We Haven’t Come a Long Way…And Don’t Call Me ‘Baby’

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A recent New York Magazine article demonstrates just how challenging it can be to be a woman in today’s society. The problem is that the article does not carefully analyze issues or offer potential solutions, but instead uses specious evidence and a tired bashing of feminism. We deserve better.

Well, they’re at it again. This time, it’s the cover story of New York Magazine, entitled The Retro Wife: Feminists who say they’re having it all — by choosing to stay home. Essentially, it is reporter Lisa Miller’s love letter to stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) and a paean to gender essentialism (the belief that people are destined to act in certain ways based on their gender). Miller and fellow journalist Lisa Belkin of 2003 New York Times article The Opt-Out Revolution infamy must have gotten together, compared notes and figured that every decade or so they must rehash the same ridiculous garbage, just phrased a bit differently. Really, go look. It’s like they’re the same article except that Belkin was a tad more optimistic.

I have no problem with SAHMs, but a discussion about that particular choice must be firmly situated within the context of issues surrounding class, sex, race and the vagaries of the American workplace. Yet in articles like this, that is rarely the case because such a challenge to the status quo might point out how the workplace is failing families in general, and women in particular. Thus, instead of truly being a piece of journalism and informing readers, it only serves to fan the flames of anger and division.

As for gender essentialism, there are numerous examples and research studies from the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology and even history disproving this notion, yet it persists. Yes, there are some basic structural differences between the sexes, but gender roles (how women and men act) are societal dictums; they are created. And, as any student of history will tell you, these truisms change based on your income level and the needs of society at the time. For example, in middle class Colonial America, it used to be fathers who were responsible for childcare, until the economy boomed, and men no longer worked in the home. Then it was acceptable for mothers to be the primary caregivers. Similarly, women were supposed to only work in the domestic realm (unless they were poor), until the war effort during World War II demanded women’s labor, and then working outside the home became their patriotic duty. As such, gender roles change when those in charge desire it — not when it is beneficial to people in general. That’s why they are so dangerous.

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One of the problems with gender essentialism is that it constrains people’s abilities and even how they see themselves. By placing people squarely in one category or another — feminine or masculine — from which they are not supposed to move, we not only lose out on some of the talent that is available, we also limit differing perspectives. In social psychological terms, that’s a phenomenon known as Group Think and it leads to all sorts of bad outcomes (e.g., the Bay of Pigs disaster, the space shuttle Challenger explosion and, quite likely, the war in Iraq). Moreover, once people themselves become convinced that they are limited, this view can cause a host of psychological ills, including low self-esteem, cognitive dissonance, depression and anxiety. Any of that sound familiar?

In addition, by making sure people stay in their respective categories, we provide others with an excuse to discriminate. That’s why some boys dismissively sneer at things associated with girls (“You throw like a girl” or “mama’s boy”), why the workplace has been allowed to throw up so many roadblocks for women, and why, for many years, the legal system denied lots of fathers equal access to their children. Biology is not destiny, yet by acting as if it is, we cause an awful lot of harm. And that is why articles such as this are so angering. Why can we not move forward?

Part of the reason we’re still so stuck in the past is that many people consistently mock and minimize the need for and impact of feminism. As is evident if you look up the word in the dictionary, feminism is simply about the equality of women with men, a viewpoint that most people believe. Yet, for some reason, the term and the movement itself keep getting scorned. Miller proves to be no exception, and The Retro Wife provides another opportunity for her to deride feminism. She makes such ridiculous assertions as, “Feminism has fizzled, its promise only half-fulfilled.” I’ll tell you: nothing irritates me more than a woman who has benefitted greatly from feminism talking about how it never worked. (I’m looking at you too, Marissa Mayer!)

Miller goes on to add, “… it is perhaps an indictment of feminism that when a woman ascends to the tippy top of a testosterone-drenched field…, her gender remains very much notable.” This seems completely backward. Such an observation is not an indictment of feminism; it’s a reason for it. All this kind of nonsense tells me is that many people don’t understand what feminism is and, in their blame game, are merely reinforcing the patriarchy, the very social structure that actually makes the rules. It’s like they are blaming the reformers for the mess that was present when they got there.

And motherhood is where the rubber meets the road in all of this. Although it seems obvious if you truly analyze it, few people seem to realize that motherhood is the fulcrum upon which society bases its views on women. For example, the old saying, “As American as Mom, baseball and apple pie” seems to show how important motherhood is to our sense of patriotism, but what it is really demonstrating is our belief in the primacy of the motherhood role for women (come on, every nation has mothers!). The importance of women being mothers is reflected almost everywhere in our society, from the huge fight over abortion and reproductive freedom, to Michelle Obama’s role as “Mom-in-Chief,” to the media using moms as a way to classify groups of women (e.g., “soccer moms” and “security moms”).

Motherhood is wonderful, but it’s also the way the larger society keeps us in our place, and articles like The Retro Wife are key components in this. Perfect examples are when Miller discusses Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article on the difficulties of family-work balance. She states, “In her piece, Slaughter raises high-minded calls for changes in policy that would mitigate trade-offs between family and career…” So, calls for changes in policy, ones that would help millions of families, are “high minded” instead of reasonable and badly needed? Clearly, she doesn’t believe that working mothers have good reasons to want to change the status quo.

Miller goes on further to state: “Though she may not see it, her life — like Mayer’s, like Palin’s — is proof that as a woman, you can, yes, have it all. But as a working mother, you just can’t win.” What Miller doesn’t say — what in fact she tries to avoid in the entire piece — is that instead of giving in to societal mandates about mothering, we can change the way we do business. Working mothers can win. If we allow them to, we can change our overall culture in a way that is beneficial to all. Instead of keeping us down, our place can be wherever we want it to be. And if that happens, perhaps someone else can write a new cover story in which the content is not retro, but is instead revolutionary.

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