Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stepford Wives to Labor Unions: Becoming the Dragons We Set Out to Slay

Okay, so this is a theory I have sort of swirling around in my head and I'm going to try to articulate it. I got to thinking about it after re-watching the newer version of the Stepford Wives movie the other day.

According to my understanding, labor unions began as a way for employees to address some truly terrible conditions. Business owners kept a heavy hand on their employees, controlling them with bullying, threats and sometimes violence. Anyone who spoke up often paid a heavy price. In the early days, when labor organizers traveled around, trying to educate workers about the possibilities they could have with unions to represent them, things got very ugly and bloody.

These days, it seems as if the labor unions themselves, at least some of them, have become the evil they set out to defeat. Their tactics closely resemble the ugliness, the threats and bullying, the suffocating control, and even the violence that were once used against them and those they represent.

I've thought about this ever since I saw a documentary on the early days of union organization a few years ago. It is sad and ironic that what began as a noble effort to protect, defend, and represent the persecuted and abused has bloated into the mirror image of the persecutor, the bully, the heavy hand.

And how exactly does the Stepford Wives movie tie in with these ponderings?  As I watched it, I began to see a parallel in the swing of women's roles. Just as the movie deals in pretty broad stereotypes, the germ of an idea that I had while watching it also springs from generalizations and stereotypes.

When I picture the Business Man, the Professional Man of earlier days, before Women's Lib, I think of a man in a suit...a dark, conservative suit...setting out for his important day of work. He is fond of his family, but he can't really be bothered with their activities or demands. He has More Important Things on his mind. His career is the highest priority in his life. He is driven, focused....and unavailable.

The wife in this picture looks something like Mrs. Cleaver, or Donna Reed. She is feminine, nicely groomed, and patient, tending to the many needs of her family in a dress, heels, and a pearl bead necklace. She does everything for everone. She adapts, compromises, and doesn't ask for anything for herself. She is there to have a nice dinner ready for the Man when he comes home, to hand him the paper and his pipe, so he can relax while she goes on doing everything for everyone. If she ever voices a complaint, the Business Man is kind, but in a condescending, patronizing way, and she ends up apologizing for being Such a Silly and fussing over nothing.

Then there came a change. Women wanted more. They wanted also to do More Important Things. They wanted to have a Chance, to see what might be out there for them. They became Career Women. They became hard-driving, respected professionals.These Career Women fought hard for every opportunity, every chance to prove themselves. Often, they had to work twice as hard to prove they were every bit as good as a man. And in time, many of them became the very image of that old Business Man. They wore dark colored, serious, conservative business suits. They were told that Motherhood was a sign of weakness, that it had no place in the work world. They were told to remember that they had More Important Things to do. In order to make it in the professional world, they became driven, focused, and unavailable.

As I watched the movie, I thought of my old thoughts on labor unions, and I saw an interesting parallel. The working woman became the dragon she set out to slay. She became the very things that drove her out of the house in the first place.  In order to succeed in Business Man's world, she was forced to become just like him.

In Stepford, all the wives used to be big-shots in their fields of work- executives, judges, famous authors. They were successful, forceful, driven. They weren't warm, or affectionate, or available to their families. Their husbands felt overshadowed, neglected, extraneous, resentful. They felt completely outdone by these Career Women, these Superwomen. And so the Superwomen were transformed into ultra-feminine, empty-headed, subservient robots.

There's also the whole angle of how it's not enough to be a successful career woman, but you also have to be super-mom-woman too, producing overachieving super-children. And the other facet- the disrespect of women who choose child-raising as their career. There's a lot of public lip-service to "Mom- the toughest job ever,"  but those who are Just a Mom, and not Career Woman plus Supermom, still encounter disdain for their choices.

I feel like I should tie this up in a neat conclusion, but I'm suddenly tired and my thoughts have frayed into the wind.

Labor Unions: set out to fight corruption, cruelty and persecution. Became corrupt, cruel persecutors.

Career Women: tired of being the drudge, dealing with it all without help from Distant, Driven, Cold, Unavailable Business man. Wanted a career of her own. Became Hard, Driven, Cold, Unavailable, Exhausted Career Woman. [And usually expected to be UberPerfectionSuperMom on top of it all- sort of a twisted mix of Career Woman and Stepford Wife!]

