“Of all the rights of women, the greatest is to be a mother.”
– Lin Yutang

I am a mother.  I am also a feminist, although it seems like these two ideas have become rather incompatible.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that being a feminist these days seems to involve a disdain and disregard for motherhood that is deleterious to everyone involved.  I believe this sect of feminism (because sect it is, despite how mainstream it’s become) has done more harm than good when it comes to motherhood and families, something I will elaborate on below.

Given that, why do I call myself a feminist?  I say I am a feminist because I believe that all individuals are equal, regardless of sex, gender, race, creed, age, and so on.  I believe we should all have the same unassailable rights to vote, to be educated, to be free, to be able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness so long as we refrain from interfering or harming others.  For much of history, this also seemed to be the ideal to which feminists aspired.  If you look at history books, you see such names as Florence Nightengale, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Martineau, Jeremy Bentham, Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton, and many more.  These women (and men) fought for women (and many other marginalized groups) to be seen as equals, not inferiors, by writing, engaging in politics, becoming scientists, or taking on the Church.  The largest of these movements, the suffrage movement, was critical in giving women a voice in the politics of their countries; to ensure that they had a say in the direction their country was moving; to make sure that the interests of women were counted.  It is these women and men who were actively involved in abolishing slavery and fighting for the rights of African Americans as well, because they realized the inherent wrongness of believing certain people were somehow better than others.  Frankly, I consider it an honour to call oneself a feminist in the tradition of these individuals, but as people try to change the meaning of the term and with that, the implications of feminism.

This ‘first wave’ of feminism gave way to the next movement, which began in the mid-twentieth century.  Credited as the first, and most notable, book for this movement, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan changed the nature of feminism from a fight for rights and equality to a social commentary on the structure of society and how the tradition role of women has harmed them irrevocably.  In her work, Ms. Friedan aims to identify the reason for what she saw as the widespread female unhappiness and identifies the culprit as the traditional role for women as housewife, a role that had been pushed onto women during the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s (it is worth noting that in the 1930s, there was a greater societal emphasis on independent women with careers).

The book pins the blame for women’s problems on the societal ideal of femininity (hence the feminine mystique) and calls for a change in society to allow women to pursue their life, without being confined to the biological roles of mother and wife.  It is important to state that this book is actually a great analysis of how the first wave of feminism fell away after obtaining the right to vote, with women returning to the role of housewife and mother without obtaining an education or pushing for a career of their own.  However, I struggle mightily with some of the implications this book made (interestingly even Ms. Friedan later argued it was too anti-family), and how these implications seem to have taken the forefront in the modern feminist movement.

I don’t believe that many women would argue that we should return to a time in which women were barred from obtaining an education or pursuing a career.  But what began with Ms. Friedan’s work was a disdain for motherhood and the idea that it could never be fulfilling and that women need something outside of the home in order to feel fulfilled.  In short: It promoted the masculine ideal of work while eschewing anything traditionally feminine.

In her review on how feminism has treated motherhood in writing, Ann Snitow[1] wrote that the period from 1963 to 1974 is comprised of the “demon texts” (p. 34) on mothering (though she argues some were taken out of context).  These texts, The Feminine Mystique among them, are generally known as those that promoted the idea that motherhood and pregnancy are bad for women.  These texts have been demonized for promoting this view and in turn, feminism had to shift away from this in the mid-1970s.  But what interested me beyond these texts is what she didn’t find.   Most of the feminist pieces in that time and beyond simply ignored mothering – as if it were a non-entity, or something beneath consideration.

Not really until 1980, when Sara Ruddick wrote Maternal Thinking, was there a piece talking about why women are and should be committed to mothering, despite some of the more off-putting aspects of it (particularly in our society)[2].  This again gave way to more work on the negatives of mothering and calls for women to question why they should have children and what their lives might be like if they instead opted for work, a career, travel, etc.; in short, if they unburdened themselves from the shackles of family.  (For a full review of the texts, I recommend Snitow’s work, despite disagreeing with her view that these were good and necessary directions for feminism to take.)

