“A Traditionally Female Occupation”

Flashy text reads: "It's our day!" Below it are images of women holding hands, with different cultures, body shapes, fashion styles, skin tones, and appearances represented. Includes a woman in hijab, women with short skirts and cropped tops, and women in business wear, pants, or dresses.
I just thought it was a cute GIF. Image via International Women’s Day Resources.

Today marks International Women’s Day, and I was inspired to blog by a post from Fat Heffalump, talking about the ways femininity has functioned in her life and intersected with her body size, leading her first to reject all things feminine but then ultimately to take pride in reclaiming those things for herself – a woman whose body is rejected as a “good enough” female form and consequently stigmatized and demonized – as a feminist act. Rock on.

That got me thinking about my own life, and the ways I do or don’t perform femininity.

The last twelve months have constituted a banner year for getting in touch with my masculine side. I rejected the notion that I have to shop in the “women” section of the store and bought my first pair of men’s pants. (Oh, the pockets! Such deep, wonderful pockets!) I got a tattoo (which some people may not count as masculine behaviour, but I was raised with the very strong directive that tats were, if not unfeminine, certainly not ladylike.) I embraced cargo pants, cut out high heels, went out in public without makeup, and significantly cut back on “sitting like a lady”. I even worked a whole month in a parenting centre without wearing ostentatiously dangly earrings.

Close-up of a foot wearing a pale pink high-heeled shoe with rhinestones and a flower on the heel.
You don’t have to walk in these shoes to be a woman – and you’re not a better woman if you don’t. Image via Weibar Fashion City.

I know, I know. Some of these are small and silly things, because the truth is it doesn’t take a lot for me to achieve a banner year in being not-feminine (which is basically how masculinity is defined, when you think about it). And not all of these were my choice – I quit wearing heels because of a foot injury, and I stopped wearing dangly earrings because I was working in a place with children, and dangly earrings could present a hazard either for them or me. (Little kids like to pull.) Not wearing make-up? Some days I just felt too lazy; most days I summoned the energy to paint myself up.

And through all that, I remained plenty feminine. I just performed it in other ways. I wore lacy crocheted sweaters. Sparkly sequins. Body glitter. Flowers in my hair – which, incidentally, I’ve begun to wear long and flowing, like it was when I was younger. I still wore plenty of skirts in the summer, and I’ve been shopping around for decently-priced leggings so I can wear them in the winter too. And, maybe more than anything else, I’ve embraced a profession that has long been considered “women’s work” – child care.

I also consider myself more of a feminist than ever.

To some people that seems like a contradiction. How can I be so committed to “girl stuff” like heels, make-up, and glitter, yet still committed to female empowerment and equality? Didn’t I get the memo that heels are the patriarchy’s way of hobbling us, make-up a money-grab that profits off inculcating low self-esteem, and child-rearing an effective method of keeping us poor and powerless?

I know. But I still have a lot of cute shoes in my closet, and people keep having children that need rearing. And neither of these are incompatible with feminism as I understand it.

See, feminism for me is about being able to make choices, and have those choices coded as human rather than gendered. I have girl friends who wouldn’t be caught dead in heels or glitter or dangly earrings. I love all those things. My version of feminism is all for neither of these options to be seen as better or more womanly than the other. It’s just people making choices and not being restricted by arbitrary gender designations. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean men could wear glitter or dangly earrings if they wanted, and not be seen as having lost their masculinity (though I admit that’s a pretty far-out dream at this point.)

Choices about fashion are important as ways we communicate about ourselves. But investing my effort in a child-care career has made me more interested in how jobs and careers are coded as masculine or feminine – and, more importantly, how they’re valued or devalued accordingly.

Painting by Marguerite Gerard, circa 19th century, of a woman baring her breast as her child toddles towards her in search of nourishment.
Times have changed. Image via Jane Austen’s World.

So, historically there have been reasonably good reasons why women were tasked with most of the child care: because women breastfed their babies (or other people’s), and the technology to pump and store breastmilk so Dad could take on a late-night feeding once in a while hadn’t yet been invented. That’s no longer true, but old habits die hard, and women still take on a disproportionate amount of child care in the home. This extends into the career field as well: child care is what you might call “a traditionally feminine occupation”. There’s a lot of developmental science and some economics involved in our field, but we’re still basically seen as nannies. I’m studying in a class of 56 or so students; of those 56, only two identify as men. Two.

That’s not necessarily a problem; people choose the careers they’re drawn to as individuals. But what’s more problematic is the way men and women are treated in the field – I’m not working yet, but what I’ve been told is that men are more likely to be promoted into administrative positions to get them off the child-care floor, because that part of caregiving is coded as female. That hurts women who would’ve been qualified for that (probably higher-paying and more powerful) position, because they lose their chance for no better reason than a gendered assumption about who fits which job. To an extent it hurts men, too, if they’d really rather stick to nurturing children, but the man in this situation at least has the power to refuse the role being foisted on him. Women have a much harder time transcending the assumption that they’re where they belong because they’re in the nursery changing diapers or rocking an infant to sleep.

Even more important to me: the way we see caregiving as women’s work, and women’s work as less valuable, impacts the way child-care workers are renumerated. We get paid less than what we’re worth. We’re not mere nannies or glorified babysitters (though some of us will choose to become nannies once we’ve finished our education); we are experts in child development and methods of teaching and guidance most appropriate to early childhood. We are also your first line of defense in making sure your children are safe from abusers, and we are advocates for children with all sorts of individually-tailored needs.

Our society tells us that we value the next generation, but the epidemic of underfunded child care and underpaid child care workers says otherwise. And it has real-life consequences. Over time, the people who are most skilled and qualified are the most likely to go on to better-paying positions if they can. Low wages aren’t attractive to anyone. This means that, theoretically, child-care centres may be stuck with bottom-of-the-barrel, low-skilled workers who haven’t been able to – and I use this phrase advisedly – “rise to the top”.¬†Because really, this entire model is predicated on the idea that child care is something to “rise” from, that it’s at the bottom of our economic hierarchy and deserves wages to be set accordingly.

A woman teaching children at a daycare centre.
This work matters. Image via Today’s Parent.

And that isn’t true – how do you go to work if you’ve got no one to take care of your children? child care matters! – but we accept it because our society has certain assumptions about the kind of work women do. Women used to do it for no pay, just for the privilege of being married, so it must not be worth very much. That model¬†ignores the whole economics of marriage – that being married was the way women were able to make their living, so basically the arrangement was to do this work with the understanding that you’d be financially kept in times when women were almost completely barred from earning money for themselves. Now that’s a very different way of understanding women’s work than “well, my mom took care of the kids for free, so why should you get paid so much to do it?”

My point is this: I am a feminist in what might be called “a traditionally feminine occupation”. The stereotype is that feminists oppose women in traditionally feminine occupations, but that’s not exactly true. Instead, we’re for choice: the choice of a woman to be a doctor, lawyer, or astronaut, or the choice of men to provide child care . . . or the choice of women to be caregivers, if that’s what they want. But we also want to see work that has been traditionally feminine treated as valuable, instead of dismissed because it’s always been “women’s work”.

Choice and fairness. That’s what I want to see. Happy International Women’s Day.

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