By Tracy G. Cassels
“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 modern feminism 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 gender (or race or creed, though that’s a separate topic). 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 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 the term has changed and so with it 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 her review on how feminism has treated motherhood in writing, Ann Snitow 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). But 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. But in pushing for this, and only this, the feminist movement has managed to do much more harm than good. The crux of the 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. But by opting to prize one gender’s work over another, feminists have harmed not only the family, women and children, but men as well.
Certain misguided politicians have called the recent feminist movement what prompted the downfall of the traditional family, and while feminist scholars have “shunned” the traditional family, 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. But where one might have expected feminists to help change this, they instead worked to ingrain it even more. This is not to say there aren’t alternatives to the “traditional” family that work wonderfully, but rather that a partnership makes raising children a far easier task for all involved. There’s a reason that more single parent households fall under the poverty line – two parent households have an easier time than one parent households just as children raised in a real community find it easier to thrive than those who live more isolated lives. Family, however you make it, friends, and community matter yet our society has turned to valuing individual pleasures much to the detriment of everyone and feminists have helped clear the path.
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 and because of this, the workplace has evolved with the idea that women aren’t needed at home. This means that 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. Women who want to stay at home usually can’t because of financial reasons, and then have the added burden of feeling like a failure in both their parenting domain and work. Women who do want to pursue a career and are able to do so also have to face the flip-side of people wondering when they’re going to have children, even if they don’t want them. Sadly, many of these women give in but continue to put their career ahead of their kids much to their children’s detriment. There was and still is the view that women are supposed to “have it all” (i.e., find a great career and have a happy family) and this is probably the worst myth of all. There simply isn’t enough time or energy for one person to truly pursue a high-powered career in today’s working world and be the type of mom children hope for. So the best you get is a career you’re fine with which earns you money and cuts into the time you have for your family. Hardly a win-win situation. [As a side note, I believe we’re starting to see a change in this with moms starting up their own businesses which allow them to pursue other interests as their children age, but they can do so in a less frantic environment than the traditional workforce meaning it doesn’t cut into their family time and in fact can complement it instead.]
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). But this 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, many of which could be aided and helped by a change in environment, notably more responsive parents. 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). Those numbers are higher than those of the 1970s 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. And while 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 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). 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. And 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 in Sweden and in Norway 90% of fathers took their leave. The rest of the world should take note.]
But this is what feminists fought for. And now they blame the patriarchal society 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. Especially when that other’s is to be in charge of caring for the next generation. 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). 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.
But what if, instead of idealizing the traditional, masculine work, feminists had instead 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 her role as primary caregiver in a family (or out, as teachers and other “feminine” jobs continue to be some of the lowest paying). To fight for the work done by women in families to be seen as equally valuable to the functioning of society as the work done by men in companies and corporations. 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, we would 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. But trying to do both, which is what women have now had to do, simply doesn’t work.
 Snitow A. Feminism and motherhood: An American reading. Feminist Review (1992); 40: 32-51.
 Ruddick S. Maternal thinking. Feminist Studies (1980); 6: 342-367.
 Nelson HL (Ed). Feminism and Families. New York, NY: Routledge (1997).
 Mash EJ & Barkley RA (Eds.) Child Psychopathology, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: The Guildford Press (2003).
 UNICEF. Child poverty in rich countries 2005. Innocenti Report Card No 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.
 http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/ (Accessed June 30, 2011)
 http://www.norway.org/aboutnorway/society/welfare/benefits/ (Accessed July 1, 2011)