I should make it known here that I am certainly not against the idea of equality in education, the workplace, etc.  In fact, it’s absolutely necessary for an equal society.  The problem is that in pushing for only this sect of the feminist movement has managed to do much more harm than good.  The crux of the most vocal modern-day feminist movement has been to fight for women to have the chance to make it equally in what they themselves have called the patriarchal society.  By doing this, they have placed immense value on the traditional work of men, making it the pinnacle of success and fulfillment in life.  Indeed, according to these feminists, the only way women can be fulfilled is to pursue one of these masculine endeavors; to not do so leads to depression and resentment.  By opting to prize one sex’s work over another, feminists have harmed not only the family, women and children, but men as well.  (This is the issue us other feminists take with this particular sect of feminism – it supports the patriarchal society that is what should be the focus of change.)

Certain misguided politicians have called the recent feminist movement what prompted the downfall of the traditional family, and while vocal feminist scholars have “shunned” the traditional family[3], there is as much blame to be placed on everyone for upholding the notion that motherhood lacks value.  Politicians, corporations, men, women, and feminists have all played their part in making the family a burden instead of a joy.  However, where one might have expected feminists to help change this, too many (but not all) instead worked to ingrain it even more.

Women suffer because it seems that no matter what they choose to do, they can’t win.  In today’s society, the role of mother still is demeaned. In turn, the workplace has evolved with the idea that women aren’t needed at home, pay for work in general is less than it used to be, and certainly not enough for most families to live off one income, as used to be the case.  When a society has decided that women are no longer needed at home, the idea of a stay-at-home mom is a luxury afforded only to the rich.  Women may be getting educated at a much higher rate, but many of them still work jobs that have nothing to do with a “career” in order to help put food on the table while their children are raised by strangers in a daycare setting. The individuals working in the daycare setting, mostly women, are paid low wages (sometimes under the poverty line) because the “work” of caring for children is completely marginalized.  Those with a career aren’t able to balance the work-family life because the family element is so degraded that businesses fail to offer the degree of flexibility needed for women (and men, but we’ll get there) to maintain their career (even with some sacrifices to it like fewer promotions) and care for their family.

Our children have suffered as well.  They’re being raised in record numbers in settings that are not ideal and by people who really have very little vested in their well-being.  When we realize, as a society, that certain aspects of mothering are beneficial to our children, like breastfeeding, we find ways to get them the bare minimum while still keeping mom at work, like pumping, instead of offering reasonable maternity leaves (see Theseus’ Parenting and Maternity Leave Matters).  This still ignores the reality that children need a caregiver who loves and cares for them beyond all else.

The result?  We have children with a plethora of disorders, particularly attachment and mood disorders[4], many of which could be aided and helped by a change in environment, notably more responsive parents or higher quality alloparenting options.  The change in work structure also means that far too many children live in poverty.  Currently, more than 1 in 5 children live in poverty in the United States (defined as less than 50% of the median income)[5][6].  Those numbers are higher than those of the 1970s[7] and possibly higher than the 1940s, though it’s hard to know because they didn’t actually keep records as they do now until the 1960s.  That isn’t to say that poverty didn’t exist, but it was certainly rare for families to have two working parents and still end up under the poverty line, something that happens more often than it should today, with children paying the highest price.

The effects on family, women and children are expected though; after all, devaluing the work of a mother is bound to hurt both mom and child and thus the family dynamic, but people seem to forget or simply not realize that this also has a detrimental effect on men.  One would think that because they were put in the idealized spot of being able to take on the world and conquer it that they would be fine, and for some, they are.  However, the debasing of motherhood has made it even harder for any man who wants to be involved in his child’s life.

