Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
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2006 Women's History Month

The builders of new myths

page three

Crafting new narratives of women, work and family

I've cited Beauvoir's The Second Sex at length both to highlight its relationship to Friedan's work and the process by which myth is broken down and rebuilt in the interest of social change. As the short passage introducing this essay suggests, the role of revolutionaries is to reveal the fractures and fallacies of the existing order and provide the outline for a suitable replacement. The thing about both the incoming and outgoing myths is that they can only exist as concepts or generalities -- they can never reflect the totality of each individual's unique circumstances, experiences, losses and desires. But an effective change narrative has to contain enough obvious or shared truths to make it resonant and memorable, and -- if a prescription for the future is in order-- it must include a course of action with substantially achievable goals. That could include anything from changing the system from within to armed revolt.

In the case of dismantling the feminine mystique, Betty Friedan hit the jackpot. She identified a trend that women could see and feel in their own lives, she used accessible language and concepts to locate the source of their pain, and she offered a quick and relatively easy fix: No need to overthrow the patriarchy -- just relinquish your passive dependency and get a job! But by elevating middle-class women's right to self-expression over the expansion of individual rights, Friedan contributed to a cultural climate in which women's concerns were easily minimized as a failure to adjust to the status quo. Women changed, but the world did not rush to meet them.

So far, I've discussed a half dozen myths and change narratives in this essay. In the first section, I discussed the myth of the "mommy wars" and the common misperception that it was feminism, rather than changing economic conditions, which led to the near-extinction of married couple-single earner households at the end of the twentieth century and the resulting time-and-care crunch families face today. I've touched on the mythology of choice; the positive vision of women's self-possession and potential for self-realization; the negative myth of full-time homemakers as maladjusted, passive parasites; the fatal myth of women's liberation through conformity to the male model of status and success; the myth that all aspects of professional work provide a meaningful sense of accomplishment; and the conjoined myths of maternal instinct and maternal bliss. One myth that I have not yet mentioned -- which is the central flaw of both Betty Friedan's and Simone de Beauvoir's theories -- is the romantic myth of male agency and autonomy, which is offered as a better pattern for women's lives without consideration for the fact that men's self-sufficiency invariably depends on a constant flow of cheap or unpaid labor from women and subordinate males.

Another subtext we might examine is the myth of a normal continuity of feminist consciousness. It seems entirely possible that women's sensitivity to the "woman problem" will wax and wane depending on the nature of the times, social and economic stressors and the visionaries and leaders available to pound the drum. The historic record suggests that women's progress is constant, but normally uneven. The dormancy of women's collective activism should in no way be taken as a sign that women are completely satisfied with the present circumstances, or that the matter of women's equality is settled.

For those of us who've taken up the work of theorizing a mothers' movement, Friedan and Beauvoir's classic analyses serve as an unnerving reminder that, a) no single theory can possibly offer a whole or complete agenda for social change because all theorists, being human, have biases and blind spots; and, b) theory and philosophy are ultimately forms of autobiography, because no matter how expansive our imagination or concern for the future, the meaning we ascribe to our theories and solutions is weighted by our particular histories, social realities, failures and dreams. I can't think of a single important or controversial work on motherhood and equality, past or present, that defies this equation.

Of course, I worry about my own biases and blind spots. I hope I'm not mistaken in my conviction that caregiving should be regarded as a primary human endeavor rather than simply "women's work," or my belief that motherhood and women's equality are completely reconcilable, or my theory that ingrained thinking about gender and human capacity is central to the motherhood problem. I hope I'm not wrong in sticking to my position that feminism is still one of the best tools we can use to understand and rectify our discontents as women and mothers. And I really hope my faith that the emerging mothers' movement has the potential to reach across the boundaries of race and class to address the true diversity of maternal experience and need is not misplaced. But above all, I hope I my perception of mothers' growing desire for change has some foundation in reality.

