Work, as a financial reality: The lesson of Norma Rae
It’s hard to pinpoint a year more emblematic of second-wave feminism and its emphasis on career than 1979. In popular entertainment, The Mary Tyler Moore show had concluded its seven-year run only two years earlier, Nine to Five was exploring the realities of the “pink ghetto,” and Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) abandoned her son to pursue a career in Kramer vs. Kramer. But 1979 was also the year of a dynamic character with a different lesson to teach about strong women and the workplace: Sally Field’s Norma Rae.
The plot to the film is generally well-known, but just to offer a brief synopsis: Norma Rae, a single mother employed in a Southern textile mill alongside her parents and most everyone else in her small town, befriends a labor organizer from New York and becomes active in the effort to unionize the workers in the mill. I’ll get back to this.
On Monday, Patrick Deneen reviewed the book Radical Homemakers, by Shannon Hayes. He summarized her argument:
families should step out of our badly-oriented, self-destructive consumerist culture, and seek to achieve a high degree of self-sufficiency within the contexts of community by eschewing the consumptive ethic and the corresponding felt need of both spouses – or, indeed, either – to “succeed” in the corporate rat-race.
Later in the review, he added:
what we today call ‘freedom’ or autonomy is a kind of enslavement to outside powers, the replacement of old lords (aristocrats) with new corporate lords (‘meritocrats’). Our cognitive dissonance comes from the fact that we confuse being ‘bonded’ to the home as a kind of bondage, when in fact it is the true source of our freedom.
Although the argument is smartly applied to both sexes, it is impossible to untangle the baggage of “homemaker” from its feminist/non-feminist implications. And while I think (hope?) the damning stereotypes of the subservient, mindless stay-at-home mom are behind us, there is still an acceptable level of pride in educational and career achievements among women that frankly devalues women who don’t have an impressive resume. This has always been true. In the 1910s, members of the National Woman’s Party picketed the White House to gain suffrage wearing sashes bearing the names of their alma maters; a not-so-subtle conveyance that they believed the most convincing message in favor of enfranchisement was to advertise the accomplishments of middle-class women.
But while I’m always up for a good argument against meritocratic values, the dichotomy between careerism and homemaking generally pushes to the side an obvious fact: even those of us who agree that home “is the true source of our freedom” still have to make a living. I find Hayes’ (and Deneen’s) thesis to be extraordinarily appealing, as I do with much of the back-to-basics arguments about American life. But like most people, I don’t have the luxury of exiting the rat race for a life of growing my own food. It’s great as an ideal, just impractical. Compromises must be made that allow for a rejection of meritocratic values of career, consumption, status, and ambition without living in denial of the need to hold a job.
To find those compromises, I suggest looking back at the lesson of that working class hero of 1979. Norma Rae was no enthusiastic participant in a consumerist culture; the most she confessed to purchasing was “a white cotton brassiere, size B… some Kotex pads and a Cosmopolitan magazine.” Not exactly the shopping list of an archetypal meritocrat. She didn’t work for advancement or recognition – she gave up a higher paying job in the same mill after it cost her friends at work – and she didn’t work as an outlet for her talents away from the home. She worked to support her family. She was strong, she was smart, she was independent, and she held a job… but she was no careerist.
So here’s my proposal – for both sexes: Work as a means to an end. Go into work on time, take pride in the task at hand, take the allotted lunch hour, leave at the agreed upon end of the day. Don’t ask for or expect a promotion. Avoid the temptation of the rat race by learning to want less stuff. Use vacation days and spend them at the beach in August, preferably one within driving distance. Spend time with friends; never network. Resist getting a Blackberry, and if that is not possible, turn it off every weekend and evening. Always put family first.
Sure, it’s not quite as radical as Hayes’ homemakers, but radical in its own way, and a more plausible goal for most of us.