The idea that this recession represents a feminist watershed is, sadly, bunk. While it's true that 49 percent of the work force is female and that men are getting laid off at a faster rate than women, occupational segregation means that women are still more likely to be employed in jobs with irregular hours, no benefits, and without union representation. Sixty percent of children living in poverty are supported by single moms, often young women who have very few options for stable employment with middle-class wages.
All that said, there is some truth to the ubiquitous commentary about the recession shifting assumptions on gender, work, and domesticity — at least among the college educated. Consider this: Between 1995 and 2005, the number of self-employed Americans increased by 27 percent, to 9 million. As Emily Bazelon writes in Sunday's Times Magazine, many of those workers were creative class freelancers, drawn to the Fast Company mantra, as articulated in that dot-com bible in 1997: "The main chance is becoming a free agent in an economy of free agents. … You create a message and a strategy to promote the brand called You.”
Unsurprisingly, this lifestyle — which embraced risk, instability, and even narcissism — was more appealing (and more accessible) to men than to women. Only about a third of all self-employed workers in America are female. And because the recession is hitting freelancers especially hard, some couples are finding that dad — once proudly self-employed and free-spirited — is now contributing less than mom to the family's coffers, and is thus due for some serious diaper-changing or floor-scrubbing duty.
One such dad, Aaron Traister, has written a refreshingly honest essay for Salon. For starters, Traister admits that the reason he stays home with his son is not just because he's an awesome father, but also because he is, simply stated, less professionally successful than his wife. "I've always been a flake," he admits. "Whether it's my career or school or creative pursuits, I never seem to follow through, and I have a terrible habit of believing that I am smarter than the people I work for and with. I'm a flake and a schmuck."
But after initial successes in preparing dinners and taking his son on nature walks, Traister finds that his sense of masculinity is, in fact, deeply threatened by stay-at-home parenting. He stops cooking. He starts acting obnoxious to his wife and bragging at dinner parties about how he used to be "butch," working as a bouncer and in a prison. Of course, since this is a personal essay, Traister reaches the point of redemption. While shoveling snow with his son, he realizes that being a man has more to do with testosterone and imparting good values to his children than with having a traditional career. And I think Traister settles upon a really key issue for feminism: that so many men's notions of masculinity have failed to catch up with reality. He writes:
As many of us (for whatever reason) find ourselves in a fiduciary timeout, we should not only think about how to repower the American worker but how to reimagine the American man. The moment our mothers entered the workforce and shattered expectations, the rules about gender roles in this country changed completely, even if our perceptions didn't. Trying to live like our grandfathers is no longer an option.
cross-posted at TAPPED