech CEO with a three-year-old son, prompted a very strong reaction. She told The Lily that she felt she had to “choose” motherhood over her job because her husband, who was not working at the time the pandemic hit, would struggle to care for their child alone.
“I can’t do it,” she said she remembered him saying: “I can’t watch him for this long.”
When day-care closed, Aimee told The Lily that she wasn’t sure she could ask her husband to handle 12-hour shifts of childcare, with no help, no breaks and no clear end point. And she wasn’t sure her husband would do it … even if she asked.
I’ll just pause here to query: did she ask and he refused, or did she never ask and assume he wasn’t up to it or wouldn’t do it? There’s an important distinction. That’s not clear.
All weekend long, my Twitter feed was filled with assessments of Aimee’s husband of the “men are shit” variety. “He’s a loser”, said one. “These are the men not to marry, not to date, to stay far, far away from”, said another. “Don’t marry or stay away from men who are useless”, said another. And a personal favourite, “some of y’all do a whole lot to have a husband.”
Australian writer and feminist Clementine Ford offered some particularly choice words of the men are not dying fast enough of COVID-19 variety, remarks that she has since described as an “ill-judged” attempt at satire and apologised for.
Watching this debate unfold, I was irked. Very irked. But the cause of my irritation wasn’t Aimee’s partner’s supposed level of shitness. I was deeply disappointed to see the clusterfuck that is COVID-19 for women distilled to a singular, simplistic cause: men are shit. Yes, some men are – and I am aware that this is an interesting variation of the “not all men” clichéd disclaimer. I’ll get to that in a minute.
I was also disappointed to see these vital issues reduced to a sideshow controversy about whether feminists hate men and think they should all die. In case clarification is needed: no and no. And despite the right-wing outrage machine, I don’t think that’s what Ford meant either, though I do think that she was right to apologise.
To reduce the reason women like Aimee “choose” to give up work solely to the fact that their male partner’s are useless ignores the more nuanced analysis in The Lilly piece, which is rich in observations about the multitude of factors, many structural and cultural, that result in this outcome. And we could, and should, have debate about the use of the word “choice” in this context.
I’ll be the first to call out shittiness from men, like recently, when men in the US claimed they were doing nearly half of the home-schooling, but only 3 percent of women agreed. The cheek.
But if some men are shit (and again, for the avoidance of doubt, I do concede some are), we also have shit systems that preserve men’s privilege, and in many cases, particularly here in Australia, work against men who try to go against the very gendered grain of work and home. Such an overly-simplistic appraisal prevents us from having a wide-ranging conversation about the shit men and the shit systems – and the change we need on multiple fronts.
Women could, as they were repeatedly advised by many in the Twittersphere over the weekend, leave or not marry all the shit men (and I will say that some of this commentary, in my view, bordered on victim blaming). But we would still have profound inequalities between men and women in every aspect of public and private life. That alone won’t solve the problem.
I urge everyone tempted to make such a passing, flippant assessment of Aimee’s situation to go back and read the full article closely. Very closely. A close reading highlights many of the issues that should and must be part of the broader debate.
My reading is that Aimee’s partner’s inability to do his fair share at home is only part of the picture that contributed to her “choice”. There is also a strong theme of the intensification of work and how this has impacted parents, particularly women. Aimee talks about feeling that she had to be “one of the boys”, partly by working long hours to conform to a very gendered, male idea of the “ideal worker”. I, personally, got the sense that this was a long-standing issue with her partner that preceded, but was exacerbated, by COVID-19.
The piece also explores many other issues, like the impact of occupational segregation, which has seen women concentrated in undervalued and insecure service jobs and care roles that have been particularly impacted by the pandemic.
We also read about the necessity of affordable childcare, and how the lack thereof hinders women’s ability to work. As Claire Cain Miller observed in the NYT earlier this month, the pandemic’s forced closure of these vital support services has exposed how fragile women’s gains in the workplace are – their ability to “MacGyver career”.
We read about how families impacted by the gender pay gap and gender discrimination (women in Australia still experience a 14 percent gender wage gap and mothers in the US experience a $16,000 a year penalty in lost wages) forces them to make what I call “economically rational” decisions in a crisis to prioritise the higher earners salary. In Australia, that is, statistically speaking, more likely to be the male partner. He is also much more likely to be working full-time.
And we read about the strong and enduring cultural norms around women as carers that make them particularly vulnerable to an especially virulent strain of pandemic mommy guilt. A sociologist in article observes that there is “a new Olympics for being the perfect Mom”, with pictures all over social media of influencer moms making zucchini bread with their children and teaching them how to identify bugs.
These are all the underlying and unresolved structural and cultural issues the current pandemic has cast a giant magnifying glass over. This is an opportunity.
For decades, women’s advocates, present company included, have been crying out for a multifacted debate that explores all of these issues – and action on all fronts. Let’s not pre-empt that debate by succumbing to an own goal by giving into the very tempting theory that this is all down to the fact that men (or at least Aimee’s husband) are shit.
Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica