Having a life

I’ve been traveling for the last two weeks and didn’t check my favourite blogs as often as I usually do. Apparently I’ve missed out on some really good stuff.

For those of you who like to know what’s behind a link before you follow it: a male politician * commented on Janet Napolitano’s suitability to serve at the head of U.S. Homeland Security:

Janet’s perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19, 20 hours a day to it.

Ah, where to begin? Here’s a video of Campbell Brown’s takedown of that. She makes a couple of good points: If Napolitano were male, her having or not having a family would not even be discussed. Instead, the conversation would be about her actual qualifications for the job. Besides, why is it normal to assume that an unmarried woman is available – and will be happy – to spend 20 hours a day in the office? This is just a short synopsis, do watch the video if you have two minutes to spare.

I would add one point of my own: why is it normal to assume that an unmarried woman has “no life”? More specifically, why is a woman’s “life” defined as having a husband and kids? My first response to that was: there are plenty of good things in life that are available to unmarried people, including friendships, travel, intellectual discussions, arts and literature, sports, fine dining, and so on. As a matter of fact, it’s not uncommon for married people with small children to say that they don’t have a life, in the sense that they miss out on all the things I’ve just listed – not that this is necessarily a complaint.

But, actually, that doesn’t quite get it right. Napolitano is a state governor. Politicians at that level, of either gender, do have to work long hours and don’t have a lot of time for either families or diversions. This is widely known and commented upon. Note the choice of language, though. Male politicians (or male scientists, or male public figures in general) might have no family, or might come back from work long after the kids go to sleep, seeing them only briefly on weekends, or whatever. That’s not being referred to as “having no life”. Because if you’re a man, your work can be your life if you want it to be. You get to make the choice.

If you’re a woman, on the other hand, your “life” is family. No matter how ambitious you are, no matter how much you actually achieve, at the end of the day you’re either a housewife if you’re married (“iron my shirts”) or a spinster if you’re not (“has no life”). We can get a job if we wish, but the only true fulfillment for a woman is – supposedly – through marriage and motherhood. Not for us are the professional experiences described in this article found through random googling:

G.W.F. Hegel once said, “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”

Without passion, people can never find true fulfillment within their occupations.

The difference between a passion-filled career and the opposite–a job–is real and easily defined. A career is taken–it is yours. At a job, by contrast, one must work and toil, and not necessarily toward an end that you’d prefer.

Would Yo-Yo Ma’s music provoke the same the profound effects upon the fragile human psyche without the inclusion of his renowned passion? In fact, would John Coltrane’s jazz melodies carry us through the same torrent of emotions without his passion being applied to every phrase?

Well, guess what. Some of us women do have careers as opposed to jobs. We’re passionate about what we do. We find fulfillment in it. We’d be even more fulfilled if we were actually considered as equals in our profession – and if we didn’t have to explain our family lives where they are not relevant.

* You can find out who it was if you follow the links above. I didn’t want to focus on this particular person, given how commonplace this kind of thinking is. I see it all the time. Some time ago I got an email from a high-school classmate with whom I’d had no contact in many years. I responded to it. He wrote back, more or less, that he and other classmates are happy to see me doing well, but could I write more about the really important things? Like, whether I have a husband and children? Guess we’re not on the same page, there.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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