In this episode of World of Ideas, anthropologist, writer and professor Mary Catherine Bateson discussed gender in modern-day Western society. She talked about the conflict occurring as women — long socialized for the home sphere — fully enter the workforce. The program concluded with Bateson’s optimistic remarks about society achieving its potential.
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[voice-over] Catherine Bateson studies change and lives it. How to think in new ways about our problems is a theme of her work and a daily challenge in her personal life. She’s a scholar, author, wife, and mother. She has taught anthropology at Amherst, Northeastern, and Harvard, as well as abroad. And soon she will begin teaching at George Mason University in Virginia. Her books range from the social consequences of the AIDS epidemic, to life with her celebrated parents, the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Now she’s working on a book about women. The title is Composing a Life, and the theme is how women make order and sense out of their conflicting commitments. At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, where Catherine Bateson occasionally serves as a lay preacher, we talked about how women and men can change their way of thinking about change.
[interviewing] You’re suggesting in so much of your work that we have to change how we think about what we call the problems we’re facing in this modern world. Is that right?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: Yes. You know, one of the problems I think in this society, is that the things that work in the short term don’t work in the long term. There’s a sort of parable I like to use for this. You’ve probably heard of the Iditarod, which is this sled dog race across Alaska, it’s more than a thousand miles of somebody driving a sled pulled by dogs. It lasts nearly two weeks; it is a long haul, as races go. And for the last three years it’s been won by a woman named Susan Butcher. And you ask the question, how is it that she has won? Now, I’ve never talked to her, I’ve just read what she’s said in the papers. But the answer is that whereas her chief competitor starts his dogs early and drives them hard, they get tired at the end of the day. So every day he forges ahead of her, and at the end of the day his dogs are getting tired, and she’s catching up. She wins the race essentially by not exploiting her dogs, by not exhausting them. Now if the race only lasted two days, he would always win; if the race lasted a week, he would always win. The race is long enough so that the caring and protection that she lavishes on her dogs turns into a winning strategy.
Now, you see, we’ve organized our society so that the winning strategies are the short-term ones. We have taught ourselves not to think in terms of the long haul. But the long haul is what lies between now and a decent life for our grandchildren. Sometimes I think, and I’ve been looking at how women organize their lives and their careers, sometimes I think that it may be helpful as more women come into full participation at higher policy levels — and they’re not there yet — that we may get more of this kind of long-term thinking.
BILL MOYERS: What makes you think women can bring this sensitivity to the workplace?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: At the moment, every adult woman is marked by child rearing that assumes genuinely different roles in the society for men and women. Now, we don’t know what kind of differences would remain between men and women if this were not true, but in any case, this is our situation at the moment. We have a population where even within the same family, individuals have been differently shaped. And nobody, of course, is shaped to express all of their potentials. Now, there’s a lot of evidence of women functioning very much like men, doing what men do, seeking the same kinds of narrow and short-term goals that men have been taught to seek, and often being rather unhappy doing it. But you know, the men may be a little unhappy sometimes, too. And one of the things that strikes me, you know, we talk now about the terrible conflict that women are in, between work and the home, and how terrible it is to be torn in two directions. Women have always been torn, we forget that sometimes.
BILL MOYERS: Always?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: We forget that when a woman who’s been married for a period of time gives birth to a baby, she has to serve two masters, she has to respond to two different kinds of needs. And then she has a second baby, and, you know, we talk about sibling rivalry. She’s got one baby at the breast and one baby on her knee, and they’re quite likely to be quarreling. So that the traditional feminine roles as wife and mother, and mother of multiple children have involved caring for multiple issues, balancing them off, not neglecting this while you’re caring about this, having one rhythm to respond to a husband, another one with an infant, another one with a growing child. This is what it is to be a woman, and this is what it is to keep a household going, to have multiple skills, to deal with transitions, to deal with the health of the whole.
Now, you go out of the home, you go into a corporation or into a factory, you may spend all day thinking of only one factor in a complex situation. There is a sense in which women have retained the capacity to be generalists, the capacity to live in an ecology in which there is more than one life, more than one form of adaptation, and you have to balance them off. Whereas far too many men -and this, of course, has increased with the modern period -have been narrowed to caring for only one thing. But what if the health of the world depends on the same kind of capacity that allows you to see while you’re feeding one child, that the other child is reaching out and about to pull a cooking pot of hot liquid on his head, and you whip around? This capacity to see out of the comer of your eye, and care about the health not just of one child but of three or four and the husband and the other members of the family. That is the beginning of the capacity to care about the health of a multitude of nations, or an environment of many species.
