Friday, May 30, 2008

Feminism and Motherhood

My husband just finished reading me this article by Rebecca Walker, daughter of author Alice Walker, that was linked to on a blog we often visit. Though I am not sure how I feel about this bashing of one's mother in the public sphere, I understand the author's intent and wholeheartedly agree with most of what she writes. Here are a few snippets to summarize:

...It reminds me of just how blessed I am. The truth is that I very nearly missed out on becoming a mother - thanks to being brought up by a rabid feminist who thought motherhood was about the worst thing that could happen to a woman. You see, my mum taught me that children enslave women. I grew up believing that children are millstones around your neck, and the idea that motherhood can make you blissfully happy is a complete fairytale.

...Although I believe that an abortion was the right decision for me then, the aftermath haunted me for decades. It ate away at my self-confidence and, until I had Tenzin, I was terrified that I'd never be able to have a baby because of what I had done to the child I had destroyed. For feminists to say that abortion carries no consequences is simply wrong.

...I know many women are shocked by my views. They expect the daughter of Alice Walker to deliver a very different message. Yes, feminism has undoubtedly given women opportunities. It's helped open the doors for us at schools, universities and in the workplace. But what about the problems it's caused for my contemporaries?

...Then I meet women in their 40s who are devastated because they spent two decades working on a PhD or becoming a partner in a law firm, and they missed out on having a family. Thanks to the feminist movement, they discounted their biological clocks. They've missed the opportunity and they're bereft.

...Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.

...But far from taking responsibility for any of this, the leaders of the women's movement close ranks against anyone who dares to question them - as I have learned to my cost. I don't want to hurt my mother, but I cannot stay silent. I believe feminism is an experiment, and all experiments need to be assessed on their results. Then, when you see huge mistakes have been paid, you need to make alterations.

I would not call myself a feminist, by any means, though I am also not anti-feminist. I do believe that some good things came out of the feminist movement, especially in terms of educational and work opportunities for women. I do not plan to be a stay-at-home-mom all of my life, though I do believe that my role as homemaker for my family and mother to my children is the most important job I have.

I love teaching and writing and being involved in ministry, but those are all things that I can do again once my children are grown. I sometimes think I gave them up too early and that every child I have puts me farther from my career goals. Then I realize that these unique, beautiful, compassionate, smart little men have been given to me as a gift, to nurture and raise and turn into men, with the constant help of their father.

I may be stepping on some toes here, and Rebecca Walker certainly did, but I am so thankful that she had the courage to write that article. She points to what, to me, are some of the biggest failures of the feminist movement. While all of the progress that has been made for women does not need to be thrown out, I think an honest look at the ways in which the women's movement has failed women is needed. I hope that people will read her article and that some debate can flow from it. I hope that those who really care about the rights of women will realize that taking away or degrading the most unique of a woman's roles does her no good, only harm.

Please read the article and tell me what you think. I am interested to hear opinions from all sides.


Anonymous said...

The problem with this perspective is that it treats career and family as being in competition with each other. The continuing cultural context in which we live still seems to dictate that if there are to be children in the family, the woman will be primary caretaker and the man will "help" while traditional (American)feminism is a self-centered sort of egoism that rejects family. Both approaches miss the point in my view. They miss out on a truly counter-cultural version of feminism, which aligns well with Christian faith and which asserts that men and women should pursue the calling that God has placed on their lives. If a couple believes God has called them to have children, then it is their responsibility to raise and nurture and love the children. It is not something that should automatically fall to the woman, while the man provides assistance on weeknights and weekends for which the woman should be grateful. Rather man and woman should together freely decide how to best raise their children. If God has called a woman to work, to ministry, and to childbearing then it should be something that the family as a whole pursues together. In a true sense of partnership, husbands and wives should be free of preconceived expectations or traditions concerning work and childrearing. In my view true feminism does not reject childbearing as a calling for (some) women, rather it asserts that childrearing is something that a couple takes on together and that men and the (Christian) community in which we live have a responsibility to share in its joys and burdens. My feminist mind rejects the idea that true liberation means not having children. Rather true liberation as a woman means embracing ALL aspects of who God has made us to be. However to follow God's full passion for our lives in all our giftings, we cannot do it alone. We need a community (including husbands, family and friends) that acknowledge that childrearing is not necessarily something the wife does all day while the husband helps when he can. Instead childrearing is something that we all embrace, and if we work together to support each other we as women can pursue each way in which God has called us to bring his Kingdom alive on earth. Otherwise feminism and traditional views of women and motherhood both allow us to be only part of who God created us to be.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for articulating my views almost exactly. Because of our unique calling to ministry in Asia, my husband and I have the chance to have a more holistic family life, both working and taking care of the children while doing ministry together. Right now, we are in a season where my husband works full time and is in grad school, and I am the primary stay-at-home parent. But things will change as our opportunities for work and ministry change overseas.

