The180·THE 180

Why we need to think big on feminism

Sociologist Amanda Watson says we need to think big in order to make strides for women. Among the potential overhauls? Realizing that work-life isn't a balance, it's a conflict; accounting for emotional labour when considering both paid and unpaid work; and even redesigning cities.
'The Fearless Girl' statue stands across Wall Street's charging bull as part of a campaign to pressure companies to add more women to their boards. But sociologist Amanda Watson argues feminism means more than gender parity. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) (Drew Angerer/Getty )

Re-design our cities, ditch the concept of work-life balance, and account for emotional labour.

Those are just a few of the ways to think big picture about feminism, according to sociologist Amanda Watson.

While Watson acknowledges the value of symbolic acts like marching and striking, the Simon Fraser University professor, says what she dreams of is essentially starting from scratch all over again.

"This would be radical, you know? The overhaul my colleagues and I imagine is a completely different way of organizing life on this planet."

"A lot of people across genders would have to give up a lot of power and I think people get their backs up when they think 'I made my way this way and I shouldn't have to give that up' - that mentality has got to go and that's really hard to convince people of.- Amanda Watson

So how radical would it be?

Watson suggests cities can be designed to meet the needs of feminist labour.

Watson cites the research of feminist geographers who show that women, on average, make more stops than men between the time they leave for work and return. And the reason, Watson says, is that women are more likely to take on the responsibility for pick-ups and drop-offs for childcare, grocery shopping, extra-curricular activities, and medical appointments.

"Imagine if our cities had been designed with this in mind, and of course they haven't been, especially in the suburbs where a lot of families live. It would just make so much more sense if all these things existed in the same places — these aren't common ways of organizing cities where families actually live."

So what would Watson do?

"I'd explode all the buildings and start from scratch," she jokes, but notes that the concepts most often put forward by developers and planners, such as sustainability and environmentalism, are inherent to feminism.

"Feminism is social justice."

And that's why Watson is critical of the Day Without a Woman strike that happened this week.

"There were two big problems with the strike, and I should say I was really excited by the idea of the strike — if women were to strike from their paid and unpaid labour, capitalism would cease to exist — but in practical terms you can't strike from unpaid labour. Women who are precariously employed or whose lives depend on bringing home that pay every single day, there's no way they could strike."

In Watson's view, thinking about feminism in the big picture centralizes the experiences of women, people of colour, people with disabilities and poor women.

It's central to why she's skeptical of the concept of a work-life balance and has pushed for people to view it in terms of tension as work-life conflict.

"I think the word balance is so pleasant and so connected to wellness and this idea that we can achieve it if we just change our individual labours. But as soon as we re-frame the tension between our family lives and paid labour as it's structured in our society, it's far more apt. So it gets away from this pie-in-the-sky sense that if we do yoga at the right time and blend baby food at the right time, and allows us to zoom out and look at the structure that is shaping this conflict that so many women and families are struggling with."

Watson says her definition of labour includes "emotional labour."

Watson says that, academically, the concept of emotional labour has been used to describe the labour done, predominantly by women, to disguise their emotions in order to do their job. She said this often occurs in the retail or restaurant industries — a sector in which women are over-represented — where people are expected to "be happy as part of their job" and treat the customer as always being right.

In her own work, she has extended that concept to how that emotional labour occupies the brains of women even when they are not physically caring for their families.

Watson offers an anecdote from her own life, to underscore the point.

"I was walking to do an errand yesterday and I was thinking about recipes to get my son on solid food, or picking up cream for him because he's getting eczema after swimming lessons. And I realized that as a scholar I used to brainstorm other things — the next column I was going to write, or how I would design my research methods, and my partner still thinks about what he wants to think about."

In her family, Watson says she and her partner have discussed the fact she does more of that emotional work and so her partner does more of the physical house work.

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