Annabel Crabb’s The wife drought: Why women need wives, and men need lives

by nike, January 2, 2015

droughtIt’s 2015, and this year I promised myself I would post a little bit about each of the books I read.

Which is why, right about now, I’m wondering why I started the year reading Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually liked it. I enjoy Kitchen Cabinet, in which Ms Crabb cooks/eats with politicians while interviewing them. In her program, she is smart, engaged, witty, playful.

I had heard other women say, laughingly, that they wished they had a wife. Or, sometimes, not laughingly, but in a gobsmackingly problematic way. As when, quite recently, I heard a successful professional woman complain about how, now that she lives in Australia, she doesn’t have the underpaid, second-class citizen, 24-hour, 7-days-a-week live-in maid she had in Hong Kong. She’d lost her wife, she said, when she shifted continents.

I also remembered, with some fondness, Judy Syfers’ short satirical essay, I Want a Wife, based on a speech she delivered in August, 1970, to mark the 50th anniversary of American women’s suffrage. In which she wrote, in part:

I want a wife to take care of my children. I want a wife to keep track of the children’s doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too. I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean. I want a wife who will wash the children’s clothes and keep them mended. I want a wife who is a good nurturant attendant to my children, who arranges for their schooling, makes sure that they have an adequate social life with their peers, takes them to the park, the zoo, etc. I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school. My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job. It may mean a small cut in my wife’s income from time to time, but I guess I can tolerate that. Needless to say, my wife will arrange and pay for the care of the children while my wife is working.

Even though it is clear that when Annabel Crabb writes about wanting a wife, she’s on the same page as Syfers, it isn’t at all clear that she’s read this iconic piece of feminist writing, or a great deal of other iconic or important works of feminist responses to the ‘problem’ of being a married woman with children. She writes, early on, of having something of an epiphany while she was at a male-dominated summit. This is where she realised that what feminism had failed to gift white-western women with was wives. And that this lack of the gifting of unpaid, servile, voiceless slaves was at the root of their failure to thrive in the modern workplace (errr… those are my words, not Annabel’s). Ms Crabb describes a ‘wife’ as:

[men or women who] enable the busy full-time worker to experience the  joy and fulfilment of children, without the considerable inconvenience of having to pick them up from school at 3pm, which — in one of the human experience’s wittier little jokes — is the time that school ends, a time that is convenient for pretty much no one. Having a wife means that if you get caught up at work or want to stay later, either to get some urgent job finished or to frown at your desktop computer in a plausible simulacrum of working in order to impress a new boss while actually reading Buzzfeed, it can be done. Many wives work, but they do jobs that are either part-time or offer sufficient flexibility for the accommodation of late-breaking schedules (p5).

This quotation is fairly typical of the style and approach taken throughout the book. It’s light and breezy and funny in a kind of Bridget-Jones’s-diary (the movie version) way. There’s an implicit assumption that all women are mothers, or become them at some point, and that all mothers share the same set of problems. There’s real data and analysis, but more often the argument proceeds through anecdote and opinion based on a fairly idiosyncratic selection of ‘facts’.

But before I get all stroppy about what this book isn’t, and what I wished it had been more of, I should talk a little about who it’s for and stuff.

This is written about you and the challenges you face if you are all of the below:

  • a woman
  • straight
  • white
  • 30-something (or maybe 40-something)
  • university educated, or well on the way to being enlettered
  • probably not working class
  • married/de facto (or thinking about getting hitched)
  • the mother of pre-school or school-aged children
  • working (or wanting to work or study)

This isn’t as bad as it sounds, according to the author, since, as Crabb writes in this book:

the average Australian is a 37-year-old woman. She was born in Australia, of Australian parents, and has Anglo-Celtic ancestry. When at home with her husband and her two children – a boy and a girl aged nine and six – the Average Australian speaks only English. The house she lives in is located in a suburb of a capital city … every day the Average Australian drives in one of the family’s two cars to her job as a sales assistant, a job in which she works thirty-two hours per week (p108).

If you know the difference between median and average, this summary of the 2011 ABS stats on the Australian people might strike you as a bit odd, since statistics that the ABS explicitly states are medians are given here as averages (age, for example).

What you might also notice is that this person is not you.

Crabb goes on, in this chapter, to talk about the ways in which the average person sketched in here doesn’t actually exist, has changed over time (was, for example, in 1911 a 24-year-old farmer), and so on. Throughout the book, she often acknowledges the ways in which her sample or focus is not representative of all (or even most) Australians. She acknowledges that some people aren’t married, for example, or don’t have kids, or are not part of the urban middle class, but these acknowledgements feel, at best, a way of putting off any criticism about the book’s undeniable focus on the kind of people who feature in advertisements for margarine and disposable nappies. White, middle-class, suburban/urban, heterosexual, etc.

Early in the book, Crabb summarises some statistics about Australian families, stating that of Australian couple families with kids under fifteen, 60% have a dad who works full-time and a mum who works part-time or not at all, whereas 3% have a full-time working mother + a part-time/non-working dad. These are the people this book is about: 63% of Australian couple families with kids under fifteen*.

If that’s not you, you might find some parts of this book irritating. Not just because it isn’t about you — there are plenty of GREAT books about people that aren’t like you — but because the writing seems to adopt the attitude that that 63% of Australian couple families are pretty much the norm. And pretty much the most important people in Australia. And that anyone else is pretty much statistically irrelevant, or just weird.

