Saturday, July 24, 2010

Women and work

I recently found a copy of my mother’s PhD thesis, and the key terms there matched those of my B.A. thesis proposal exactly: family, motherhood, women's subjectivity, patriarchy. I was surprised at the nearly word-to-word match, but I really shouldn’t have been. From the topic of research to the choice of subjects and profession, my mother’s intellectual interests have been an (often unconscious) influence on mine. Amma wrote her dissertation on Fay Weldon and Anne Tyler; I'm writing my B.A. thesis on Ashapurna Debi. I suppose the irony is that my mother wrote her dissertation on  American and British novelists; I'm writing mine on an Indian writer though I'm studying at Chicago. I became interested in Debi because my mother had a book of hers lying around at home for her own studies. Amma is a teacher; I want to be a teacher (though she feels teaching isn't a suitable profession for a man, because a teacher's salary can't support a family).
Now that I think about it, my topic of work and family is heavily influenced by things my mother has told me about her own experiences. A lot of the tensions, associations, and discursive features I expected to document in this inquiry into work and the family are, I feel, ones that flowed from the historical experience of women in my family beginning to go out to work. Of course, both men and women have to balance work and family, and both men and women work not just for money, but also to fulfill their personal interests and ambitions; I am not saying that only women feel these. But I do feel, though I find it difficult to express why exactly, that it is only with the end of the strong identification of men with work and women with the home that we can perceive that the spheres of work and home/family are, in reality, intertwined and interactive in each individual’s life. If my own experience is more widely shared, it would seem that women’s experiences leading up to and at work have contributed to the shaping of both women’s and men’s attitudes to education and work. My mother and my aunt may have become teachers because teaching is a profession compatible with child-raising (similar schedules as children and such), but I think their experiences have become a fund for us all, men and women, to draw on. In that sense, it isn’t just that women have attained (though not yet completely) their place alongside men in the professional world, but also that their historically-specific experiences have become important influences for men and women: they’ve become everybody’s historical past. My cousin is flirting with the idea of becoming a chef. He's still young, and he has some other interests, too. I have yet to see him go near the kitchen to make anything, but if he does, then I'm sure he will turn to his mother, grandmothers, and aunts for help if he's in a pinch. And newspapers and magazines seem to be printing a flurry of 'traditional' recipes, household management tips, and so on--domestic skills and knowledge that have been seen traditionally as the opposite of professional experience may have some demand in the market, it seems!
All this is to say that if a division between work and family has existed and still does to some extent, and if it correlates strongly with the gender divide, our present times are moving us to a point where we can see, in the recent past, the breaks and cross-overs that worked against and over that divide, and it enables us to see that our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers have a place in the history of work, even if they themselves did not do 'work' in the standard sense. The most interesting questions are, what are those 'women-specific' experiences, and whose experiences are they, exactly?
This will be the topic of my next few posts. I hate to cut off this line of thinking here, but I want to post more regularly here, which means I need to have shorter posts and sometimes continue a topic across 2 or 3 posts. So expect the next one soon!


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Love the word match on the two theses.. ;-)

Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

Dr. Bill ;-)
Author of "Back to the Homeplace"
and "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

Michelle Goodrum said...

This is a really interesting project you have undertaken. I'm looking forward to reading more!

BhAv said...

It's a very well written and interesting post!Keep them coming. :)

Sravan said...

Thank you, Dr. Bill and Michelle! I really appreciate your following the blog, and I look forward to followings yours, too!
Bhavna, I hope these posts (and the following ones) are as personally meaningful to you as they are to me. Let me know if there are any topics or people you are specially interested in, and we could look into them together!

Malini said...

Lot of thinking and effort has gone into this write up. Keep it up.
As mentioned, the previous generation of women also did go for work or pursued higher studies. But I guess the circumstances prompted them to do so.
Athimber’s aunt, who is around 80 now, pursued her studies, as she had to go to London after her marriage. Her two cousins,in a family of 3 brothers and 5 sisters, professionally settled in the US. One of them was a doctor and the other was a Professor in Columbia University. It’s interesting to note that they professionally qualified themselves at the age of around 30. Their economic condition forced them to qualify only upto SSLC as the preference was given to the brothers to study, who later joined Air India which helped them to improve their economic condition. But by then these two sisters had crossed the marriageable age and got an opportunity to study further. Thus one of them qualified as a doctor while the other did her Masters in Psychology. In the meantime the brothers got their placement in New Yyork and the sisters went along with them. In the US, they specialized themselves in their respective field.
It is believed that,in the pre- indepence era, Gandhiji’s presence made the women bold and also come out to work.
But, both our generation and the previous generation of women I think had family as the first priority. Between family and profession, we gave up our jobs for the sake of family.
Sravan, I just thought of sharing this with you as I thought it may help you in your project.