Did the Internet Liberate Women?
In today’s New York Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan has a somewhat radical proposition: that because of the Internet (and the ability to telecommute) “the bourgeois home has become a woman’s base of operations.” This is a good thing, Heffernan says, for a variety of reasons, but most of all, work-at-home-moms (or WAHMs – my new acronym of the day) can now “simultaneously be inside and outside, at home and at work, public and private, she no longer has to forfeit the manly rewards of grasping careerism.”
According to Heffernan, all women who work outside the home secretly want to escape the “the trafficky commute, the petroleum-based slacks by Theory or Banana Republic, the noli-me-tangere demeanor that women were supposed to cultivate to ensure boardroom authority.” They would rather be answering the phone on their floor, with “Judge Judy” on mute (this is actually in the article, I kid you not). The article is fairly tongue-in-cheek, and I’m not sure how much of it to take seriously. But Heffernan does seem to be sincere in her claim that telecommuting is the best of both worlds for women: they don’t have to enter the “manly” space of the office or boardroom, they can be at home with their children – in other words, this is the way to actually have it all.
Except – is this what we really do to solve the fact that workplaces are sexist, that women are stuck with the “second shift,” and that some people (and this includes men as well as women) don’t want to vault to the top of a career ladder by neglecting their families? The implication, in Heffernan’s article, is that “downloading school forms, pumping breast milk, tending to a sick kid, loading up the crockpot, straightening the kitchen,” all things that can be done, she says, “with a BlackBerry in hand,” are women’s work. And that the Internet simply provides a way for women to avoid the stress of navigating or trying to change the difficult lifestyle of the working mom.
Heffernan’s article has an incredibly disturbing subtext: she is essentially saying that the workplace is an irrevocably male space, that the home is for women, and that the Internet has “liberated” women by providing them with a way to remain in their domestic space while still having a job. They can “opt out” without really opting out. And certainly, I think that she’s right, for some women – as well as some men. The Internet has been great for people who don’t like working in offices, who want to work more independently, who want to be at home for whatever reason, whether it’s children or long commutes or hating “petroleum-based slacks.” But this liberation is not gendered. If women do feel that actual workplaces require “broad shoulders, a baritone and understanding of wolf packs,” then that’s something that we need to change, not simply expand the spaces that we reserve for men and women.
Photo courtesy of RGS's Flickr Photostream.