I do think Walker's perspective makes sense from her experiences, as a reaction against the extreme feminism she was raised in, and I think she addresses some important concerns for traditional feminists to consider.

Kate said...

Thank you for this post. I've been thinking about it all week. I don't really have much to add to what anonymous very eloquently said. I guess I always want to come back to definitions - what do we mean by feminism? Because I think my understanding of it is very different from Alice Walker's. If hers was the assumed definition, then no, I would not consider myself a feminist because I don't see that kind of feminism as being truly liberating, and that sort of personal liberation is often at the expense of others. However, I'm quite happy to align myself to the kind of feminism of which anonymous writes which allows me to be fully me in God's eyes.

I think Rebecca Walker is quite right to point out the flaws in her mother's thinking and illustrate how it has damaged her (although I am obviously sorry for the breakdown of their relationship). bell hooks wrote an excellent book called From Margin to Centre (I think) about the way in which feminism marginalised minority women because it was these women - the poor, those from ethnic minorities - who had to step in to the 'traditional' female roles of childminder and cleaner when the middle class white women were off pursuing their careers. I think R Walker's article continues the discussion on who the victims of this strident brand of feminism might be.

Sorry - this isn't really about the argument of motherhood/career choices. You know a bit about what I'm going through to become a mother, and I suppose that all I can really say on that is that I am grateful that I have the freedom and space to discern God's plan for me, and that I have the freedom and space to act on that, whatever my vocation ends up being - motherhood, career, or both. In part, I have the hard work of feminists before me to thank for a certain amount of that freedom. (Of course, I am also grateful for an open-minded husband who doesn't believe in strict gender roles.)

Sorry for the ramblings. Great post though!

SF Mom of One said...

Reminding us of our history: The first round of feminism in the early 1900s resulted in women's suffrage. If we vote, we are taking advantage of the hard fought battle of the early heroes of feminism. Motherhood was central to the their vision.

Now, popping ahead to late 20th century feminism: One of the founding documents was the "Feminine Mystique" which, according to Wikipedia, "which attacked the popular notion that women of that time could only find fulfillment through childbearing and homemaking."

I think it's true that some early 70s feminists took this point of view to the extreme, motherhood as barrier to fullfillment. Other versions of feminism--ones most familiar to me---elevate characteristic of the female gender have more in common with our suffragette mothers.

I found myself thinking back over that history as I read the quotes from R Walker, providing some context.

As for me: I became a mother at 40, first so that I could spend time growing up as well as going to college and joining the Peace Corps. At 30, I was ready for mothering, but I needed to find a good man to marry first. That took me a while. :) And then I was very lucky!

TwoSquareMeals said...

Kate and SF Mom of One,

Thanks for the historical context. I think the definition of feminism that we are using is really important in this discussion. Most of what I came into contact with in college was the extreme sort that thought that marriage and motherhood were barriers to fulfillment as a woman. That is the sort of feminism R. Walker is reacting against, and I think she makes some good points.

That said, I am very thankful for the women who fought to bring us equal rights (voting, employment, wages, etc...). And I am thankful that we live in a time when we can embrace both motherhood and careers outside of the home as valid callings, finding a balance that works for us and our families.

SF Mom of One said...

OK, I have to weigh in one more time, probably stating the obvious:

Now we have a new cultural/economic problem: the erosion of the middle class. Now many families have to have two working adults (at least) in order to survive. Even across two adults, there isn't enough time to spend parenting. And some who would choose the homemaking role simply can't. I admire those families who do manage one parent at home on a thin, thin shoestring.

And postscript: Whatever one's politics, I think the media's treatment of Hillary proves that sexism is alive and well, just more subtle. And at the same time, her achievement shows us how far we have come.

Oh, and one more: here is a website for an HBO film on the suffrage movement. Lots of history/timeline on the site and the movie is good too.

MHL said...

I am a man, so who am I to have an opinion? Of course, that's never stopped me before, so here goes. I was interested in SF Mom of One's comments on the ability to support a family on only one salary. I don't see it so much as a problem of survival, but as being able to live at the normal standards of our peers. My wife an I make it on my government salary and it is tight, but we aren't in any real danger of starving or anything.

We do, however get lots of puzzlement from our friends and family over why we don't buy a new car (or two) to replace our two old, but fortunately paid for, clunkers. Our house is in dire need of painting. My daughter is appaled that she can't have her own cell phone. We share one computer among the whole family. I could go on and on.

The problem is that our consumer driven and materialistic culture has built up a certain set of expectations that are next to impossible to live up to without two incomes. And as we can see from the explosion of credit card debt, even two incomes is often not enough. To try to live relatively simply is getting to be downright counter-cultural. And having a big family is counter-cultural also, since kids are expensive also.