Judith Walkowitz probes politics of domesticity


December 16, 1990|By Alice Steinbach

The feminist scholar begins the interview with one of her most valued recipes: the recipe for a successful marriage. She starts with a list of ingredients.

"Hard work; taking your commitments and responsibilities quite seriously; a flexibility about adapting to changing circumstances; and a kind of traditionalism that says you work with what you've got and you hang in there," is the way 45-year-old Judith Walkowitz, professor of history and director of the new women's studies program at the Johns Hopkins University sums up what you have to put into a marriage to make it work.

She is describing, by the way, her own marriage of 25 years to New York University labor historian Daniel Walkowitz -- a man who is just as committed to feminism as she is. They met as students at the University of Rochester in 1963 -- the year Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique" -- and their life together is, in some ways, a road map of the way relationships between men and women have changed directions over the last quarter century.

And Judith Walkowitz -- respected historian, feminist scholar, author and teacher who arrived at Hopkins in September -- makes it quite clear that her sense of pride about her success as a wife and mother does not take a back seat to her academic accomplishments.

"I think most marriages no longer last for 25 years. And I think it's particularly unusual for people who've come from traditional backgrounds and gone through the period of history that I've gone through and taken up feminism to have sustained a marriage for 25 years," Dr. Walkowitz says, visibly warming to the subject. "And it works, I think, because it's a very egalitarian marriage between two people committed to making changes and working problems out over time."

You could say that a lengthy discussion about marriage and family is an odd way -- perhaps even a perverse way -- to begin an interview with a leading feminist scholar, one whose arrival at Hopkins promises to bring that university, finally, into striking distance of the 400 or so universities and colleges that already offer women's studies programs. Many institutions began offering women's studies programs in the 1970s, in the wake of the second wave of feminism.

The Hopkins' program, developed with the help of a Ford Foundation grant, takes an interdisciplinary approach (which means that faculty members come from various departments) in looking at the history of women's contributions to the culture. But the Hopkins' program is more than just a study of the history of women; it also looks at the the philosophical, cultural and biological implications of gender differences.

But right now, Judith Walkowitz is focusing on the politics of domesticity. Or to be more specific, on marriage and family. She cites the reconciliation of work and family as one of the continuing problems facing the post-feminist generation: "I have no doubt the women in my classes are going to find themselves in an impossible situation in terms of trying to accommodate work and the home," she says. "But there's a considerable resistance to actually recognizing that this is a dilemma they're going to have to solve in their life."

It was a dilemma that Judith and Daniel Walkowitz, parents of a 20-year-old daughter, had to solve. And are still solving.

Scenes from a feminist marriage:

"You need a lot of flexibility about adapting to changing circumstances," says Judith Walkowitz. "For instance, I teach at a university that's 200 miles from where I live. Basically, I live in New York and teach at Johns Hopkins for three to four days a week."

"People in a marriage have to learn to roll with the punches,"

says Daniel Walkowitz of his wife's commuting schedule.

"We've both had a lot of changing to do in the marriage," she says. "Neither of us come from families where both the husband and wife had professional careers, where child-rearing and household labor were equally divided. And I think we've managed to do both. To sustain careers and to raise our daughter and to share household responsibilities in ways that I think are strikingly egalitarian."

He says: "It is a fundamental commitment in the marriage that work in the house and work at the workplace are shared responsibilities. Which for women is not unusual. But it's unusual for men."

In the early years of their marriage -- with a young child at home and both parents pursuing careers in the competitive world of academia -- working out the problem of who did what was particularly difficult. And, in the spirit of feminist Germaine Greer's observation that "Everyone needs a wife; no one needs a husband," both Judith and Daniel Walkowitz remember saying to one another -- often, "We both need a wife."

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