Feminism is back, guys! (Of course, if you ask the editors at Ms. Magazine and the women of NOW, it never left.) But thanks to Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” and its advice that women need to stop pussyfooting around and get to running stuff everyone’s talking about feminism like it’s 1969. Case in point: New York Magazine has a feature called “The Feminist Housewife” which I thought was going to be about someone like my mom — a woman who chose a traditional marriage but raised her daughters to be independent and self-starters — but instead it’s just about some lady who really likes staying at home, raising her kids and still believes in all the traditional gender roles.
From New York:
The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.” Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multitaskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums; “women,” she says, “keep it together better than guys do.” So last summer, when her husband, Alvin, a management consultant, took a new position requiring more travel, she made a decision. They would live off his low-six-figure income, and she would quit her job running a program for at-risk kids in a public school to stay home full time.
I’m someone who thinks gender assumptions are potentially dangerous and can lead to some unhappy people. You wouldn’t want men and women “choosing” a role they’re not suited for simply because society says you have to do it. And you can’t apply one relationship standard to all. I think my parents’ marriage is pretty ideal, but both parties had to give up something to get what they have. I don’t believe in “Happily Ever After” once the wedding cake is eaten. Marriage is a tour du force test of your will and ability to negotiate, not to be undertaken by the fickle or the faint-hearted. Even if you have a good marriage, you’ll have your moments.
But what this article really made me think was how many people — men and women — have actually seen up close the June Cleaver and Betty Draper experience? How many of us were actually raised by mothers who stayed at home and fathers who you only saw on evenings and weekends because he was working? And can you miss what you never had?
Of women with graduate or professional degrees, 75 percent of them who had a child in the past year work, and 60 percent of those women work full time.* When you look at highly educated women who have older children, about 86 percent of them are in the work force. So we’re not talking about hordes of women who are “too busy mining their grandmothers’ old-fashioned lives for values they can appropriate like heirlooms, then wear proudly as their own,” as New York claims. Such women, if they exist, are a minuscule sliver of the whole pie.
This debate gets even more complicated when you talk about black mothers.
Last year Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen made some dismissive statements about stay-at-home mothers in reference to aspiring First Lady Ann Romney. The Grio published a piece on how black women were mute in the stay-at-home debate because by and large most black women have always had to work.
From The Grio:
Unlike women of other ethnicities, black women have traditionally not had the choice to become stay-at-home mothers.
According to “Historical Changes in Stay-at-Home Mothers: 1969 to 2009” by Rose M. Kreider and Diana B. Elliot the number of stay-at-home mothers has decreased from 9.8 million in 1969 to 5.7 million in 2009.
“Black women were about half as likely as White women to be a stay-at-home mother, while the odds for women of other races did not differ from those of White women,” Kreider and Elliot write.
Historically, black women have always worked.
“There is evidence that married black women have always been employed outside of the house in large numbers,” (Landry 2000) Kreider and Elliot note. “Even black mothers with young children were in the work force following World War II, when many of their white counterparts had withdrawn from the labor force” (Thistle 2006).
Jezebel’s Tracie Eagan Morrisey mocked the tone and false trendiness of the New York piecewriting: “New York Magazine pooped our party with an incendiary cover story about the ‘legions’ of ‘feminist housewives’ who’re ‘having it all by choosing to stay home.’ Choosy feminists choose choice! And I’m choosing to roll my eyes.”
I completely understand her take-down of the article. It tries to create a trend where there is none in response to our ever-changing times and the slow march towards gender equality.
But I can’t help but wonder how many black women wish they had the “choice” to stay at home and raise their children? Has a poll ever been done of working black mothers — both married and unmarried — on whether or not they’d like to stay at home?
My mother was one of handful of peers who was a stay-at-home mom. She was an ideal candidate for the job. A former school teacher and eldest sister of nine, she loved children and to this day, is extremely good with them whether that child is an infant or 18-years-old. She’s got the touch. At the time when we were growing up, living in a middle-to-working class black neighborhood in St. Louis County, my mother would occasionally have to deal with ridicule or even out-right hostility from other black women about her choice to stay at home. People told her it was likely that her marriage would end in divorce or made her feel bad for not wanting to continue her career as a school teacher. (This was probably the one that hurt the most as my mother was an excellent teacher and to this day sometimes wishes she’d returned to the profession after we’d become old enough to clothe and feed ourseves.) But after these same women who criticized her retired, many admitted they had wished they’d either could have done what my mother did or at least had the “choice” of it.
A lot of women, black and white, want better choices, but we’re still being crammed into the same old compromises, the same old roles. And this goes for men as well, some who check out of families when they feel they can’t live up to a “traditional” role. The best father is one who is actively involved in his child’s life, but certain segments of our society still pine for all the familial burden being on the woman even though more and more fathers want and do take a larger role in parenting. Both sides would benefit from a more understanding work place that provides the work/life balance necessary so parents can be parents and still advance in their careers.
The stay-at-home moms comeback maybe premature, but the debate about choice isn’t. And it’s hard to choose something that for most women isn’t even on the table in the first place.