The book does a great job of summarising some of the excellent research that’s been done on women in the workplace. On the structure and effects of sexual discrimination, and its effects in both the short and long term on things like women’s (lifelong) earning capacity, promotional opportunities, health and wellbeing.

There are many unsurprising revelations. Well, they will be unsurprising to you if you’ve read any statistics about women in the workforce over the past forty or fifty years. But there are some surprising and interesting revelations. I was surprised to read about a study, for example, that revealed marked differences in the ways Australian married/de facto working women differed from American married/de facto working women. Here’s the summary:

  • Australian men do the same amount of housework, no matter how much their wives work or earn. Men who work part-time average 15 hours a week, and those who work full-time average 16 hours per week (Australian Time Use Survey);
  • Australian women vary the amount of housework they do, depending on the amount of work they do outside the home, and the amount they contribute to the overall household income. Women who work full-time do an average of 25 hours per week; women who don’t work average 42 hours per week.

BUT, according to a paper published in 2012 by Janeen Baxter and Belinda Hewitt:

  • Australian women do seventeen minutes less housework a week for every 1% extra they contribute to the household income, up to 66.6% of the total household income;
  • Australian women who contribute 66.6% or more of their overall household income, start increasing the amount of unpaid work they do again.

WHEREAS in studies of US heterosexual families:

  • “as wives earned more, they cut back on their housework hours. There wasn’t any weird Number of the Beast reversal for the women, unlike in Australia. What happened instead was that their husbands went on strike. American men increased their rates of housework as their wives earned more, right up to the point at which their earning were on a par … then downed tools and decreased their housework again” (p120).

So, there are fascinating nuggets of information buried in this book. Quite a few of them. It’s just that, overall, the discussion of those sources and the information they provide is a little lacklustre. A bit more sparkle and humour than analysis and insight. I’ve hinted (!) at the fact that I feel the analysis is a little too focused on a very narrow band of Australian society. One of my main gripes with this book is actually a little bit unfair: it’s basically a gripe I have with the overall focus of the book, and of a lot of mainstream discussion of feminism/women’s issues in Australia. That criticism comes down to this:

  • NOT ALL WOMEN are mothers with children living at home, whose children are under the age of 15;
  • and therefore, NOT ALL FEMINIST DISCUSSION should (eek!) be about straight married women and their goddam trouble getting a decent child-care situation/babysitter/cleaner.

Ok, look, I know that’s not the only thing we talk about. But it really gives me the irrits that SO MUCH discussion of ‘women’s issues’ in the political arena, for example, is taken up with mothering, and in particular with mothering young children. Not mothering 20, 30, 40, 50 … etc year olds. Not grand mothering. But heterosexual, middle-class, middlebrow mothering.

Frankly, I’m worried. I’m worried that focusing on the issues around mothering — even though they are important — to the exclusion of discussion of other issues for women, and other areas of women’s lives, reinforces the very idea that parenting is women’s primary purpose in life. Our destiny. It’s part of the problem Annabel’s book points to: the underlying assumption that raising children, and worrying about raising them, and paying others to raise care for them sometimes, and getting them educated and fed and all that stuff, is women’s business.

This is not, of course, Crabb’s problem. It’s mine. Or … it’s a problem that sits alongside the book in a way it perhaps isn’t fair to dump on her book. It’s a problem about the vanishingly narrow array of topics that are discussed in the mainstream in relation to women/feminism. It’s the problem with over-identifying women as mothers, and therefore ignoring all the other issues we are facing.

Anyway, back to the book. It’s a good introductory discussion of first-world working mother’s issues, in particular in terms of the ways that both men and women respond to the introduction of children into their families, and how their employers and peers respond to their becoming parents. It’s a call for more equality across both genders in terms of their work/life balance as parents. Crabb’s overall thesis is that:

  • heterosexual married/partnered women with children under the age of 15 suffer in the workplace equation, in terms of things such as opportunity and income, because they don’t have someone working for them, in an unpaid capacity, as their ‘wife’;
  • heterosexual married/partnered men with children under 15, who have continued to carry on, despite the fact that their wives have taken on more and more paid work outside the home, as if they have full-time, unpaid domestic labour available to them, are missing out on the rich and magical experiences of fathering that they could be having if only they ‘leant out’ a little (i.e: acted as ‘wives’/unpaid domestic labour within their household).

She doesn’t really pose any solutions to this quandary, other than proposing that men ‘lean out’ into their homes a little more. I wonder, what solutions should we offer? As individuals? As employers? As a government? How can we replace the old model – which requires at least one unpaid domestic servant in the home – without unfairly disadvantaging one sex or the other?

* Australian couple families with children represented 44.6% of families in Australia in the 2011 Census. I’m not sure what percentage of those were (heterosexual) families with children under 15 years of age.

1 Comment

  • […] Nike at Perilous Adventures reviewed The Wife Drought as well in a spectacular breakdown of what it actually means and where it seems to come from with its message and pulling out something spectacular to give you would inevitably mean that I would have to copy the entire piece but she does point out a salient fact that you will find upon reading Ms Crabb’s breakdown of the average woman in Australia: “the average Australian is a 37-year-old woman. She was born in Australia, of Australian parents, and has Anglo-Celtic ancestry. When at home with her husband and her two children – a boy and a girl aged nine and six – the Average Australian speaks only English. The house she lives in is located in a suburb of a capital city … every day the Average Australian drives in one of the family’s two cars to her job as a sales assistant, a job in which she works thirty-two hours per week (p108)”: […]

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