It's 2020, and unfortunately women's choices about marriage, children, and gender roles are still fiery topics in political and culture discourse.
One the one hand, we have radical feminists who insist on dismantling virtually every structure of sex, gender, and nuclear family structure. On the other extreme are women who insist that we'd all be happier if we all just got married and took on housework as a full-time calling. There's a lot of noise, but somewhere in the din is a small spark of hope: women who are discovering that embracing a lifestyle of marriage and motherhood doesn't have to mean becoming the oppressed, subservient wife that's too often stereotyped by both Feminists and Trad Wives alike.
Marriage and Motherhood Are Taboo among Modern Feminists
The history of Feminism in the United States is a complicated one, and the shift when motherhood became taboo within the Feminist movement requires a bit of context. You might have heard the history of Feminism divided into the “three waves."
First Wave Feminism refers to the emergence of the Western World’s first unified political advocacy for women’s rights, which took place roughly between 1840-1920. You probably recognize the names of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanston, and Sojourner Truth from this time period. Over 200 women convened at the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women,” producing a list of 12 grievances against women’s rights, chief of which was women’s inability to vote. The advocation for women’s right to vote became one of, if not the chief issue of these pioneering feminists, and their capstone victory was marked with the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women the Constitutional right to vote.
First Wave Feminism refers to the emergence of the Western World’s first unified political advocacy for women’s rights.
If the right to vote drove the movement behind the First Wave Feminists, social equality defined Second Wave Feminism. The beginning of Second Wave Feminism is often attributed to the 1963 publishing of Betty Friedan’s famous book, The Feminist Mystique, which sold over three million copies in three years. Though Simone de Boivoir’s The Second Sex, published in 1949, became iconic in the Feminist movement in Europe, her work did not reach the U.S. until 1953, and unlike Boivoir, Friedan’s work specifically targeted the discontent of the housewives in America. Friedan sought to incite political change for women’s equality through first changing the cultural perception of womanhood itself.
The Feminine Mystique highlighted the areas in which women were confined within their assumed roles in the household and were often restricted from pursuing their creative and intellectual desires. Consequently, Friedan argues, women are unable to take advantage of opportunities in the workplace and women are compensated less than their male colleagues when they do. Millions of women identified with Friedan’s call for social equality with men, inciting the nationwide activism often attributed to Second Wave Feminism.
These “Second Wave” reforms include the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which outlawed the gender pay gap, and a series of Supreme Court Cases granting access to birth control, the most contentious of which was Roe v. Wade, the infamous case that legalized abortion, thus splitting the Feminist movement between those women who saw access to abortion as a victory for women’s rights and those who viewed it as an explicit violation of human rights.
Friedan sought to incite political change for women’s equality through first changing the cultural perception of womanhood itself.
The Second Wavers’ shift to the personal, cultural battle of Feminism not only advocated for political change, but also called for a change in our perception of womanhood itself. This, consequently, gave Feminist leaders the power to define our cultural vision of womanhood. While Friedan advocated on behalf of the housewives, many of those who came after her argued that motherhood should not be in our future vision of ideal womanhood. Chief among these advocates was Shulamith Firestone, one of the more radical Feminist activists during the 1970’s.
Firestone gained notoriety for her groundbreaking Feminist manifesto, The Dialectic of Sex, in which she advocates for a vision of womanhood as culturally and functionally indistinguishable from that of a man. She says, “The end goal of feminist revolution must be...not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally...The new feminism is not just the revival of a serious political movement for social equality...Its aim: the overthrow of the oldest, most rigid class/caste system in existence, the class system based on sex.”
The end goal of feminist revolution must be...not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself.
Firestone attributes the traditional role of motherhood as the root cause of women’s social equality; namely, that physical differences between men and women have created our preconceived ideal social roles for men and women—the men work to provide for the family while the woman bears and raises children. Firestone then argues that removing a woman’s association with motherhood is the key to attaining social equality with men.
Is Motherhood Contrary to Women’s Liberation?
In the aftermath of Firestone and Friedan, we are now left with conflicting views of “liberated womanhood.” What began as a movement giving voice to the American housewife has morphed into a cultural devaluation of motherhood altogether. Consequently, the American Feminist movement today finds itself at an impasse: will they or will they not create space for motherhood? If they do, then they will have to shift their view of women’s liberation to include the women who have embraced it. If not, then they will alienate the 43.5 million mothers between the ages of 15-50 in the United States.
The American Feminist movement today finds itself at an impasse: will they or will they not create space for motherhood?
Whether or not the Feminist movement chooses to include marriage and motherhood depends entirely on the answer to this question: Is it the job of the Feminist to determine the vision of the “liberated woman?” I argue that the answer is no, but rather that the true liberated woman is the one who has the dignity and freedom to choose what type of life she wants, whether that is motherhood, a career, or both.
A choice is inherently limiting because it means that you are saying no to one thing in order to pursue another. Choosing motherhood therefore means that you are saying no to a variety of things, maybe a career or spending time doing other activities. Similarly, choosing a career means that you may have to say no to motherhood and other pursuits. The same limitation of choices goes for working mothers as well.
The job of the Feminist is to ensure that women have the freedom to choose the path that they desire.
True “liberation” is not encouraging women to choose one way of life over another; rather, it is giving women the freedom to choose the life they want, and that could be motherhood if they want it. Therefore, it is not the job of the Feminist to dictate the choice of the woman to pursue one path over the other. Rather, the job of the Feminist is to ensure that women have the freedom to choose the path that they desire.
We're still waiting for Feminists to honor the choice of millions of women within the U.S. who have chosen marriage and motherhood as their desired path. Feminism can't continue as a faction of one vision of the “liberated woman” over the other. Rather, we need to treat every woman with dignity, equality, and respect, as well as ensure their freedom to pursue whatever path they desire. This is true women’s liberation.