Live from the Lilith Blog

March 18, 2008 by

Putting Ourselves Up for Sale?

In Suze Orman’s latest PBS special, the personal finance guru exhorts women not to volunteer, not to “put themselves on sale.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I am becoming increasingly aware of just how much Jewish communal life relies on volunteers, many of whom are women.

To me, Orman’s directive sounds a lot like 1980s second-wave-feminist calls for women to put their kids in daycare and become, essentially, men. And, like some of our foremothers, Orman is missing the point. Real equality between the sexes, true equality of opportunity, will come not from women’s abandonment of our traditional role as caretakers, but from men’s joint assumption of it.

Over the past month I have become involved in a major fundraising effort for my son’s Jewish day school. At the initial meeting, I looked around me at the group of highly educated, professionally experienced Jewish women who were donating their time and talents to the school. Why shouldn’t we be doing this, I wanted to ask Orman. This is good work, important work, even though it is unpaid work.

A few days later I visited an old friend. We’ve known each other from toddlerhood, and, though we are quite different, share a deep bond that comes from years of shared experiences. I told her about the volunteer work I was doing for the school—and she laughed.

Her laughter hurt me, not just because it was rude, but because it was a split-second, unguarded, and thus very telling, response. It went to the heart of the mommy wars, a topic we’ve been delicately mincing around for years. (Seven years ago, our children were born within a few weeks of each other. My friend went back to work on Wall Street after six weeks, whereas I have never returned to my job.) My friend feels that paid work is by definition more legitimate than unpaid work. She sees volunteering as frivolous busywork for bored ladies who lunch. I see it as the least I can do to further the wonderful work the school does in general, and the financial aid it gives my son in particular.

I will always love my friend. She has been in my life far too long for that to change. But I fear that our friendship is devolving into a bond based on where we’ve been instead of who we are.

(For more on the Mommy Wars, check out this article from the Lilith archives.)

–Claire Isaacs


  • balabusta

    The problem isn’t that unpaid work isn’t valuable. The problem is that unpaid work is valuable. If your school is honest, when they do their fundraising, they will list volunteer work as a donation in kind, an asset that shows potential funders how efficient they are as an organization.

    I don’t like your friend’s reaction, but I think Suze Orman is, forgive me, right on the money. Donating your labor contributes to your resume for paid labor, it’s true, but it doesn’t add to your assets. A career advisor might say it’s worthwhile, but a financial advisor would not say, “Hey, women, it’s okay if you donate your labor and become even more financially dependent on your husband or the state.”

    Think about it this way. In our state, homeless women have to be on TAFDC in order to get transitional housing, and they can’t make an income that is over the federal poverty line. Welfare requires that recipients work, but to keep the housing, they can’t make too much money. So they do “internships.” We make homeless women do volunteer work in order to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

    If it’s not okay for them to have to do uncompensated work, why is it okay for you?

  • Hillel

    Balabusta, I couldn’t agree more. Women need to hear that their time is valued beyond the good that it yield in volunteering.

    I am a male who has made a rather healthy hobby of volunteering in the realm of literacy. I feel that it is one of my highest callings, among working full-time and being a good relative and friend. But, too often, the world of volunteering is inundated with women who are students, work f/t or p/t. And, I wonder: where are the men? They’re out charging for their time.

    I wouldn’t advocating the abandonment completely, but this may be a natural consequence of women valuing their time. It seems to me that men have already abandoned this sphere. Why shouldn’t women? Why is this any more their responsibility than men’s?

    Is the role of caretaker something that we’d like to ascribe to women intrinsically? If they abandonment a “traditional role as caretakers,” aren’t they betraying more than womanhood. This rhetoric bothers me. Isn’t caretaking a role for mature leaders, nurturers, adults, Jews, et al? If women abandon it, is it the fault of radical second-wave feminism and not necessity or self-worth?

    In the end, I will admit that I am frightened by anyone calling for less volunteering. It just sounds wrong, and the world needs more “free help.” The truth is that Orman is speaking, whether she knows it, about the culture of volunteering, of giving with little in return, that will not survive unless it changes, bringing in both men and women, young and old, into the ranks.