A warm welcome to Penny Ehrhardt!
Penny runs a public policy consultancy called Ehrhardt Advisors. She is a writer, researcher, international human rights law practitioner, parent, Soka Gakkai Buddhist, and lifelong feminist. Formerly based in Napier, New Zealand, she is currently undertaking doctoral research into the economic and social rights of single-parent families at Oxford University, England.
The feminism I need
Since I was a little girl, I was a feminist. I never saw myself getting married or depending on a man to provide for me. To be honest, I didn’t imagine that a man would want to provide for me either. Why should they? As a good descendent of feminists, I was taught nothing about appealing to, or catching a male. It certainly was not suggested that I should be economically dependent on one. Yet I always wanted to raise children. The dynamism, and challenges of guiding an evolving personality seemed self-evidently appealing.
My mother was a feminist and I was surrounded by feminist role models in my teachers, and friends’ mothers. They were widely divergent in their personalities, backgrounds and views, but portrayed a core assumption that women were complete persons with equal rights to men. It was something that, as a child, I never questioned.
In the 1970s, when I was growing up, it was common to hear about the great structural changes taking place in society. ‘Women’s lib’ along with the youth generation, free love, the pill, and the decline in religious observance, were – so the story went – going to lead to the demise of the family. This caused great handwringing for social conservatives (including my father), but for me, it caused hope. I knew that when I grew up we would beyond all the male chauvinism and female oppression. No longer would there be families in which the man of the house thought he knew best and imposed his will on others.
The nuclear family, which during these latter Cold War years always made me envisage a dangerous bomb, would have passed its use-by date. By the time I grew up, people would form relationships with whomever they chose, creating egalitarian units in which creative commitment and sharing of resources would rule. It would be a happy and rational world of freedom.
Maybe it was easy to have this naivety in the 1970s when benefits were still enough to live on, tertiary education was free, and both the Universal Family Benefit and Housing Corp loans still existed. Although life must have been stressful for their mums, friends raised by single-parents did not seem significantly more impoverished than everyone else.
Yet as I hit my teens there were some niggles in this idyllic picture, including weird comments from my mother. For example, I remember lounging on the lawn with friends, all academically able girls from aspirational families. My mum joined us as we were talking about our futures. The conversation veered to the subject of babies. It was embarrassing to admit an interest in these small messy beings. Pregnancy meant failure: it was what stupid girls did or terrible accidents. For those whose parents who had got pregnant young in the hippy days, the dangers of early pregnancy were etched into their early biographies. Yet several of my friends admitted that they might consider having a child sometime a long way into the future. If they did, they would employ nannies, they said.
My mum took me to task later for these attitudes. What, she wanted to know, was the point of having children if you were not going to raise them? The implication was that my friends were selfish, arrogant and displaying their class-privilege for imagining such a thing. But what I remember from this conversation was the lack of alternatives: how else would we raise our children, while earning a living?
In reality, the only option would be dependence on men for our material needs. This was something we had been taught to look down upon. Young women who sought out wealthy men were gold-diggers, and basing one’s future on marriage to a rich man was the antithesis of female liberation. Moreover, we’d been taught our identities would be based on professional destinies. We’d be contributing to the world as lawyers, academics, doctors, artists, politicians and businesswomen. To abandon that for kneading playdough and kissing scratched knees was unthinkable.
There were other occasions when this paradox raised its head: Mum suggesting that the massage course I wanted to do would best be left until I had children (as if then I would somehow have more time); or the time she mused that I might become a poet when I grew up (even then, I knew that poets do not make the kind of money that would support a family).
It’s not that our feminist foremothers did not understand this conundrum. The 1930s New Zealand feminist magazine Woman Today ran a series of articles arguing ‘Motherhood is an occupation and should be recognised as such, and until this service is paid for the same as any other service, the freedom of women is all talk.’[i] In 1970 Shulamith Firestone published The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution where she argued that women’s liberation could not take place until women were freed from the means of reproduction.[ii]
But these issues that run to the heart of our society are immensely difficult and complicated. In Superfreakonomics, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner argue that we are all driven by incentives, and wonder if the pay gap between male and female MBAs is evidence that ‘a higher wage simply isn’t as meaningful an incentive for women as it is for men.’[iii] ‘Could it be,’ they ask, ‘that men have a weakness for money just as women have a weakness for children?’ [iv] In a worldview defined by economic rationalism, these choices are portrayed as equal.
Those friends on the lawn did grow up to have children. Most did so in the context of a marriage to a man. Through social media I am aware of where they are now: the recipient of a scholarship to an Ivy League university who is now a stay-at-home mum; the environmental scientist who can’t find work that allows her sufficient flexibility to meet the needs of her chronically ill teen: the newly single-mum rediscovering her individual identity while juggling work, post-grad study and shared parenting.
I am the only one who had the audacity to attempt the job of parenting alone from day zero (as a lesbian, arguably I had limited choices: it was not possible for me to form a two-parent family in the legal sense at the time, although many lesbians constructed strong two-parent families outside of the law’s recognition). The thought that I would one-day be providing for my children had influenced, if not fully directed, my life-choices: to go to university instead of travelling (which thankfully gave me an undergraduate degree before fees came in); to get a good job in the public service (only to find such roles restructured so frequently as to be meaningless); to purchase a car and a washing machine (which seemed to me the essentials for embarking on parenthood).