BILL MOYERS: True. But if the female is rewarded for the next quarter’s profit and success compensatory to the man’s reward, what makes you think she won’t, or you wouldn’t start thinking as he does with that singularity of vision to deliver those profits and make that factory run on time? The reward could change the behavior.
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: I might. And that’s why this period is so important —
BILL MOYERS: In what way. What do you mean?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: Because we are at a period where the entry of women into full participation, still carrying with them the experience of having been socialized for other kinds of roles —
BILL MOYERS: Nurturing, caring —
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: Caring has the potential for changing the tone overall. I can’t guarantee that that moment will go on forever, but because I am quite sure that we are in deep danger of really wrecking our environment and wrecking the future of this country, if we can’t learn to think in this more complex way, I believe that it is exactly those women who are in a sense migrating from one role to another, even if they’ve been professionally busy since they got out of college, I don’t mean just women who’ve been full-time housewives, but women who have included these different ways of seeing in their past. This is a moment, maybe the best moment of opportunity we’ll ever have to find that potential for longer-term thinking, that after all is there in men, too. They don’t have to go around with blinkers on. I mean, I really —
BILL MOYERS: But we’re paid well to do so.
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: Well, you are, but then you pay yourself to do so, too.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: I mean the people making the decisions of who to pay are also men.
BILL MOYERS: Power dictates its own rewards, its own returns, its own behavior. And women are going to be susceptible to the rewards, the power, and therefore the behavior, don’t you think?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: I think it is a matter of shifting gear, and it’s going to be hard to do, to longer-term thinking. It’s a situation like the Iditarod.
BILL MOYERS: The race?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: The race that I talked about across Alaska, where the longer-term strategy wins, unless you set the rules in such a way as to make it lose all the time. This in a sense is the fundamental problem of our society, to find a way to reverse the process that’s taking place at the moment, of narrowing and narrowing and making more and more specialized, and affirm a broader and longer-term way of thinking.
BILL MOYERS: But even now, Catherine, men are allowed to feel at home when they’re at work, you know what I mean? Whereas women, even when they’re allowed into the marketplace, into the workplace, are not yet allowed to feel at home there. What do you — do you find that so?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: Ob, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Then why is that?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: I know exactly what this — well, I think there’s a lot of reasons for it, and I think it’s one of the great ironies, because of course the whole rhetoric of home and work was based on the notion that you go to work and you work, and you go home and relax, which of course women have never been able to do, because they can’t relax when they go home. And then they go to the workplace and they discover the same men that they’ve been bringing the slippers to putting their feet up on their desks, and they can’t do that, either.
But it’s an uncomfortable transition. Women in the workplace still make men nervous. It’s still harder to listen, it’s still harder to hear what women say, it’s a long, slow process. But I think what’s important is to understand that this is not simply a matter of fairness to women, which is of course very important, this is a matter of providing the maximum richness of creative input in our society.
BILL MOYERS: What about the woman who’s caught in the midst of this transition, who’s been for twenty or twenty-five years a housewife? What have twenty-years, twenty-five years of being a housewife prepared a woman to do?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: Well, the question basically is what does the personnel officer she talks to think those years have prepared her to do? Because in fact she’s had a great deal of experience and maturing, and she’s juggled a lot of stuff, and she has a lot of potential skills. It’s a matter of your classification system. After World War II, when the GIs came home, and went to college on the GI Bill, everybody said what wonderful students they were, because of the years they had spent in the Army. Now, they didn’t say that knowing how to fly an airplane has made this student good at studying philosophy, and they didn’t say that driving a truck has made this student wonderful at mathematics. The converse might be true; they said that dealing with the complexity and the experience and the maturing of those years made them able to learn, all right?
Now, I think women who have been housewives, the kind of group that’s talked about as displaced homemakers, who were forced into the labor market at midlife — who incidentally are largely middle and upper-class women, because the poorer women have been out there for years — that they are only, well, that they are still struggling for the definitions of experience and the acceptance of those definitions, that will let them perform at their optimum. You know, here were these women who were taught, as women of my generation learned as children, that if they did not have a job for which they earned money, when somebody asked them at a party, “What do you do?” the correct answer was, “Oh, I don’t do anything, I’m just a housewife.” This is learned, a learned classification system, and it is obviously not true, because they have always worked very hard.
