Progressive Feminism At Work In Europe

As frequent readers of The American Scene might now, a subject I hold very dear is the advancement of women in the 21st century, although I sometimes have weird views on the subject.

One of the key problems in helping women “get ahead” is the thorny problem of reconciling motherhood and professional prospects equal to those of men. While discrimination plays a role, I think the evidence is now well accepted that we need to look beyond this simplistic explanation to come up with ideas and policies that truly enable women to have children without feeling like they’re sacrificing their career, or vice versa.

Many American progressive feminists glance longingly at European countries’ policies vis-à-vis women, but I unsurprisingly think that in many cases these policies fail, or at least have unintended consequences that work against their stated objectives.

And as in many cases, culture matters a great deal. I was reminded of this last week when I went to the offices of a large financial firm to sign the lease for our new apartment.

By way of background, my wife has decided to “keep her name” after our wedding — a misnomer in and of itself, because since 1804 the French Civil Code plainly states that women keep their names throughout their lives and that women changing their last names to their husband’s is merely a tolerated tradition.

Anyway, I get to the office to look over the lease, and notice that the contract is in the name of “Monsieur Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and Mademoiselle Marie-Laure Herold.” The following conversation with the (very kind) lady from the real estate firm follows (hereinafter using “Mrs” for “Madame”):

Me: “It’s ‘Mrs’.”

Her: “Ah, so you two are married?”

Me: “Yes.”

Her: “So we’ll put in… ‘Mr and Mrs Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’.”

Me: “No, just put in ‘Mrs Marie-Laure Herold’.”

Her: “Oh, all right. So, ‘Mrs Marie-Laure Gobry, née Herold’.”

Me: “No, her name is Mrs Marie-Laure Herold.”

Her: “Oh, ok. So, you two aren’t married.”

Me (resisting urge to break something, waving my wedding band in front of her face): “Yes, we are!”

Her: “I…”

Me (enunciating): “My wife has decided to keep her name.”

Her: “Ah! …Ah.”

(A few seconds silence.)

And here comes the kicker — Her (kindly): “I’m sorry, it’s just that we’ve never had this situation before.”

This floored me. This woman who deals with renters all the time, and who by the way works on her firm’s “prestige” condominiums, i.e. rented out to people in higher in the educational/income buckets and therefore more (?) likely to not change their names, had never encountered a married female renter who hadn’t changed her name. Even though the law actually forbids women from legally changing their names to their husbands’, unbeknownst to most of the population and, apparently, someone who drafts and signs civil contracts for a living.

The reason the above conversation didn’t involve my wife is because she was at the time in Germany for work. My feminist wife (God I love her) inquired about the situation for women in Germany. Germany is generally not a good place to be a working mother. The school day ends at noon (German pupils graduate high school at 19 as a result), and creches and day care centers are very rare. What’s more, my wife was told, eine gute Deutsche Mutter doesn’t put her children in day care.

Germany has very generous parental leave policies. Women get a full year of paid maternal leave, which they can extend to three years of “educational” leave. Employers are mandated to retake these working mothers in the same position after they leave. And my wife was told that German mothers are culturally strongly encouraged to take the full three years’ leave — if you don’t, you are likely to be frowned upon.

This points to the conclusion that the lack of day care centers are not (just) due to a lack of subsidies or policy encouragement, but also due to lack of demand because of strong cultural norms, although of course it can be convincingly argued that more ambitious policies would over time alter these cultural norms.

The results are not hard to fathom. I have no data but I suspect these strong pro-early maternity policies discourage hiring women. My feminist wife herself exclaimed over dinner after returning from Germany: “If I was a German employer, I probably wouldn’t hire a woman for an important job!” A lot of working mothers, if it’s possible, will not in fact return to the work force at the end of their three years leave. A lot more will work only in the morning, and fetch their kids from school at lunchtime. By the end of their first three years leave, many German mothers are understandably pregnant again: childrearing happens late in Europe, and if you start having kids in your 30s and you want more than one, you’re going to have them close together. After 6 years out of the workforce, women will be loth to return and/or find their career prospects tragically but logically damaged.