Yet when I notified my parents of my intention to have a child, my father wrote me a letter lambasting my selfishness (these were the days of sending physical letters for important matters). Dad said that, I would never admit it but really I wanted a child to help me grow up (actually seeing the world through new eyes, and growing through parenting was something I consciously looked forward to). He added that it would be a tragedy it I had a boy, as clearly I hated men and would make the child’s life miserable. Mum later commented that she agreed with the letter.
Despite my best efforts, I stressed about being unable to figure it out better. By the 1990s, feminism’s call for a radical restructuring of societal relations had become diluted to a celebration of minor modifications in the workplace that paid lip-service to women’s on-going roles as primary caregivers. A government department I worked for ran a seminar on what is now known as work-life-balance. All the participants were women. The presenter expressed surprise at my attendance seeing as I had no children. One was expected to have babies first and only afterwards notice the dilemmas that this created in continuing paid work.
The presenter sagely advised us to encourage our husbands to do the dishes or cook dinner occasionally. The man’s role, she said, did not have to be limited to taking out the rubbish. She also suggested we teach ourselves to worry less about having our houses immaculate – it really didn’t matter if the towels in the laundry cupboard were not in colour coordinated piles with the folds all sitting the same way. I listened in mute horror. Looking around the room in amazement, I wondered what kind of creatures actually did this. Despite his social conservatism, my dad always did his fair share of folding washing, and it had never occurred to any of us that towels should be stacked in a particular way. What the seminar carefully avoided mentioning was the underlying reality that having children creates financial responsibilities at the same time as reducing the hours available to meet them.
Although this dilemma remained unsolved, my determination to be a parent was given a push as I saw friends lose their ability to have children, due to health conditions. Entering my thirties, the reproductive abilities we’d been taught to fear as teenagers, started to seem like precious, fickle gifts.
My confidence to step onto the hazardous path of single-parenting was nurtured through my encounters with Buddhism through an organisation called Soka Gakkai International, which teaches that courage, as well as compassion are essential elements of developing one’s life state. The practice was developed by a thirteenth century Japanese Monk called Nichiren Daishonin, who stressed the equality between men and women, as well as between priests and lay people, and demonstrated great respect for children and parents. I attended a young woman’s Buddhist discussion at which Yuki Johnston, the Japanese woman who founded the Soka Gakkai movement in New Zealand, urged members to list their goals for the next eight years. I included having a child, along with career goals as my determinations. That public commitment became my blueprint.
Nevertheless, I remained nervous about my ability to make this a reality, and on a Buddhist course in Japan, I sought out guidance from a young woman leader. Faced with her floral twinset, and conservative demeanour, at first I imagined she’d have nothing useful to tell me. Initially, she questioned why I did not simply channel my love for children into, say working as an early childhood teacher. But once I explained that I already had a career direction, and that the desire to parent was something quite different, she encouraged me wholeheartedly, pointing out that creating a new life was an awesome responsibility, and that if this was what I wanted, I should do it with confidence and conviction.
I waited until I was four months pregnant before telling my mum and dad: parental disapproval on top of morning sickness was more than I could face. Nor did I see much point upsetting their equilibrium until I was sure the pregnancy would stick. Bizarrely, once faced with a fait accompli, Mum and Dad were freed from the need to give advice. Instead they prepared to welcome their grandchild into the world. By the time he arrived, my dad was terminally ill with a brain tumour.
Dad soon lost the ability to walk, but spent time holding and talking to his grandson. When he could no longer do even that, I visited him in hospital and laid my son on the bed beside him. Dad seemed to like that.
At the same time, I was attempting to keep working on a project researching tertiary students’ beliefs about the gender implications of student debt. The young women I interviewed recognised that they would have to pay back their debt while earning less per hour than males, and quite likely taking time out of the workforce for unpaid parenting. One interviewee argued forcefully that the logical feminist recourse was to marry a rich man. Much as I wanted to disagree (the old judgement towards gold-diggers still lingered), I could offer no better option.
After all the effort these young women put into studying harder than the boys, getting better grades in school and university, would they really have to seek financial wellbeing through marriage? And, if so, would they eventually come accept a second class status in their relationships out of the necessity of keeping things sweet with the person they were economically dependent on?
I need a feminism that goes further than that. I cannot envisage a time when society no longer relies on babies being born and children being raised. We are all born dependent, and most will become dependent again before we die. In between, we move through degrees of interdependency. Feminism’s unfinished business includes creating a world where parenting and other caring, educating, and nurturing work, no longer condemn women to low status, poverty, or dependence on a male wage earner.
When my son was 11 months old, I got cancer. I was treated and survived. But the ghastly truth is that, on receiving the diagnosis, I seriously contemplated that this might be divine punishment for my hubris in thinking that I could go it alone.
As well as fundamentally revolutionising society’s attitudes and economic assumptions, I need to revolutionise my own. To free our minds from the binds of patriarchy, I need feminism more than ever.
[i] Gertrude E Pickett ‘Why Abortion is rife’ Woman Today, July 1937, p 7.
[ii] Shulamith Firestone (2003). The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[iii] Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, Superfreakonomics, Penguin Books 2010, p 46.
[iv] Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, Superfreakonomics, Penguin Books 2010, p 46.
You are warmly welcomed to contribute to this discussion in the comments below.
You might also want to check out these posts on feminist subjects:
The Beauty Myth (an intro or refresher)
And if you would like to publish your own story of being a feminist, please get in touch.