BILL MOYERS: What about those people, many of them women, and often for religious reasons, who want to keep the traditional role for females? They really honestly believe that what you’re talking about will undermine the very fabric of a caring society, by undoing all the models that keep us in place, keep us secure.
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: There is no reason why it should not be a possible decision to stay at home as a full-time homemaker and caretaker for children. If we want freedom, that freedom has to exist also. Many women don’t have that alternative, and so there is the question of fairness and indeed survival for women who must earn to support their children. Beyond that there is the question of freedom and creativity to allow a range of possibilities for the women who are motivated to pursue a different kind of life. I would hope that the women who care about the traditional role would also allow freedom of choice to the women who are exploring new roles. Now, you know, I lived for a number of years in Iran, and at the time that I went to Iran, what we saw was a society where women were gradually increasing their participation, although nowhere near comparable to the level that now exists in this country. And what we now see following the revolution, is that women have been forced out of certain kinds of participation in public life: they’re back wearing the veil, back very much constrained to a domestic life. It’s amazing that change can happen so fast.
BILL MOYERS: Either way.
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: Either way. But when I was there, I always had a soft spot for the women at the pivot generation. What do you do if you’re forty-five or fifty, and you’ve never been outside of your house without a veil, and you’ve never earned independently, and indeed, you’ve never gone and traveled to another city or stayed in a hotel without someone looking after you. What do you do if all of a sudden, you were told that you cannot wear the veil, that you must go out? This is terrifying. And it’s also terrifying to lose one set of privileges and protections, and not have the skills and confidence you need to claim the next ones. There are women like that; what I’m trying to say is the women in that situation, who are arguing against the ERA in the United States, are in the same dilemma of being part in one life and part in the other, as the women in Iran who welcomed the Ayatollah, so they could put their veils back on and be locked up again. You sympathize with the dilemma of being caught between the past and the future, and wanting the past because it feels safer and more protective, and more familiar. But I would always put my effort on the side of letting people take off the veil and go out of the door and live a broader life.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve done that. You’ve had four or five careers; you are an anthropologist, a professor, a scholar, a writer, a mother, a wife. You’ve lived abroad, you’ve traveled with your husband. You have composed a fortunate life. What does it take? What lessons are there for other women?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: I see other women in my situation — the reason, one of the reasons I’ve had so many careers is because I’ve adapted to my husband’s career changes and often started again when we went to new places.
BILL MOYERS: You went to the Philippines with him, you went to Iran with him.
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: That’s right, and I had to find a job that made sense. It occurred to me that I could think of that as a terrible problem, as a terrible burden, to have to stand again so many times, as so many women do have to. And then it occurred to me that the most creative people I know are the people who have done one thing for a while, and then shifted gears and done something else, as you know yourself, Bill, and that these discontinuities, you can look at them as a burden, or you can look at them as a stimulus to creativity.
And the same thing is true about conflicting commitments. I mean, I know what it feels like to be in an office and be worrying about the babysitter’s going to leave and What’s going to happen to my child, and how do I balance these things? But dealing with the conflicting commitments, trying to put them together to compose a life in which there is room for both of them, is also an important kind of creativity. So this is what I am trying to do, is to examine these particular problems and look at the way women solve them, because I think men increasingly face the same problem. That, you know, foreclosed farmers who lose their farms are like displaced homemakers, and the same kind of thing happens to executives when their company gets bought out and, as it is said, restructured, and they’re out on the street trying to think of what to do next.
This is the century of the refugee; we live longer, men and women, and we have more potential discontinuities in our lives. So that the creative life is likely to involve readapting and readapting, maybe several times. It’s a burden, it hurts, but you’re a different person afterwards. You know something you wouldn’t have known otherwise. It’s like when at 6:00 in the evening four guests turn up and your husband says, “We can feed them supper, can’t we, darling?” And you go down to the kitchen and you start scrambling through the refrigerator, through the cupboards, trying to invent some combination that will make sense of the evening. Our past is full of wonderful traditions; the cupboards are full, the refrigerator is full, the situation calls on a kind of creative improvisation.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think the day will come when you call home and say, “Dear, I’m bringing four guests home, will you have dinner?” And he moves into action?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: I’ve done it.
BILL MOYERS: He can improvise.
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: We all can, that’s what you’re saying.
MARY CATHERINE BATESON: And we all can, and we’re all going to have to.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From the Cathedral of St John the Divine, in New York. City, this has been a conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 31, 2015.