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What We’re Reading: December 2019
For a lot of us, the holidays are a time when we're thrust into filling heavily-gendered familial roles that often don't align with our professional selves. What's it mean to be a "liberated woman" both at home and at work?
Welcome to What We’re Reading. Each month, we’ll curate a list of books―from perennial classics to new releases―chat with authors, and review titles with the hope of co-creating a community of well-read makers. Discussions around work, creativity, and entrepreneurship are constantly evolving; here, we aim to create a space for different ideas and approaches to be in conversation with one another. Whether you’re already an avid reader or wish you read more, we hope you’ll feel inspired to read along with us.
For most of the year, I’m what, in the 1960s, might have been called a “liberated woman.” I work. I vote. I don’t shave my legs. Sure, I’ve got three kids and I was married to a man for a decade. But, this year, my kids and I are celebrating our first Christmas with my current partner, a wonderful woman who they call “Weird Uncle.” So, ya know: not a lot of traditional gender-roles going on over here.
I’m sorry if all this seems like an overshare. I just want you to know what my normal life is like, so that you can understand the weight of it when I tell you that, every year on Thanksgiving, before I eat, I make plates for my uncles. And male cousins. And all of the children.
The grown men will sit on the couch watching the game or playing dominos; I (along with my other female relatives) will shovel food into my face while standing, then move through the space fixing second helpings or refilling drinks. The women will fuss at little ones to eat more and keep their greasy hands off their new sweaters before clearing dishes, wiping surfaces, and covering everything in foil. We’ll gossip about the family, which mostly means speculating on peoples’ relationships and reproductive choices. My aunts will inevitably congratulate me on gaining a few pounds, since that thickness will help me “snag a new man.”
And I will smile and laugh. I’ll turn around and arch my back to show the aunts that yes, it’s true, I am getting rounder in all the right ways. I’ll make my uncles’ plates the way they like them, and hold my cousin’s new baby so that she, too, can fix plates—without it ever even occurring to either of us that what we’re doing is ridiculous.
Because for me—and, I think, for a lot of us—the holidays are a time when we're thrust into filling heavily-gendered familial roles that often don't align with our professional selves. Roles we've even sought out to deny in the workplace. Which is why, this month, I gathered up some reads to help me (you? us?) work through and make sense of all the gendered backsliding that often comes with going home for the holidays. Enjoy, my little bookworms.
It’s been half a century since Gloria Steinem published “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” and 56 since she went undercover in a skimpy, fuzzy-tailed outfit to document the exploitation and mistreatment of female workers at the New York Playboy Club, but she hasn’t lost her knack for expressing complicated, challenging ideas in punchy, memorable ways. In fact, if The Truth Will Set You Free is any indication, Steinem’s gotten even better at joining scholarly rigorous foundations with easily digestible take-aways and strong aesthetics. (If you’re interested in evolutionary biology and behavior, the chapter on “Families Born and Chosen” is for you; many of the illustrated quotes seem tailor-made for a millenial-styled “live, laugh, love” IG account.)
Especially relevant to the gendered work of holidays with family is chapter three, “Work Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” Steinem conceptualizes work not simply as labor in exchange for compensation or profit, but as what we do to be valued. She relays her own work history, including a stint as a magician’s assistant, and how those undervalued positions informed her later work, and prepared her to understand and embrace the work of feminst thinkers like Frances Beal and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Her depiction of building community with her fellow workers, especially during her time as a lifeguard at a Black pool, could easily apply to my aunts and girl cousins laboring in the Christmas kitchen.
This isn’t just one to read; it’s one to gift to your teenage nieces, Aunt Lois, Gramma Mabel, or any other women in your family who might want to have a seat and take a rest after the holiday meal.
Be warned: This short read by Zoe Fenson might make your blood boil. In it, Fenson writes about a “sobbing meltdown” precipitated by what at first seems like a small, simple thing: Her husband volunteers to make dinner.
Except, not really. Because when the time to host came around, Fenson’s husband “waltzed through the door from work, bubbling with enthusiasm” and said “okay, I’m ready to start cooking.” He went so far as to ask Fenson what was in the fridge. Fenson goes on to pick apart all of the miscommunication and differing expectations that came before the meltdown—all of the unseen, unappreciated labor she must have done for her spouse to be so completely oblivious to the “mental load” that she carried as the primary food preparer.
Of course, there’s nothing groundbreaking there. Even if we aren’t familiar with the statistics on gendered domestic labor in heterosexual domestic partnerships, the vast majority of us have seen the imbalance play itself out in real relationships. And this imbalance is what’s on display and what’s being transmitted intergenerationally at extended family gatherings like holiday dinners, when the womenfolk plan and execute and their male counterparts just show up for the grub.
What is interesting about this read is Fenson’s recognition of how she contributes to the imbalanced dynamic in her home and in her partnership. As she explains, her husband “didn’t want to guess at the cooking process on his own because I had so thoroughly claimed my title as the keeper of the food.” For most of her essay, Fenson isn’t complaining about her husband’s faux-pas (though she has every right to); she’s sharing the ways in which she and her husband are working to build a more balanced relationship, so that she doesn’t end up sobbing on the floor again. And what she shares can be applied to all kinds of relationships predicated on sharing responsibilities.
Like Fenson, Eve Rodsky focuses on gendered labor imbalances at home. But where Fenson thinks, Rodsky does. In Fair Play, Rodsky explains how she found herself fulfilling the role of the default—or “she-fault”—parent, even though she had set out with the explicit goal of establishing an equal partnership. Like Fenson, she ended up sobbing over a seemingly small, insignificant thing (in Rodsky’s case, it was a text about blueberries), and, like Fenson, her sobbing meltdown pushed her to search for a solution.
After crowdsourcing a “Sh*t I Do” spreadsheet, in which women across the US added all of the unpaid, unseen tasks they were responsible for in their households, Rodsky realized that the imbalance in her home wasn’t rare, and that just writing to-do lists for her husband wasn’t really a solution. She didn’t need a list; she needed a system.
Fair Play is that system. It’s a figurative card game that partners play together to help them prioritize household responsibilities, and decide who should take the lead on all the tasks needed to run a home. It’s full of useful take-aways for creatives and doers who want to succeed in business without sacrificing relationships, and Rodsky’s inclusion of career and wellness in her discussion of the “costs” of domestic responsibilities is both challenging and refreshing. And though it’s designed for monogamous heterosexual romantic partners, it’s easy to see how the Fair Play system could be applied to other family structures, at specific events like holiday gatherings, and even used by people who want to establish equitable systems to share work loads with their business partners.
Rachel Hollis’s big media break came in 2015, when an Instagram post showing off her stretchmarks in a bikini went viral. A year later, she leveraged her social media influencer status to publish Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About What You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant To Be, in which she shares some of the strategies she implemented to work through the negative effects self-doubt and low self-esteem had on her both professionally and personally. In Girl, Stop Apologizing, Hollis picks up the pen again, this time focusing on how being socialized to define ourselves in relation to others—as daughters, sisters, mothers, employees—can limit women, and keep us from following our goals and instincts.
Hollis’s book is broken into 3 sections: “Excuses to Let Go Of,” “Behaviors to Adopt,” and “Skills to Acquire.” Hollis’s writing strength is her ability to connect light, humorous anecdotes (like the time she and her husband accidentally went to Germany) to larger social patterns, then present practical solutions. It’s a quick, easy read, and one that offers constructive tips for quieting the voices of gendered socialization and advocating for yourself in personal and professional contexts.