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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