“Women should know their place,” tweeted UN Women, the “UN entity for gender equality & women's empowerment,” earlier this month. “A woman’s place is in the lab.”
The tweet was, of course, supposed to be an empowering statement, meant to upend the “patriarchal” notion that a woman’s place is in the home caring for her family. You’re free!—the tweet seems to be telling us—Released by our magnanimous hand from the bondage of cooking, cleaning, and childcare! Take your rightful place in the workforce. (Oh, and you have to be a scientist, okay?)
But by adopting the language of the patriarchy (even in an attempt to turn it on its head), you end up fulfilling the “patriarchal agenda" by limiting women’s choices. Because surely the feminist position ought to be that a woman should have a choice—to be a scientist or a homemaker, a CEO or a stay-at-home mom. That ought to be their position. But the reality is—particularly in the media—that it’s not.
Back to the ’50s?
Also this month, the Australian morning show Today ran a segment on Brooke Smith, a wife and mother of four children. The segment was called “Back to the 50s” and, in it, host Allison Langdon and her fellow commentators absolutely slammed Smith for a post she wrote on Facebook—in a group dedicated to cleaning and organizing—which described how she takes care of her family.
“I always make sure I don’t go to bed until everyone’s lunches are packed, their clothes are set out for the next day including my husband’s, and the house is clean, dishwasher is on, and load of washing is on,” wrote Smith in her Facebook post. “Sometimes it means I get to bed at 9, sometimes that means I go to bed at midnight, but I always get up early (4:30 with husband to make his breakfast and coffee).”
Smith’s choice to care for her family in this way ought to be just as acceptable—in the era of women’s liberation—as someone else’s choice to work outside the home.
A male commentator who joined Langdon on the segment was nearly spluttering in indignation. “Has he hypnotized her or something? Who does this stuff? Making his breakfast and then putting his clothes out overnight?! Is he disabled or something? Like, seriously!” At the suggestion that perhaps she does this because she likes her husband and enjoys caring for him this way, Langdon scoffed, “I like my husband, but make your own bloody breakfast!”
The message is very clear: Women should know their place, and it’s not in the home. (It’s in the lab!) This type of blanket dismissal—and ridicule—of women who choose to be homemakers stems from the notion that anyone engaged in this life path must be the victim of misogyny (internalized or otherwise). The only explanation for someone like Brooke Smith, for example, is that she’s been “hypnotized,” presumably by her evil, woman-hating (possibly disabled?) husband.
Whether or not you, personally, find Smith’s daily routine extreme, is neither here nor there. Her choice to care for her family in this way ought to be just as acceptable—in the era of women’s liberation—as someone else’s choice to work outside the home. But the prevailing narrative in the media is that it isn’t.
Interestingly, though, a poll from the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that over half of Americans believe “children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family.” 2016 data, also from Pew, shows that 27% of mothers choose to stay home to care for their children. And about 78% of stay-at-home moms say they are choosing this path “specifically to care for their home or family,” rather than because of unemployment or other financial concerns.
Over half of Americans believe “children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family.”
The pendulum of feminism, it seems, has swung wildly past the middle. Where once the movement championed the notion that a woman should have just as much choice as a man, it now ridicules and belittles any woman who chooses a more “traditional” path. A path which the majority of Americans think is the best path for children’s wellbeing. Now, as UN Women, Allison Langdon, and others like them make abundantly clear, a woman isn’t considered successful—isn’t doing her job for the movement—unless she behaves in a very specific (traditionally masculine) way.
The Prevailing Narrative
It’s clear from Langdon’s comments—and those of her fellow presenters—that, for them, the choice to be a stay-at-home mom is so outdated as to be ridiculous. Her worldview doesn’t leave room for the kind of lifestyle that Smith—and many others—live.
The notion that Smith’s husband should “make his own bloody breakfast” doesn’t take into account the division of labor that happens in families where one parent stays home. If one parent is rushing around trying to get dressed for work, the other can make breakfast. If one parent goes to the office all day and works hard to make money, the other parent can work hard at home doing the laundry and the dishes and helping the children with their homework. Splitting these tasks 50/50 only becomes fair if both parents are working outside the home.
If a woman’s “place” is anywhere other than wherever she chooses it to be, she’s just as unfairly constrained as she was when she couldn’t get out of the kitchen.
Campaigns like UN Women’s and the media’s ridicule of mothers like Smith point to a startling fact: in many cases, if women are being held back from achieving their dreams, it’s because of modern feminism. If a woman’s “place” is anywhere other than wherever she chooses it to be, she’s just as unfairly constrained as she was when she couldn’t get out of the kitchen.
For many women in America, being a homemaker is a choice. Just as much a choice, in fact, as becoming a scientist or a CEO or an astronaut. Whether we make this choice for the good of our children or because it’s a vocation we’ve always felt called to fulfill, our own, independent, and strong-willed conviction to follow this path ought to earn us the moniker of “feminist.” But it doesn’t because feminism has branded us “bad women.” But for many women—myself included—our place is in the home, not the lab. We are homemakers, hear us roar.
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