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Are The Mommy Wars Feminist?

From Flickr users Mike Licht and Nationscapital.com

It was Mother’s Day yesterday. My daughter gave me a mommy questionnaire that she filled out. My favorite question and answer was, “What was your mom before she had kids.” Child answered simply, “thin.” I laughed for an hour.

One of the troubles with having my relationship with ambition (a ton of it) and life (I’ve got a lot of shit to do, every day) is that my awareness of pop culture stuff is limited. I do not make time for current events as I should.  I only just learned about the asymmetrical hair cut and the Mommy Wars. At the advice of a trusted friend, I googled it. She called it an atrocity. She was right.

I am ashamed to admit that I made it into my twenties before I really understood that feminism is, indeed, relevant, important, useful, necessary. Part of what made me impatient with the paradigm when I first encountered it, was that second and third wave feminism seemed to be too much about whining and engaging in unproductive rhetoric. It also seemed to lack a clear, agreed-upon definition.  I still think it needs unity.

The Mommy Wars are a symptom of feminism being so widely misunderstood, even–or especially–by women. Because the Mommy Wars issues involve women and it’s been an occasion to talk, out loud, about working or staying home, in an election year, it’s being labeled a feminist issue, compared to feminist issues from the past, etc.

I was impressed by how all the different news sources I read: this, and this, and this, and this, and this (in which the first like five comments are all by men, which irritated me pretty tremendously) cited the most recent surge in the Mommy Wars as a–clearly under-considered, mistaken–comment by, ironically, a democratic PR person, who’s also a single mom, called Hillary Rosen.

I think it’s interesting that of the links above, the only person who noted that Rosen is herself a single mom was the self-professed “conservative” columnist. (Seriously, thanks Paul Begala, for the thoughtful and kind column.)

John Podhoretz, in the NY Post, said that stuff like Rosen’s comment about how Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life” is evidence that the War on Women conservatives currently wage is actually a war to protect gender roles. As much as I found his earlier comments in the piece about what feminism is and what women think to be ridiculous–after all, what can a man, an urban white man–really understand about feminism?,* I thought that last observation to be pretty spot on.

I think obliterating gender roles is where we need to focus, culturally, if we’re to make any further progress for women beyond pitting us against each other ideologically. Gender roles are an issue for men, too.

And, no. The Mommy Wars aren’t feminist. The debate between factions of women over which of their myriad options are better is the opposite of feminist. It’s like if peanut butter and jelly started fighting in a sandwich about which was better. It’s petty and unproductive and it’s a question that simply can’t be answered.  What the Mommy Wars do is shine a beacon on a deeper, feminist issue.

We women are individuals. We’re complicated. We need to be prized, respected, and honored regardless of the choices we make about our professions, and it’s pretty stupid that we also need to tell the world that. Culturally, men aren’t valued less if they choose to stay at home with their kids. We don’t value men who become lawyers over men who become taxi drivers. We herald them, regardless of their vocational choices, as engaging in something that’s in their nature: to pursue success and to provide for their families.

And certainly there are differing economic rewards and pursuant cultural consequences regarding manliness or perceived virility as a correlative with occupation, but those aren’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking in terms of family–in terms of the Mommy Wars. Do men accuse each other of failing their gender if they choose to flip burgers over going to medical school? Or stay home with their kids over becoming a soccer star?

No.

Do women?

Yes.

Why? Because we are constantly told that we can’t be as valuable or as multi-talented or multi-interested as men, that our concerns and quests for self are “cute” and “nice.” We are told from birth that our true “place” is at home, and if it’s not at home, we’d better be either damn good or damn sexy, or better yet, both. By whom? Men! (and sometimes by each other, bur more on that in a moment) And those of us who choose to enter the working world as mothers do it from such an obscene place of disadvantage that we become insanely defensive about our progress, which we perceive as being enormous on our personal, culturally microscopic level.

The month I outsold my male colleagues at the Subaru dealership while taking all of my days off, I was elated. I felt ten feet tall. I was good at all of the parts of that job: I learned the hell out of the product, I was savvy with forms and computers, I had legible penmanship, I could write my own sales letters, I am well educated, I am personable, and I tell good jokes. And I was a single mom. The real kind, I didn’t get every other weekend and Wednesdays off being a mom. I didn’t and don’t get child support. I spent 100% of my time not at the dealership performing my momly duties and sleeping. The boys were pissed at me that March. They showed it in different ways, but they all upped their game.

See? I’m still defensive about it. I still feel the need to convince you that it’s possible for a woman to be good at doing something that has long been an male-dominated profession.

Why is it such a leap to imagine that women could be focused on success and providing for their families? I know those are the two things that I spend my days striving after.

For some of us, being at-home moms would be untenable. For others, it’s the only right choice. Some of us work at home so we can be reasonably present parents. And there are lots of factors at play in these choices. Some of us don’t have a choice. Some of us view our choice as a work in progress. Some of us made the choice and have been preparing for it for a dozen years, long before we have children.

The thing is, whatever our choice, we shouldn’t be criticized by our culture or by our fellow women.

We should look for ways to promote cultural celebration of these choices, and we should not relent in our quest to be privileged equally to men regardless of what we choose, regardless of whether we agree with each other or whether it’s the choice we’d make for ourselves.

Here’s what I mean:

If a woman wants to be a, for example, pro football player, she’s labeled a dyke, debated hotly on the six o’clock news, and once she’s “come to her senses” and left pro football to make babies, Lifetime will make a hugely sentimental film about her, emphasizing how being a “proper” woman is such a load better than the conflict she experienced on the field.

Women who break into “male” fields are held to much higher standards. We must know more, and be impeccable, and more energetic.

Books written by women–handling exactly the same subject matter as male authors–are handled differently by marketing departments, jacketed in such a way as to only appeal to women readers. If you doubt me, compare John Irving’s book covers to these by Margaret Atwood. Irving’s are pretty clean, pretty genderless.  Atwoods depict flowers and women.  And these aren’t even the highest contrast examples.  Watch Cathy Day’s blog for more on this. She’s the one who got me thinking about book marketing, who pointed it out to me.

Women readers are condescended to by each other in fiction they write, ostensibly for each other (I’m talking about my pet Romance Novels here). Whereas the few men who write romance are like princes at RWA’s conference, treated with kid gloves by editors, indulged in their flights of grammatical fancy.

Women who want to work want the message to be unilateral. We want all of the other women to work, so that our point has more power.  So of course it’s true that women who want to stay home want to criticize women who work as failures as mothers because motherhood is their professional capital.

Being a mom is freaking hard work no matter how you choose to do it.

And a woman’s choices about her family and how she chooses to be involved with it are between her and her family.  Not between Hillary Rosen and Ann Romney and everybody in America.  Why is this even a thing?

We women have a steep enough hill to climb culturally without in-fighting over whose hat is heavier.

What do you think, readers?  What do we do about mommy wars?  About fracturing the feminist cause with necessarily differing (and I would say, complementary) viewpoints?  How do we come together on this?  Acknowledge our differences and motor forth?

*Disclaimer: I know at least two white men who are keyed in to feminist issues and gender issues and are more feminist than most of the women I know, so this is not meant as a generalization toward men who’re holed up in academia getting their think on, it’s a generalization toward most other men).

2 comments on “Are The Mommy Wars Feminist?

  1. I love Paul Begala. He IS a thoughtful guy; he thinks outside the ideology. But that headline is misleading. He worked for Clinton, he’s a progressive. My people. :)

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