I have been thinking and talking about the problem of career vs. motherhood in our society and career vs. the socialization of girls since I was just a tiny tot. But one thing that I find incredibly difficult about this topic is that people are bound to get defensive about their personal choices. I have never personally been too successful at dealing with this issue when I talk to others. And then I find myself watching my words and censoring my opinions because I am so, so worried about offending women who have made different life choices than I have. Ack.
Feminists critique the expectation that it should always be the woman who bears the brunt of the child rearing duties-- but then the women who have made career sacrifices in order to stay home pipe up and say, “But I am glad that this is how I am spending my life.” Feminists want to get to the root of why fewer women than men tend to aspire to certain types of positions, like high-level political positions, or law firm partnerships, or other such “professionally powerful positions.” But then other women say, “Well, I don’t want to be a senator or a law firm partner, but my aspirations are valid, too.” And then there are other woman who say, “Hey, I am just struggling each day to put food on the table. What are you doing for me?”
I find this incredibly frustrating because it hampers the examination of societal forces that may hold our daughters back from exercising their natural talents to the fullest extent possible in whatever sphere suits them. We’re not saying that no woman should ever make a career sacrifice for the sake of her children. We’re not saying that every woman is duty bound to be on the fast track to conventional prestige. We’re not saying that we should ignore inequities faced by women who are not worrying about getting a place in the boardroom because they are struggling just to survive. But I think it’s worth questioning the assumptions that we and our culture make about our role in every facet of society. We should question why it is still generally assumed that career vs. parenting is primarily a “women’s issue.” We should question why women law students are more likely than men to say they don’t want “powerful” positions. We should examine the forces that keep fewer women than men from running for the Senate or becoming CEO or getting a research fellowship in physics at a top-flight university.
My mother is my role model in this regard. Her life was a conventional female life for her generation. She was a secretary until she got married, at which time it was simply expected that she quit her job. She truly relished being a homemaker and she was an incredibly attentive mother. But my mother was extremely clear-eyed about the forces that led her to this role. She was very critical of her upbringing and the socialization and expectations that went along with that. Even though my mother was happy to be a stay-at-home-mother, she always recognized the injustice of forcing women into one cookie-cutter role and the injustice of the fact that she herself never had much of an opportunity to question whether that role was right for her. She was always willing to think about and critique the limitations placed on women’s roles in society and the extent to which her own life was shaped by those limitations.
That’s what we feminists are trying to do. We are certainly not trying to devalue the choices you have made. We are certainly not here to tell every woman that she has to pursue a particular “feminist appropriate lifestyle.” You are not a bad feminist if you are staying home with your children. You are not a bad feminist if you have jumped off the career fast track. Indeed, if we can create a society in which the expectations of parenting and of power fall equally on men and women, then we can be sure that those of us who choose full-time parenting or who choose full-time career or who choose something else altogether have done so in a truly voluntary way, free from the societal norms that tend to force certain roles on one gender or another.
UPDATE: This post at Feministe on Betty Friedan touches a bit on what I am saying, especially this bit:
In her criticisms, [Friedan] is often perceived to have attacked the housewife herself — anti-feminists will toss out Friedan quotes about housework being suited for the simple-minded and boring as “proof” that Friedan believes stay-at-home moms to be stupid. But I’m not sure that was her point. Housework is boring and repetitive. It isn’t stimulating. Most people do not enjoy it. But it still has to get done. Recognizing that it sucks, and that it’s pretty unfair to hold up members of a particular gender as failures if they don’t enjoy it, isn’t the same thing as disparaging the people who, out of necessity, do it. Criticizing the system is not the same as criticizing the individuals who do their best to operate within that system.
I also don’t buy the idea that Friedan’s work and the feminist movement were bad for stay-at-home women, or that they constructed the stay-at-home woman as a negative thing. If anything, the fact that staying at home is now much more a choice than it was 50 years ago confers a good deal of value onto it — women who are staying home are doing it because they want to, not because they’re mandated to do so. They see it as a viable lifestyle choice, and one that they want for themselves. That breeds an understanding of staying home as one in a series of valid life choices, as opposed to something that, by virtue of having a vagina, some second-class citizens are simply expected to do. Of course, how much of this “choice” is actually made freely is debatable, but it’s certainly much more of a choice, for many more women, than it was before.