The Value of Women’s Work: Dare You Judge?

princess kate middleton work feminist

Katrina Onstad recently wrote an article stating that Kate Middleton is letting down the feminist movement by quitting her job as she prepares for her wedding and new role as princess.  The article is rather an easy target, not least of which because it’s based on the  following large, unsatisfactory premise:  that paid employment is where value and contribution lie.

This premise asserts that paid work, because it moves money, is the only kind that matters. Engaging in mind-numbing employment, or marketing useless, harmful, or unethical products are therefore necessarily valued more highly than, say, caring for loved ones or volunteer work.  That is, money matters, and is pretty much the only thing that does.

Accordingly, women who don’t work for money lack engagement with public life, are enjoying the benefits of feminism to which they have not contributed, and are doing so on the backs of women who do work for money.

It’s true that our society is work-centric and basically worships money.  However, if you still believe any part of this premise, basically you just need to evolve.

The nugget I can extract from Onstad’s premise worth addressing is the concern that if women leave the paid workforce, then the feminist gains that have been painfully gained in his arena will be stymied or may even recede.

I think this is possibly true.  Money is power in our society in many ways.  The trouble is, those of us who have been slogging it out in this arena are growing weary of its terms.  The height of career aspiration and advancement, which falls in one’s thirties and forties, coincide precisely during the years when most career women have and raise their children.  Women who try to pursue their career aspirations fully during these child-rearing years pay steeply and inevitably for their choices.

Some women will go for it, but some of us are tired of trying to make it in a man’s world.  Maybe the competition and fear and rat race isn’t what we thought it was, and doesn’t feel worth fighting for.  Maybe we’d rather work somewhere where we’re not systemically disadvantaged.  Some of us are leaving, not to return to an era of gendered subservience or mindless drudgery, but to be part of a world that welcomes, values, and recognizes more than one narrow version of work and worker.  Maybe some of us no longer want to be a woman who has made it in a man’s world, but aspire to being a woman working toward a people’s world, if you will.  Maybe there’s more than one way to fight the good fight.

In contrast to Onstad’s article, here are a few things I think are true.

1)         In our society, everyone needs money.

Yes, we do.  I need money, Katrina Onstad needs money, Kate Middleton needs money.  You need money too.  It’s just that, um, Kate has money, and she’s going to have pots and pots more very soon.

Is Onstad annoyed that Kate isn’t going to have to “work” for her money the way most of us do?  If so, I feel compelled to announce to Onstad that she hasn’t earned all of her advantages either.  She doesn’t write for the paper because she’s the best writer in the city.  She doesn’t enjoy the basic wealth of clean water, ample food, and opportunities for personal fulfillment because she worked for them.  Chance more than any of her abilities put her where she is, just as it has done with Kate and you and me.

2)         Paid work does not equate with financial independence.

Another underlying fallacy in Onstad’s article is women who work for money are independent.  This isn’t true. She may be financially independent from her spouse, but now she is financially dependent to her employer.  And in case this isn’t obvious, this is the case for men who work too.  If you are working because you need money, you are financially dependent.  Perhaps not on your spouse, but financially dependent you are.

Will Kate be dependent on William for money?  If she doesn’t have self-sustaining sources of money on her own now, then sure she will.  But if she doesn’t have these sources of money, then she’ll necessarily be dependent for her income anyway.

3)         Women, like men, who do not have enough money, will suffer.  Paid work can be a means through which to self-actualize and experience accomplishment.

I have an appreciation for paid work and what it can do.  My mother was widowed when she was 33 years old with three children (9, 7 and 2 years old).  She immigrated to Canada and worked pretty much all the time to singly support the family she had when she was in a partnership.  This process was difficult. The importance of financial security, the kind that does not and cannot depend on any man, was branded into my consciousness long ago.

Currently, my paid employment as a lawyer more or less supports my family of four.  I am proud of this.  In fact, I am able to work part-time and still support my family, which feels semi-miraculous to me, given how much harder my mother worked to provide a much more modest lifestyle.

4)         No woman is an island.

However, I am not too proud.  I know perfectly well that my accomplishments are not mine alone.  Along with other people, my paid accomplishments (and my happiness), are dependent on my husband’s support and non-paid accomplishments taking care of our children and our house.

Did you catch that?  I said that I am dependent on my husband.  And he is dependent on me, and not just because of my job.  ‘Dependence’ is a maligned word in our society because it is associated with a lack of autonomy and weakness.  But all strong foundational relationships like marriage or the parent-child variety expose our vulnerability. Provided these relationships are based on mutual respect, it seems that instead of denying the reality of our dependence on the people we love, it would make more sense to accept, foster, and pay tribute to our inter-reliance.

5)         Take care in assigning value to people’s lives.

I read in disbelief when Onstad suggested that Michelle Obama is working below her potential for not advocating before the Supreme Court as a lawyer in favour of fostering greater awareness of healthy eating habits in children.  Given the distorted relationship to food that plagues the United States population, along with its tremendous and miserable health, ecological, and animal welfare impacts, I find it impossible to conclude that Obama’s Sesame Street appearances are inferior efforts for the greater good.  Even if you’re prone to judgment of lives you cannot fathom, how can this judgment even be made?

I’ve actually worked on cases at the Supreme Court of Canada level.  It’s awe-inspiring, really, that courtroom.  Participating in a decision-making process at such a high level, one that literally helps to steer the nation, is an honour.

But when I became a mother, I decided to work part-time.  I don’t work as hard at my paid employment as I did before, and my opportunities at work will reflect that.

To boot, I’m not even inspiring millions of children on TV.  Just, I hope, the two little ones I’m responsible for.  Does that mean my activities before the Supreme Court are worth more than my activities with my boys?  What is the contribution to the ‘sisterhood’ of taking the time, unpaid, to raise a well-loved, secure, and compassionate child?  More importantly, what will the sisterhood have accomplished if it cannot support my choices?

Late this afternoon, I tried to shake off a mundane, unproductive day by taking a bath.  My younger son toddled into the bathroom wearing an orange and blue striped turtleneck and my husband’s eye guards for squash.  Chattering away at my side, he poured cupful after cupful of water over my shoulders, drenching himself in the process.  I wondered if this is how Roman emperors felt with their bath attendants.  Except that it couldn’t have been as good, because there wouldn’t have been love in the air.

In other words, my unpaid work can make me feel – sometimes – positively queenly; it can make me feel that Julius Caesar and Kate Middleton themselves have nothing on me.  Not bad, considering the wage.

8 thoughts

  1. “Did you catch that? I said that I am dependent on my husband. And he is dependent on me, and not just because of my job. ‘Dependence’ is a maligned word in our society because it is associated with a lack of autonomy and weakness. But all strong foundational relationships like marriage or the parent-child variety expose our vulnerability. Provided these relationships are based on mutual respect, it seems that instead of denying the reality of our dependence on the people we love, it would make more sense to accept, foster, and pay tribute to our inter-reliance.”

    Well said, Carol.

  2. Unless Kate’s parents lose all of their current wealth, she stands to have a great inheritance when they pass. In that case, Middleton does have a great deal of money to fall back on in case this marriage does not work out. She may not have to work for it but perhaps she wanted to.

  3. I’m giving you a standing ovation here. Yours is the best argument I’ve ever read on this issue. Our society has a hard time accepting that there’s more than one way to do something, doesn’t it?

    1. Thanks Shannon – and yes, I’m constantly baffled by our society’s narrow definitions of value and contribution. Why such a limited imagination?

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