When they first sprout up, change narratives are like anything else new and untried: we have to hold them up to our lives to see if they fit. When educated, middle-class women -- and the daughters of educated, middle-class women -- held The Feminine Mystique up to their lives in 1963, it fit well enough that they decided to rethink their lives. Even today's generation of mothers can find elements in The Feminine Mystique and The Second Sex that still fit; despite out best efforts, women's lives haven't grown that much in half a century. But today, we have the added perspective that comes from living the legacy of these ideas, and we can see the author's biases and blind spots more clearly -- which is why Lisa Belkin's "Opt Out Revolution" story and Linda Hirshman's "Homeward Bound" seemed inconsistent with what we feel and know.

But I don't think we can assume that feminism has run its course -- or that we have to pull back our ambitions to having freedom of choice rather than full citizenship -- simply because parts of Freidan's or Beauvoir's narratives still fit us like a glove. We should take it as evidence that there's unfinished work to be done, and that we still have an opportunity to make our own history.

Whether it's caused by action or inaction, social change is inescapable. I can absolutely guarantee you that fifty or one hundreds years from now, American mothers will be living in a different social world. It could be a great. It could be grim and dehumanizing. The lunatics might be running the asylum. But wouldn't it be nice if people who do the caring work of our society had an equal say in shaping that uncertain future?

"Love is a good thing"

But what will we use for a plan, what new myths will we need to construct atop the empty shells of our old illusions? I don't think we'll ever find a single perfect solution. "Choice" may not be the final framework, but women's lives and desires are too diverse and too complex for a one-size-fits-all mandate for change. Nor should we be satisfied to stop with achievable solutions -- such as the need for flexible and part time professional work -- that will advance the status and economic security of some mothers but fail to address the needs of others. The master plan for this project will have to be undogmatic and open-ended. At the same time, we're going to need to nail down some finite goals, build coalitions, and prepare for the long, slow slog of legislative activism. Maybe we don't have to call ourselves feminists, or womanists, or motherists, or whatever. Maybe we can just come together as caring people who believe there is a better way.

This much I can predict: our mothers' movement is going to look different from the women's movements that preceded it and those that will follow.

I'm going to leave the next-to-last word to historian Robyn Muncy, author of Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform 1890 -1935 (1991), who wrote this in response to Joan Walsh's commentary on "Feminism after Friedan:"

Feminists should not issue judgments against women who choose to work part-time or stay at home with their children when they have that choice. Love is a good thing, and the more we can make it the center of our lives the better. Moreover, Hirshman makes the rash claim that feminists have changed the workplace, which she represents as the realm of freedom and power, but not the family, which she represents as the realm of drudgery and servitude.

Feminism has not changed workplaces nearly enough. It may have opened workplaces to women, but it has not changed exploitive work cultures that require employees to make paid employment their only life commitment. That sort of work culture must be the target of feminist critique not the object of feminist desire as it seems to be for Hirshman. Creating work cultures that allow the best, most interesting and responsible work to be done at a pace that is humane and allows even of part-time commitment for both women and men must be a top priority for feminists. Reconstructing the workplace amounts to more even than paid maternity leaves, health care for childbirth, and day care: it requires creating expectations of workers that allow them a full life off the job as well as on.

Muncy says we are currently locked in a battle over the soul of feminism. That sounds about right to me. All I know is that I when I started writing this piece, I planned to write an overview of two different strains of feminism -- radical and mainstream -- that informed women's activism and ideology during the second wave. And once again, I ended up writing about revolution.

Judith Stadtman Tucker

mmo : march 2006

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From the Encyclopedia Britannica Online:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815 - 1902

Simone de Beauvoir, 1908 - 1986

Betty Friedan, 1921 - 2006

Also on the MMO:

The Feminine Mystique
an excerpt from The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream
By Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling

Another Mothers’ Movement, 1890 to 1920:
The role of women’s voluntary organizations in Progressive Era social reform

Morality or equality:
Maternal thinking and the social agenda

The new future of motherhood

(1) In Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement, Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, editors (2000)

(2) In Unfinshed Work, Jody Heymann and Christopher Beem, editors, The New Press, 2005.

(3) As quoted in the introduction by Deidre Bair to the 1989 Vintage edition.

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