the ch!cktionary

I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.

For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.

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irregular features
Ask Lena: Reader Questions Answered
Anatomy of an Outfit
Bad Feminist Confessions
Freelance Friday: Career Advice for Young Writers
Hate Mail
Gratuitous Photos Of My Bulldog
Notes & Snapshots from Abroad
Recent Tweets @lenachen

Should I be alarmed that I am less than alarmed by The Atlantic's alarmist headlines of late? That I am neither compelled by nor can I relate to the arguments of women who are ostensibly just like me? Let's start with this polemic against “choice feminism” and stay-at-home mothers (1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism & Make The War On Women Possible). It’s by Elizabeth Wurtzel, who is the author of Prozac Nation (a book I loved and read/reread throughout high school) and a generally controversial memoirist who has written quite openly about her struggles with depression and addiction. She is what I once would have called an idol. Nowadays, she’s a corporate attorney who feels “betrayed” by women who are “educated and able-bodied” yet choose to not work. Also, these women are why men think all women are dumb. No, seriously, that is essentially the gist of the argument:

To be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege, and most of the housewives I have ever met — none of whom do anything around the house — live in New York City and Los Angeles, far from Peoria. Only in these major metropolises are there the kinds of jobs in finance and entertainment that allow for a family to live luxe on a single income. In any case, having forgotten everything but the lotus position, these women are the reason their husbands think all women are dumb, and I don’t blame them… The husbands of the 1 percent, are on trading floors or in office complexes with other men all day, and to the extent that they see anyone who isn’t male it’s pretty much just secretaries and assistants. And they go home to…whatever. What are they supposed to think? They pay gargantuan American Express bills and don’t know why or what for. Then they give money to Mitt Romney.

So, basically, instead of making the age-old argument that feminism died because of housewives, we are now making the argument that feminism died because of the Real Housewives?

Then there’s Anne Marie Slaughter’s less incendiary, but still cynically titled piece (Why Women Still Can’t Have It All), which offers an interesting perspective, since Slaughter knows firsthand the difficulties of maintaining work/life balance as a high-level public service employee with young children. Her conclusion, however, came at me from nowhere:

I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks…

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

Wait, what? So let me get this straight: Slaughter essentially agrees that the dual income household has become a necessary evil in America, that the demands of wage labor come at a staggering cost to family relationships, and that women in particular are placed in an impossible position of “having to do it all” while competing in the free market against male workers without the same restraints. None of this suggests to me - a member of Slaughter’s “highly educated, well-off” demographic - that this is a problem of representation, political or otherwise. Rather, I would identify the problem as our country’s economic system, which is predicated on inequality and the accumulation of private property at others’ expense.

In other words, my fellow Educated and Upwardly Mobile Women Of The First World, there are calculations that go into squeezing 80-hour work weeks out of you at your average law firm/investment bank/etc., and these calculations are designed to maximize the profits of those who own your labor. So, it really shouldn’t strike anyone as surprising or even terribly unjust that you’re going to be passed over for promotions, neglected, fired, and generally thwarted from professional advancement if you’re a woman. Let’s stop expressing utter surprise that our bosses ditch us as soon as we seem like we might one day become unprofitable (i.e. too married, knocked up, or distracted by 50 Shades of Grey to spit out a Powerpoint). The logic of capitalism is that they would ditch anyone who appears unable to work. It’s not a woman thing, really. It’s a capitalism thing. And capitalism doesn’t make decisions based on niceness; it makes decisions based on profit. Don’t take it so personally.

Because as much as we like to tout “women-friendly” companies with policies in place to prevent or at least mitigate things like the above? Said companies are every bit as capitalist and exploitative as their competitors. They’re just better at maintaining worker morale, which is a pretty smart move in my book but no more or less motivated by profit. (And I’m sure that such diversity initiatives offer great PR, attract and retain talent, and benefit the company much more than they ever benefit the employees themselves.)

Which brings me to this: Electing a bunch of privileged people (who just happen to be women) so that they can “wield power” over inevitably less privileged people is not exactly what I envision as “a society that works for everyone”. There are absolutely instrumental and practical reasons to desire a more diverse and representative governing body, but that in itself shouldn’t be the goal. There are things so much more important than symbolic equality.