Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Unicorns, Dinosaurs, and Why it Matters Who Does the Dishes

Recently, the editors of Nature saw fit to publish a short piece, meant to be humorous, about how much better suited women are to do household chores, like shopping. Dr. Isis has an excellent discussion of the many things that are wrong and sexist in this piece, so I won't take the time to dissect it myself. Frankly, I could barely force myself to finish reading it. As I tweeted after I saw it: I'm not married to a unicorn, but there are still dinosaurs out there.

However, some might read a piece like that and conclude that the mindset I ranted against in my unicorn post is actually correct- here, after all, is an article (published in a prestigious journal!) that seems to confirm it. But I actually think that the Nature article and Twisty's IBTP piece are two manifestations of the same problem: namely, that we live in a society that has a hard time seeing that housework and parenting can be done equally well by men and women. On the one hand, we have one of the most prestigious science journals in existence publishing a blatantly offensive piece claiming that women are just better at these things than men (so of course, the men shouldn't bother doing them). And on the other hand, we have a subset of feminists who apparently can't even imagine the possibility that the man and woman in a two career family might share the work that goes along with keeping up a household and raising children.

In the middle, there are women like me, who have married men who are not dinosaurs, but are also not unicorns. We share the work at home with our partners, and have partnerships in which the dreams and aspirations of both partners are considered equal- even if the couple decides to arrange their lives such that one partner (or both) prioritizes something else (usually kids) over his or her own career aspirations for awhile. We're invisible to both the dinosaur who wrote the Nature article and Twisty the radical feminist. When the mainstream notices us, it is to tell us that we are somehow "lucky" to have partnered with men who are not jerks, when we know the truth is that we wouldn't have had it any other way.

I would argue that we're remaking the world. Progress is slow- painfully so at times. But now my husband tells male candidates about the good treatment he got during paternity leave, and they are interested to hear that. Now I can say "I can't stay late for that meeting, I need to take my daughter to soccer practice," and not have that negatively impact my standing in the office- instead, we all tell stories about our kids and soccer practice, even though I'm the only woman in the room.

We aren't done yet. Clearly, women like me are still in the minority, flying under the radar of the mainstream culture. But, as the comments and lovely follow-up posts on my unicorn post show- I'm not a singularity. And we're raising the next generation, teaching them, either by example or by more explicit instruction, that housework is not women's work- it is people's work. Parenting is for parents, not just moms. Careers are for anyone who wants them (even if there are some systematic barriers in the way of some people).

So, you might wonder, if we're making progress, why does any of this matter? Why do I keep posting on this same issue? Because the dinosaurs and unicorn-theorists out there are scaring the generation of young women coming up behind us. They are convincing these ambitious women to lean back in their careers before they even start them. Because they are complicating the quest for more realistic work cultures, in which everyone, man or woman, parent or not, is allowed to have a life outside of work, and this is no doubt depriving the world of the talents of many women- and men- who don't want to devote every waking hour to work. Because they are perpetuating the view that an unfair division of labor, in which women do far more scut work and men get far more glory (or at least intellectual challenge) is a biological norm, not a cultural construction. And because it perpetuates the idea that fixing all of this is something that only women need to worry about, when in fact, the solution must involve everyone.

I think that we can do better than this. And when I look at my girls- so full of energy and potential- I think that we must do better than this. And soon.


  1. Amen, @Cloud. Ugh, "Nature" has clearly jumped the shark.

  2. I might be married to a pegasus. Definitely not married to a unicorn.

  3. Wow...I don't even know what to say about that article. What they're describing is the difference between being *sent* to the store to buy something specific (which you don't necessarily have a good idea how it looks) and going to the store with a mental image of your pantry - so that when you spot something across the aisle that you're going to need for dinner tomorrow you can just grab it. It takes a lot of mental space to do that.

    I'm so lucky to be married to a guy who honestly wants to do his fair share of the housework. It is so hard to appreciate the work someone else is doing when you haven't done it yourself.

  4. All I have to say is "well said". Although my mom married a dinosaur who not only expected her to do all the chores, but felt entitled not to work himself, I certainly had my fair share of bad role model fodder.

    The plus side is that even though my mom grew up in a different era, she knew I had other choices and drilled into my head "it's better to be alone and free than married to a loser." Thank you mom..because I'm not married to one and I was never pressured to marry anyone no matter what my age was.

  5. This is a really great post, Cloud.

    It would be interesting to have a follow up piece by some unicorns about what it's like to be a unicorn in an era of dinosaurs. I know my partner hears a lot more sexist garbage than I do, and he's judged either weak or pitiful by some for doing his fair share. The pressure on men not to participate is actually pretty intense.

  6. Anonymous5:31 PM

    For the record my father started out as a dinosaur but something about raising a daughter changed him and he has slowly morphed into a unicorn.

    Last week he stayed home from his job to watch my sick 1 yr old by himself. He changed her diapers, fed her, did her laundry and delivered her back to me at the end of the day. This is a man that never once changed a diaper before his grandchild was born.

    So yeah, feminism, now with more grandfathers.

  7. OMG, that article/feature/crap in Nature was ridiculous. Why is Nature publishing things that aren't scientific papers, anyway? If I want to read something "funny" there are a ton more places to read stuff on the Internet.

    And I find it highly telling that the author neglected to *mention* that his wife was a science professor, instead casting her in the role of professional shopper/cook. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

  8. On their blog @nicoleandmaggie linked to what I think is hands down the best retort to the shitty "Nature" article, here:


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