Thursday, March 9, 2017

Complicated Thoughts on a Day Without a Woman

Yesterday was International Women's Day, and like most things involving women, it was complicated and experienced differently by a lot of different people.

Over the last several weeks, plans for a 'day without women' were floated around the internet, with a lot of women talking about how we should opt out for a day.  Don't work, don't do unpaid labor at home, don't buy things, just remove our contributions from the common pool.  A strike, essentially, from being women in the world.

Oh, if only we could.

Most of the criticisms of the 'day without women' idea were valid and based entirely in why we need one and may never get one.  It was a thing that only women lucky enough to be able to afford a day off could participate in.  Women for whom a day without work means an irreplaceable budget shortfall can't afford to strike.  Women who are sole caregivers for their children, or for their parents, cannot take a day away.  Women in "women's professions", especially teaching and nursing, have to face the fact that the people who suffer from their strike day are vulnerable children and patients, not corporations or the public at large.  I saw a number of women explaining that if they took a day off, their already-outnumbered voices would be silent for a day, leaving the decisions and opinions in the hands of their male co-workers.  Women said, "I provide care for others' children, mostly women.  If I don't work, they can't work."  Too many women who could afford to take a day off said, "Well, no one does my work if I'm not here so if I take the day off, I'll just have twice as much work tomorrow."

I took yesterday off.  I slept late and did exactly as I wanted, which included a couple of house projects I've been trying to get to but haven't because I'm often exhausted from work and other obligations.  It was excellent.

I also spent a lot of time thinking about what I was doing and why I should or should not do it.  The day actually hit a minor guilt-bubble around the time I was drinking my coffee in bed, because how can self-indulgence be a radical act?

It is, you know.  Though it's not just women, women (especially women of color) represent the greatest portion of the demographic for whom the words 'day off' are a faraway vision of unimaginable ease and luxury.  Too many of us are working paycheck to paycheck and balancing a lioness's share of unpaid household labor.

Everyone deserves a living wage for a full day's work, and that includes women.  If you're working 40 hours a week and you cannot afford to feed, house, and clothe yourself without taking on roommates or extra work, then you're being exploited.  If you're working 40 hours a week and can't even afford rent on a space large enough for your family, you're being exploited.  If you're working 40 hours a week and can't afford to save for emergencies *or* retirement, you're being exploited.  If you're working two 25-hour-a-week jobs because neither employer wants to give you full-time benefits, you're being doubly exploited.  Mark my words, every company that treats its employees this way receives government subsidies twice over, first as tax cuts and corporate welfare, and second by having tax dollars supplement their employees' abysmal wages with public assistance to meet a basic standard of living.

If you can't trust your male co-workers or managers to speak for women or consider their input as valuable if you're not physically there to hold them accountable, you're doing additional and likely unpaid labor to have a workplace that treats people fairly.

Systems, like modern nursing, that are arranged with such spare staffing coverage that every minute of every worker's day is essential to keeping the machine from failing increase burnout, which decreases employee longevity and destroys institutional knowledge.  It shortens the lives of those who work under those conditions, and damages their physical and emotional health in the long term.  If a shift that 'begins' at 3 and 'ends' at midnight requires you to be there at 2 and leave at 1230 in order to exchange critical information, AND work through your 'lunch' to finish required documentation, you're working an extra 10+ hours each week, unacknowledged.

Teachers, who are predominantly women, work hundreds of hours of invisible labor a year, from spending time over the summer designing and creating room decorations to supervising extracurricular activities to hours upon hours of grading.  "It must be nice to only work till 4," they say to the woman struggling out to the parking lot at the end of a ten-hour day, with twenty-six term papers to read and grade over the weekend.

Some of this is why I stayed home.  I am, as the articles point out, privileged in that I can do that.  My job isn't endangered by a day off; my boss was slightly inconvenienced that a thing he wanted to know didn't materialize immediately upon asking it and he had to wait until today.  Rather than dismissing things because "Only privileged women can do them" I think we need to say "Hey, this thing that's only accessible to privileged women, I think they all need to do it because they can, and to acknowledge that being able to do that should be available to all."  When a protest is only available to those of privilege, one of the best uses of privilege is to do it while pointing out its universal inaccessibility.

That's not the only reason I stayed home, though.  One of the most defining characteristics of modern womanhood is the idea that any time taken for oneself and one's own priorities is time 'stolen' from what we owe the rest of the world.  Mothers make memes about hiding in the pantry to eat a candy bar and get a few minutes' quiet.  We glamorize the idea of being 'so busy' that a cup of tea or a glass of wine in one's own living room is an unspeakable decadence.  There's an entire culture based around the conflict between feeling obligated to social engagements but being so exhausted you have to cancel them and beg forgiveness from friends for 'letting them down' by staying in for a night.

We're supposed to 'have it all' by which 'having it all' means putting the job, and the family, and the partner, and the social expectations of activism or volunteering all ahead of the simple act of enjoying time doing the things that feed us emotionally.  Women who put themselves and their own priorities ahead of any of those things are seen as somehow indulgent and rebellious.

There's a backlash against the self-care movement to tell women, "Stop claiming your pedicure or leaving a dish in the sink is 'self-care' because it's not, it's just being selfish and lazy and pretending that doing what you want is emotionally necessary."

Pretending that doing what you want is emotionally necessary.

So many of the arguments regarding women's rights boil down to whether or not women should have the same freedom to do as we want that men have.  The same opportunities to attend colleges or be hired for jobs or paid fairly.  The same ability to set our own boundaries.  The right to do as we want with our bodies and our health care.

When you trivialize the idea that doing what you want is emotionally necessary, you undermine the entire idea of women's autonomy.  You undermine our identity as complete, independent, self-actualized beings.  So what if you think my pedicure is trivial?  It's an hour of time doing what I want, at the end of which I feel physically and emotionally refreshed.  So what if you think I should go home and do the dishes instead of staying at work to finish a project I'm really interested in?  I will spend my time to my own best advantage.

Ultimately, it becomes a revolutionary act to do as we wish without validation or justification.  It is pure rebellion to spend my time entirely on my terms regardless of what the world thinks I should do with it.  Whether it's a full day I can take as a 'Floating Holiday' thanks to my employer's inclusive policies, or just a half-hour lunch break on which I refuse to work 'off the clock' and instead read a book or take a walk, unashamedly claiming the autonomy of spent time is a basic human right.

And if there's a better day for me to embrace that rebellion than International Women's Day, I don't know what it is.

1 comment:

  1. as always, Rowan, you've said this beautifully. I actually "cheated" on both counts and worked from home. It was a compromise for both me and my boss, since I've been off a bit over the past couple of months, but we figured that by not being on campus, I was at least supporting the visibly reduced numbers of women here at work. I wish I had been comfortable enough with just taking the day off for myself, but your blog encourages me to do just that next year. Thank you!