The Stone had an interesting post last week by Amy Allen on the ‘Mommy Wars’. (For those not familiar with the term, ‘Mommy Wars’ refers to the ongoing bitterness between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers on which lifestyle is most suitable for mothers and children, and more in sync with the ideals of feminism.) Allen offers a compelling genealogy of how each of the two positions emerged from different responses to the dichotomies identified by second-wave feminism:
Much work in second wave feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s converged around a diagnosis of the cultural value system that underpins patriarchal societies. Feminists argued that the fundamental value structure of such societies rests on a series of conceptual dichotomies: reason vs. emotion; culture vs. nature; mind vs. body; and public vs. private. In patriarchal societies, they argued, these oppositions are not merely distinctions — they are implicit hierarchies, with reason valued over emotion, culture over nature, and so on. And in all cases, the valorized terms of these hierarchies are associated with masculinity and the devalued terms with femininity.
One response was then to claim the values traditionally associated with masculinity for women: women should become kick-ass, cold-blooded rational professionals – they should be more like men. At the other end, another response was to contest the implicit hierarchies valuing the ‘masculine’ values over the ‘feminine’ ones and to emphasize the beauty and superiority of ‘all womanly things’ such as pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding etc. And thus emerged these diametrically opposed positions, both claiming to embody the true spirit of feminism, and at war with one another. Allen then goes on to describe third-wave feminism as questioning precisely the very binary distinctions which both positions just sketched leave intact.
However, while she rightly emphasizes the need to dissolve these dichotomies and the false dilemma of modern motherhood – having to choose between being a cold-blooded professional or a soft, warm mother practicing attachment parenting – to my mind Allen then goes on to reinforce another false dichotomy. It is true that the ‘Mommy Wars’ to a large extent pertain to middle- and upper-class (predominantly white) women for whom the choice between pursuing a career or staying at home with the kids is exactly that, a choice: for the wide majority of women, it simply isn’t. So Allen thinks we should focus on
another kind of conflict, one that isn’t primarily internal and psychological but is rather structural. This is the conflict between economic policies and social institutions that set up systematic obstacles to women working outside of the home — in the United States, the lack of affordable, high quality day care, paid parental leave, flex time and so on — and the ideologies that support those policies and institutions, on the one hand, and equality for women, on the other hand. This is the conflict that we should be talking about.
As a fairly recent convert to feminism, it always struck me that feminist debates tend to focus on the public arena of economic and social structures at the expenses of, to my mind, a much needed private, domestic counterpart. Again, to view these two approaches as mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy. It seems fairly uncontroversial that these external structures become internalized, both in the domestic sphere of the negotiations within the family and in the very psychological makeup of women themselves; this follows quite straightforwardly if one is willing to grant even a modicum of Vygotskianism. The phenomenon of the ‘internal glass ceiling’ for example is very well known: women themselves tend to internalize the idea that they can only go so far as professionals, and at some point bump against their own internal glass ceiling.
In other words, as feminists (both women and men), we should be talking about all these different kinds of conflicts: the economic and social ones, but also the internal conflicts of women who are often at loss on how to position themselves in this world so as to better fulfill their potentials and be happier. For many of us, real happiness will consist in being able to combine a successful professional life with a fulfilling domestic life, often (though of course not always) involving motherhood. That this combination is a viable option must become evident, and this includes both the structural measures mentioned by Allen as well as a more equitable distribution of domestic responsibilities among partners in heterosexual relationships; and last but not least, the realization that a woman need not pick sides on the ‘Mommy Wars’.