The New York Times whacked a small beehive recently with its Room for Debate column. Taking off from French Feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s new book “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women,” the Times asked seven women to respond to the following questions: “Has women’s obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism? In particular, has this trend of ‘attachment parenting’ been bad for working moms?”
The responses of the seven were enlightening, mostly because not one of them attempted to answer the first question. Maybe they just thought it was dumb. I know I do. The answer is clearly “no.” Even if women generally have an “obsession” with being “the perfect mother,” an assertion for which there is no evidence, feminism is all too obviously alive and kicking. And it will be, long after the current fad of attachment parenting has become a distant memory.
But far more interesting than the short pieces in the Times is the snit the whole column has created in the print and electronic media. To many of those writers, the very idea that there’s a conflict between feminism and motherhood is anathema. So Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon.com weighed in with an article entitled “The NYT’s Ridiculous Motherhood Debate.” Not to be outdone, Lisa Solod’s piece in the Huffington Post countered with “The Fake Fight Between (sic) Women and How It Will Hurt Us All,” in which she shouted “Motherhood vs. Feminism? Give me a break.”
For both Williams and Solod, even to ask the question was offensive. Unlike the Times writers, to them the answer to the question is obvious; there is no conflict between feminism and motherhood. Many mothers are feminists, after all.
Too bad they neglected to read the title of Badinter’s book that set the entire debate raging, much less the book itself. She, after all, sees a very distinct “conflict” between the feminist holy grail of work, commercial and intellectual power on one hand, and motherhood and domestic power on the other.
Far worse, Williams and Solod seem not to know the history of feminism. If they do, they’re at pains to hide the fact. Have these two feminists truly not read the seminal books of the Second Wave feminist canon? The Second Sex? The Feminine Mystique? What about virtually anything ever written by Catharine MacKinnon? Or Badinter for that matter.
If they had, they’d know that for decades, feminists have proclaimed the family to be the seat of the oppression of women. Badinter says as much herself: “The best allies of men’s dominance have been, quite unwittingly, innocent infants.” But at that, she was only channeling Simone de Beauvoir who famously stigmatized a mother’s choice to stay home and raise her children as possibly criminal. Bette Friedan agreed, likening home and family to a prison.
Those scarcely exhaust the list of feminists who have successfully tried to make domestic life (including a husband) seem like a threat to women’s physical and psychological well-being. But suffice it to say that Badinter’s claims fall squarely within mainstream feminism as it’s been practiced for well over fifty years – children are the enemies of women.
So why would Williams and Solod be so desperate to pretend that so much feminist writing simply doesn’t’ exist, that there is in fact no conflict between motherhood and feminism? And why would they believe they could wish away that conflict as simply as Dorothy clicking her ruby slippers together? Whatever the answer, their pretense is also part of mainstream feminism – the intellectual dishonesty part.
A lack of basic honesty has dogged feminism at least since the 1960s and continues to this day. Examples are too numerous to detail, but some writers like Christina Hoff Sommers, Daphne Patai and Carolyn Graglia have developed a small cottage industry devoted to debunking some of the more laughable instances of feminist mendacity. From made-up facts (Steinem: 150,000 women and girls die of anorexia each year; Brownmiller: only 2% of rape claims are fabricated), to vanishing research data (Carol Gilligan’s “data” on girls in school never saw the light of day) to outright lies (women don’t commit domestic violence; parental alienation is a plot by fathers to steal children), the dark side of feminism is littered with the type of intellectual dishonesty that would get a high school sophomore expelled.
Thus Williams’ and Solod’s claim that there’s no conflict between feminism and motherhood takes its place within the hoariest traditions of feminism – public anti-intellectualism. But sadly for them, hiding crazy Aunt Sally in the attic isn’t easy, try as they might. For far too long, far too many people have noticed the side of feminism that calls motherhood a betrayal of women.
It’s always been feminism’s Achilles heel. Take on motherhood and you’re fighting a bear; it’s a fight you’re likely to lose. And that, I suspect is the answer to my question about what Williams and Solod are up to when they seek to deny the plain conflict between feminism and motherhood.
The desire by women to conceive, carry, give birth to and care for children is one of the most powerful motivations we humans are heir to. It won’t be undone by those for whom every urge, regardless of how good and natural, is really just the social construct of an evil patriarchy. Not surprisingly, the desire to mother hasn’t withered away, but has remained vital and alive despite the hostility of feminism. We can expect that to continue.
However much Williams, Solod and their sisters in arms may wish to deny the fact, feminism and motherhood have long been on a collision course. The natural, and I would argue inevitable, solution is for feminism to yield to avoid its own destruction. Indeed, that’s what we’re already seeing. The seven NYT writers discuss motherhood a great deal, feminism barely at all. Sensible observers note that legitimate feminism seeks to free women to make choices equally with men, and the choice to procreate and care for one’s young is one of those choices.
Feminism went down the wrong road when it proclaimed motherhood, home and family to be bad for women. Countless women know that road to be a dead end. It’s not their fault that Williams and Solod find themselves at the road’s end wondering where to go next.