In the Mittlestand company where my wife worked, only one — childless — woman held a high-level managerial role. Meanwhile Germany suffers from a very low birthrate which now threatens the very existence of their highly successful welfare state.

What lessons to draw from this? Well, it’s hard. After 50 years of various countries trying to help the cause in various ways, the results are both impressive and disappointing.

I dream of a world where child-rearing is easily combined with meaningful careers.

But I believe that active government policies, in this area as in many others, often work against their intended goals.

I also believe that the current structure of large corporations also works against women because of its expectations of a linear career path with highest commitment at the ages where women are most inclined to have children. (For more on this topic, see here.)

Here are some of the things I envision as pushing things in the right direction:

- Smart government policies at the margins as proposed in e.g. Grand New Party that recognize the economic and moral value of women’s work in the home and in the workplace, and the value of marriage and family as providing the strongest basis for human flourishing.

- The exponential growth of small-scale, global-reach entrepreneurship, enabled by globalization and new technologies. I dream of a world where risk-averse men will work quiet lives of desperation at BigCo while their business owner wives will take care of the kids from 4 to 8 and run their global internet businesses from their laptop (tablet?) from 8 to 10. Part of me thinks women won’t be able to craft their own career paths until the traditional big corporation dies or is changed radically. Shop-class-as-soulcraft type education/skills also plays a big role here.

- A different cultural and educational outlook. Somehow. I wish leadership, risk-taking and even aggressiveness audacity were viewed as female qualities. I wish girls were taught martial arts from age 3 (and, why not, horseback riding and archery). I believe that college can often be the best time to get married and have kids before jumping into the workforce. I believe that the best education for kids is mostly to just leave them alone and that helicopter parents should get a damn job. For those last two, society is fast moving in the opposite direction: for reasons of illusory personal convenience, kids are being had much later, and children are treasured and coddled ever more, since they are now, let’s face it, luxury goods. A kid has agency; a Ferrari needs to be handled and protected. (Giving kids the vote, my delenda est carthago, would play a role here.) I also believe fathers should be more involved in the home and in educating kids. Surprisingly, I’m actually not hostile to the idea of mandatory paternal leave, so that dads would be incented to change diapers and women would be less disadvantaged in the traditional career path.

- Radically transforming and unbundling education, in particular ending that most inhuman institution, the school, as we know it, while a good in and of itself, would also play a positive role here.

- No doubt hair-tearingly for some, I’m convinced a pro-life society would also be a more feminist (or “choice-feminist”) society as it would have to be more open to childbearing and do more to encourage it. If having kids is a choice and only a choice, then why should we make accomodations for that choice? If you decide to have kids, you know the tradeoff you’re making vis-à-vis your career, so why should we help you? A lot of people, particularly young men, believe this. But if kids are societally viewed not as something akin to a McMansion but as a wonderful gift and investment in the future, the society will have to change to accomodate their mothers’ prospects better.

These are a few ideas I’m throwing around, but I realize they don’t really amount to a cohesive policy, much less one that is politically envisageable (giving kids the vote and outlawing abortion and mandatory paternity leave? Yeah, Congressmen will line up to draft that bill.) I mostly believe that this shit is very complicated, that there are no easy solutions and that we need to approach these questions with humility as well as ambition. I also believe we need to look outside traditional policy features and framework. The European policies that American progressive feminists pine for have, I believe, largely failed. But the American status quo, though it gets some important things right (particularly vis à vis the labor market), also fails at many other ones. And I think this is something we need to have a good faith discussion with people with many different perspectives and sensibilities.

I haven’t even begun to discuss the tremendously important role women must play in lifting the Third World out of poverty (another hobby horse of mine).

Sorry for the long post. But you’re not done hearing about it.