They became the dragon. Surely there is some mythological story out there of a hero who gazed too long at the monster he set out to slay, and was transformed into the monster himself.  It's the danger of gazing too long at the monster; the hazard of the pendulum that swings too far the other way.

I suppose there is a moral, beyond the fact that these transformations interest me.

Hmmm....Gazing Too Long At The Monster. Sounds like the title for another post. ;D


  1. p.s. Just to reiterate: This not a judgment of career women. It is an observation on the damaging effect this transition had on some women- specifically the female characters portrayed in the Stepford movie. This is by no means true of all, or even most, career women.

  2. Thanks for this interesting and thought-provoking post! Have you read Arlie Hochschild's 1989 book The Second Shift? If not, you might like it--it talks about the double burden placed on working women, who are increasingly required to participate in the labor force as costs rise as sustaining a family on a single income becomes less and less feasible; however, since there has been a shift in gender equity in the public sphere without a concomitant shift in gender equity in the private sphere (i.e. wife works as many hours as the husband because working women are now seen to be socially acceptable and policies are in place to ensure that they can gain access to paid work, but husband doesn't change as many diapers, vacuum the floor, or wash as many dishes), women are stuck in this "supermom" role.

    I find this particularly interesting when you look at the alternative--countries like Sweden, where women and men are given equal family leave time, strong childcare laws ensure that families always have access to affordable, safe, reliable childcare in order to ensure that both parents can work, and even gender equity laws that entitle a woman to return to her job after up to 7 years of family leave--now, she obviously doesn't get paid for 7 years of leave, but imagine knowing that if you had a child, it didn't spend the end of your career. I think the problem with the separate spheres approach, and the subsequent swing to the second shift phenomenon/career woman vs. mother backlash is in the extremity of it all. I think there's often an implicit assumption that a woman must choose between career or family--why is it that having a child has a detrimental impact on a woman's career, but has a neutral or even positive impact on a man's career?

    I also think there is an interesting social class component that goes with the political/public rhetoric surround motherhood. While I agree that some of the rhetoric praising motherhood is lip service meant to gain political points rather than coming from a sincere place of praise and appreciation, I also think that it is much more socially acceptable for a middle class woman to stay home with her children than for a working class mother to do it. When a working class mother wants to stay home and raise her children, she's labeled a lazy welfare queen; when a middle class mother goes to work, she's criticized for not being invested enough in her children. Shouldn't motherhood be the same regardless of one's social class?

  3. Well said, Jasmine. :) I like the sound of Sweden's system- giving support both to those mothers who choose to work, and to those who choose to be home with their young kids, and also supporting fathers in having an active role in their children's lives. Good point about the social class aspect also. There is so much judgment that goes on over this issue.

    I remembered another example of the gender role dichotomy that pre-dates the career woman situation. My mom grew up as the only daughter on a family farm. She would be outside helping with the work, alongside her dad and two older brothers. When they all came inside, the boys sat down to rest with dad, while sister kept on working, helping her mother with the inside work as well!

    Thanks for your comments. The book you mentioned sounds like an interesting read.

  4. Hm, I guess this answers my question about my own blog--I wasn't sure if people who wrote comments saw the reply. I guess not! Glad I came back and checked :)

    Yes, I definitely think that Sweden has a few things figured out. Too bad it takes a population crisis to motivate such measures! That's a great example about your mother. I can certainly understand why a gendered division of labor developed--when you think of hunter-gatherer societies, for example, that arrangement makes great sense. But gender systems haven't seemed to evolve to keep pace with other social changes--or at least not at the same pace.

  5. I've thought of exploring the options on the blog to see if I can activate some sort of email notification for comments. It would help me to reply in a more timely manner! :)

    So true! Few "working fathers" have the same relentless workload as "working mothers"! I imagine that even if a woman is, say....a pediatric neurosurgeon, she is still expected (and expects of herself??) to come home and put dinner on the table, wash the dirty socks, and generally make life work for everyone else. I read a comment once, that a woman made, to the effect that the working woman needs a "wife" too- someone to make all the mundane details flow, so she can come home at the end of the work day and relax. :)