In response to:

Something for the Boys from the January 16, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Diane Johnson’s misreading of my Prisoners of Men’s Dreams [NYR, January 16, 1992] seems to be based on a phobia about caregiving that is unfortunately shared by a number of other feminists. In her review of recent books about women’s liberation and various male responses to it, Johnson completely misrepresents my position when she claims that I believe “caring (whatever that is) to be an innate female attribute.” Nowhere in my book do I say that caring for others is an innately feminine preoccupation. Indeed, I go to great pains to explain that women have long dominated homemaking, nursing, child care, social work, elementary school teaching and similar fields not because of some natural inclination toward such work but because of their socialization and patriarchy’s refusal to allow women entrance into other professions. I constantly refer to caring as an important human activity and discuss how we can get men more involved in it, inside and outside the home.

Johnson and others in the feminist movement are rightly concerned that celebrations of women’s historic role as the primary nurturers in society not have the effect of reinforcing the traditional sexual division of labor within the home or the segregation of women into still devalued, predominantly female “helping professions” and jobs. But Johnson’s dismissive view of the work that most women have always done—and continue to do—mirrors conventional sexist attitudes towards it. (In this regard, her review was not unlike her own recent book, Health and Happiness, a fictional account of life and work in a big city hospital that mainly focused on its doctors, rather than on the nurses who provide most of whatever health and happiness real patients are likely to find in such an institution.)

In patriarchal and highly individualistic societies like ours, caring has always been denigrated by men—even while they were sentimentalizing and romanticizing women’s “superior moral virtues,” and “natural” inclination to care for the dependent. This imposition of the duty to care on one sex alone—and transformation of caring for other human beings into an exercise in self-abnegation—has been used to enforce women’s dependence on men. But real liberation from second class citizenship and subordinate relationships in society requires more than greater female access to traditional male jobs, rights, and privileges in politics or the marketplace. It also involves defending and extending the cooperative values, interpersonal skills, and moral practices more commonly found among women than men because of the former’s socialization and traditional roles in the home or caring professions.

But Johnson, and unfortunately many others, seem to almost willfully misinterpret this effort to make women’s invisible work more visible—to show that it, in fact, requires as much intelligence, skill, stamina, strength, judgment and wisdom as that that men have traditionally performed. Her response to my discussion of caregiving fails to distinguish the content of the critical human activity of caring from the patriarchal myths that have so distorted its image. The core activities of caring are confused with the conditions patriarchal, individualist cultures have imposed on this essential human activity. The fact that caregiving was one of the areas in which women’s subjection to men was affirmed, is often used as evidence to prove that caregiving work itself is inherently inferior to the work men have performed in the marketplace. Thus, Johnson, like many others, seems to believe that women should measure their liberation in terms of how far they have moved away from the traditional “women’s” work that men must also share.

Johnson’s argument that men will enter the caregiving professions when pay is raised is also short sighted at best. Pay, of course, must be raised. But negative images of caring—not just pay and benefits—influence career choices. Nurses at the kind of major, urban medical center she describes in Health and Happiness could earn as much as $50 to 60,000 a year (that’s more than twice as much as the average American male earns). Yet three percent of America’s 2.1 million nurses are men—a gender gap that is the rule even in the most prestigious hospitals and medical centers. Most public school kindergarten teachers, with the same amount of education and experience, earn as much as high school teachers. Yet, men make up over 30 percent of the nation’s high school teachers, but 16 and two percent, respectively, of elementary and kindergarten and pre-K teachers.

Prejudice—not simply low salaries—has kept men out of the caring professions. Prejudice also inhibits male caretaking in the home. Men in countries like Sweden rarely make use of generous parental leaves to take time off work for childrearing. Few men have fulltime responsibility for their elderly parents (and most elderly parents refuse to accept hands on caregiving from their sons).

This is the legacy of prejudice not just low pay and poor working conditions. Recruiting men to either caregiving in the home or helping professions does not involve a Victorian romanticization of caregiving. But it certainly involves a realistic appraisal of the importance, difficulty and complexity of this work. But discussions like Johnson’s represent attacks. These attacks denigrate those women—and a gradually increasing number of men—who, out of choice, not simply coercion, or false consciousness, provide care in our society.

There may very well be no nine second sound byte with which to explain what constitutes caring in each and every instance. But without it, as everyone of us knows, and most feminists used to acknowledge, we cannot make it through life. It may not count for much in the capitalist, free marketplace game plan of life but it is not just another trivial pursuit. And, most importantly, if men and women struggle to more equitably all share its imperatives, and try to create a society that provides social support and rewards for caregiving, considerations of the subject are not fated to hamper the progress of women toward equality.

Suzanne Gordon
Arlington, Massachusetts

Diane Johnson replies:

I find Ms. Gordon’s letter somewhat naive, like her book. People cannot be made to enter the caring professions, or respect them either, by simple exhortation. She would do well to examine basic questions: Why the prejudice she so rightly deplores? Female-dominated jobs tend to be low in status and pay, but is it because women are obliged to take low-paying, low-status jobs; or are they low in status and pay simply because it is women who do them? Her claims for the (undoubted) virtues of the caring professions are undermined by her complaints that men, nonetheless, won’t do them. No one could disagree with her suggestions for programs—paid family leave etc.—that might get men more involved in “caring,” but my hunch remains that they won’t, as long as women do, unless the price is right.

Because I haven’t written anything about feminism, I was surprised to find myself described as a member of the feminist movement, but she is right in detecting from me a personal hostility to arguments that sound so much like all those school counselors who expected you to choose nursing, teaching, or a secretarial course, and could not imagine a girl who wanted to be an artist or study the Victorian philosophers. Ms. Gordon uses the word “individualistic” as a term of reproach, but to me it is not. I would prefer a society in which all individuals are encouraged to do what interests them or that they have some ability for, and where women are individuals. I can’t pretend to have solved the problem of who is to empty the bedpans, but neither has Ms. Gordon.

This Issue

April 23, 1992