A man who says he’d like to stay home with his kids, or take leave after a child is born is generally looked down upon even worse than any woman who makes the same claim.  Although people understand when women try to jump into the traditional men’s sphere, there’s no such understanding when it goes the other way.  For example, while the US doesn’t even have paternity leave (though fathers can take time off under the Family Act), Canada allows 35 weeks of the year’s paid leave to be split between parents as they see fit.  However, only 11% of eligible fathers take this time (although apparently 55% of fathers take some time off, though it may be as little as an unpaid week or two)[8].  While other factors, like financial ones, are bound to be a part of that decision, the fact remains that there is still a stigma against fathers taking leave to do what is considered less valuable work – raising children – yet, the fathers who do take this route seem to unanimously value and love the time they were able to take with their children and wish they could have more of it.

[As a positive note, Sweden offers 60 days of paid paternity-only leave and Norway offer 10 weeks for fathers only.  This is time that cannot be shared with mother and the family forfeits the payments for that time if dad isn’t the one who takes the leave.  This has led to more than 80% of fathers taking leave[9] in Sweden and in Norway 90% of fathers took their leave[10].  The rest of the world should take note.]

This is what this group of feminists fought for.  And now they blame things like attachment parenting and mothers not living up to what they should be doing for the state of women and families because we haven’t seen any real gains for anyone recently.  I question how they could have ever expected anything better when they started with the assumption that one person’s work is more valuable than another’s.

I don’t disagree that many women were depressed and feeling lost when Betty Frieden wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, but I don’t think it’s because they all weren’t out there working like men (though that certainly was it for some and is a valuable discussion).  When one’s work, regardless of what it is, remains undervalued and unappreciated, it’s difficult to find joy in what you do and women’s work at this time was regularly looked down upon.  This time also signaled a societal shift to the suburbs where lots were bigger and people moved even further apart.  The loss of community and isolation is enough to drive any person insane – especially one whose primary companions don’t know the alphabet.

What if, however, instead of idealizing the traditional, masculine work, all feminists opted to try and raise the value of the traditional work of women?  To fight for society to recognize the myriad roles a mother plays in a child’s life – teacher, doctor, playmate, parent, etc. – and to value and respect the feminine role of primary caregiver in a family or out, as teachers and other “feminine” jobs continue to be some of the lowest paying.  These feminine roles don’t need to be completed solely by women, but rather by anyone who has the strengths and will to complete them, and that these roles are valuable.  Immensely valuable.

I can’t help but imagine what things would have been like today if instead of fighting for the right to be like men, feminists had fought for the right to be women and to have that acknowledged.  If that had been the route and we had managed to win that battle, would we see men and women openly taking part in the parts of life that worked for them, whether it be having children and staying home or going off to have a career?  I think so.  I also think it’s not too late to change that.


[1] Snitow A. Feminism and motherhood: An American reading. Feminist Review (1992); 40: 32-51.

[2] Ruddick S. Maternal thinking. Feminist Studies (1980); 6: 342-367.

[3] Nelson HL (Ed). Feminism and Families. New York, NY: Routledge (1997).

[4] Mash EJ & Barkley RA (Eds.) Child Psychopathology, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: The Guildford Press (2003).

[5] UNICEF. Child poverty in rich countries 2005. Innocenti Report Card No 6.

[6] U.S. Bureau of the Census. Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009. Report P60, n. 238, Table B-2, pp. 62-7.

[7] http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/ (Accessed June 30, 2011)

[8] http://www.canadiancrc.com/Newspaper_Articles/Globe_and_Mail_The_Daddy_Shift_STATSCAN_Fathers_parental_leave_24JUN08.aspx (Accessed June 30, 2011)

[9] http://communities.canada.com/vancouversun/blogs/parenting/archive/2010/09/20/swedish-paternity-leave-canada.aspx (Accessed July 1, 2011)

[10] http://www.norway.org/aboutnorway/society/welfare/benefits/ (Accessed July 1, 2011)