This week, in honor of Women’s History Month, Berkeley’s Commission on the Status of Women recognized at its monthly meeting some “outstanding women in Berkeley who have contributed to making our community a better place to live,” in the words of the chair’s letter requesting nominations. One nice aspect of attending the event was getting a chance to put faces to people I’d previously known only as voicemail messages or e-mail addresses. In the audience as well as on the platform were many women who have been active in all sorts of important endeavors, and have told the Daily Planet about them.
What impressed me most about the honorees and their achievements is that in large part they were being recognized for what has been traditionally considered “women’s work”: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, taking care of young people and old people, comforting the afflicted and making peace. The commission’s roots are in the feminism of the early ‘70s, but members seem to be saying today that it’s not enough for women to do just what men have traditionally done, but that they have more to contribute to society. The women who received citations this year were not chosen because they’ve made partner in a major law firm that specializes in defending insurance companies, or because they’re highly paid spokespersons for oil companies, or because they’ve put together big real estate empires, all jobs increasingly open to women as well as men. Condoleezza Rice was not held up as a role model to be emulated.
Not, of course, that some of the honorees don’t have outstanding records of accomplishments in standard professional capacities as well. I know Donna Lasala, for example, as the public’s liaison to the city of Berkeley’s Department of Information Technology, where she does a stellar job, but her citation spoke instead of work she’d done with Iranian wheelchair users and all sorts of other good works I’d never even heard about. And the same is true of most of the others.
One sad note: At the meeting I learned of the recent death of Eva Bansner, a stalwart participant in community-based environmental planning in many organizations, including the League of Women Voters, and a contributor to these pages. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer just a few months ago, but continued to make her valuable contributions to the public discourse throughout her illness. Eva, like those cited by the commission, took the welfare of the world to be her job, and she did it well.
Second-wave feminists were justifiably concerned with making sure that women had equal access to levers of power. That goal hasn’t yet been reached—shall we discuss Lawrence Summers one more time? But more troubling is that the employment market now leaves even less room for “women’s work,” for women or for men. Parents, both men and women, have even less time to do a good job with their children. Supporting a family seems to mean either a high-powered 80-hour a week job for one person or two people working full-time, with no time to spare. Yet society still needs caregiving.
It was once believed that government would be able to take the major role in providing for the common good. But as we get further into the Bush/Schwarzenegger era, it seems that more and more responsibility will fall on citizens to do the hands-on works of mercy and the educational tasks that have been traditionally shouldered by women. Since women are now often breadwinners, men should be encouraged to share in the kind of essential “civic homemaking” that still needs to be done. The Commission on the Status of Women has played an important role by recognizing the value of women’s contributions to society at large. Now it might also be time for the commission to acknowledge those men who have taken up “women’s work” for the benefit of the community. I can name 10 Berkeley men without thinking very hard who deserve this kind of citation.