Living as a feminist

When Rachel Cusk wrote about motherhood in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, I felt heard. It wasn’t my story, exactly, but it was closer to my story of the early days of motherhood than others were writing. This time she is writing about her divorce. It isn’t my story either, but I suspect there will be much here to embrace for those of us attempting this strange dance of domestic equality with our partners:

Call yourself a feminist, he said.

What I need is a wife, jokes the stressed-out feminist career woman. The joke is that the feminist’s pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation. This is irony. Get it? The feminist scorns that silly complicit creature the housewife. Her first feminist act may have been to try to liberate her own housewife mother, and discover that rescue was neither wanted nor required. I hated my mother’s unwaged status, her servitude, her domesticity. Yet I stood accused of recreating exactly those conditions in my own adult life. I had hated my husband’s unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother’s; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence. But there was more to it than that, for it might be said that dependence is an agreement between two people. My father depended on my mother, too: he couldn’t cook a meal, or look after children from the office. They were two halves that made up a whole.

My notion of half was more like the earthworm’s: you cut it in two, but each half remains an earthworm, wriggling and fending for itself. I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked. And my husband helped. It was his phrase. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn’t want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me. Why couldn’t we be the same? Why couldn’t he be compartmentalised, too? And why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he himself would eat? Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude. And did I not have something of the same gratuitous tone where my wage-earning was concerned? Did I not think there was something awfully helpful about me, a woman, supporting my own family?

And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were a transvestite couple – well, why not? Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one.

So I was both man and woman, but over time the woman sickened, for her gratifications were fewer. I had to keep out of the kitchen, keep a certain distance from my children, not only to define my husband’s femininity but to appease my own male values. The oldest trick in the sexist book is the female need for control of children. I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly. But it wasn’t control of the children I was necessarily sickening for. It was something subtler – prestige, the prestige that is the mother’s reward for the work of bearing her offspring. And that prestige was my husband’s. I had given it to him or he had taken it – either way, it was what he got out of our arrangement. And the domestic work I did was in a sense at the service of that prestige, for it encompassed the menial, the trivial, the frankly boring, as though I was busily working behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the spectacle on stage.

The extract from her new book, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation reads as quite muddled here in The Guardian – how others might sound writing about the intimacy of their divorce but not what you’d expect of a wordsmith like Cusk – though don’t give up on the book, as Cusk has noted here, she doesn’t much like the way newspapers select bits and pieces from her books and then put them together in single, false essays. I imagine the book is much more coherent, even if it is a memoir of something that raw.

I love Cusk’s writing and to say that I am keen to read her new book would be an understatement. If you have never read any Cusk and you want an introduction to her non-fiction writing then this interview with her about her forthcoming book might be as good a place as any to begin. There is so much to love in this interview with her, like her response about her ‘feminist principle of autobiographical writing’ and her answer to the question of whether she still calls herself a feminist and then these answers, too:

Why did you decide to write about your relationship breakdown?I was asked by Granta magazine in 2010 to contribute an essay about feminism, which they said they wanted to be quite personal; and having thought at first that that wasn’t the proper way to discuss feminism, I realised very quickly that for me now, perhaps it was the only way. The radicalism I had felt as a young woman began to seem to me if not exactly semantic then verbal, theoretical. As I have grown older, it is experience that has become radical. It is living, not thinking, as a feminist that has become the challenge. Sex, marriage, motherhood, work, domesticity: it is through living these things that the politics of being a woman are expressed, and I labour this point because it is important to understand that the individual nature of experience is essentially at odds – or should reserve the right to be – with any public discourse. I no longer presume to know how other women live or think or feel. I can only try to align myself with them, to get into sympathy with them, by saying how it is for me. And it is of course intrinsic to femininity that it is costive or denying to a degree, so the saying can become radical in itself, but only from a point of view of personal honesty. So the decision to write comes from that. And as for the subject, it had fallen within the compass of my experience and what I saw was that in the breakdown of marriage the whole broken mechanism of feminism was revealed. I had expected to find, at the end of the family structure, at least some proof of feminist possibility, however harsh. But either it wasn’t there or I couldn’t find it, and that seemed to me to be a subject worth writing about. The book grew from that essay, which forms the first chapter of it.

Do children belong to their mothers? You write: “They’re my children. They belong to me.”

Children belong to themselves, of course. But what I wanted to describe in the book were a number of primitive and fairly ferocious feelings that seemed to emerge from the rupture of separation and that directly contradicted my own meditated feminist politics. This was the beginning of my seeing the difference between feminism as an ideology and feminism as lived experience.

Have you invaded your children’s privacy?

Children have to share their parents’ destiny to some extent, like it or not. I happen to be a writer; they are the children of a writer.

There’s a lot to chew on here, and I’m not sure yet where I am with all her ideas about the conflict between feminist ideas and life lived.. but I love the questions she is raising.

(Cross-posted at blue milk and thanks to Cristy for the links to the articles).

Categories: gender & feminism, parenting, relationships, work and family

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1 reply

  1. Fantastic post. I must follow the link after work!

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