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Culture

What The Early Feminists Knew About Motherhood That Modern Women Have Forgotten

By Faith Moore·· 6 min read
early feminists wouldnt approve of modern mothers

“Can parents survive months of hell as the coronavirus cancels summer camps?” That’s a New York Post headline from May 4. The “hell” in question is children. Time — with our children. Can parents survive, the New York Post queries, a few more months of parenting their children?

This article is only the latest illustration of a sentiment that came to the fore the moment schools began to be canceled for the year: How are we going to survive taking care of our kids full-time?

And I mean, on the one hand, I get it. Kids can be a handful. And stir-crazy kids who miss their friends and don’t have anywhere to play except the house and (if they’re lucky) the yard, can test the tolerance of even the most patient parents. But, on the other hand, when exactly did we start thinking of our kids as annoying distractions, rather than the main event?

When exactly did we start thinking of our kids as annoying distractions, rather than the main event?

The Early Feminists

Motherhood has changed a lot since the early Feminists began lobbying for women’s rights. In the beginning — back in the days of the suffragettes — caring for children was almost exclusively a woman’s domain. So it makes sense that many of the early reforms these Feminists sought revolved around giving women rights as mothers. They fought for a woman’s right to keep custody of her children in a divorce, they advocated against birth control — thinking it would encourage men to engage in meaningless sex — and they opposed abortion.

A movement designed to promote the equal worth of women, one can infer, is necessarily a movement in favor of motherhood. In fighting for the right to vote, many women in those early years of Feminism were fighting for their right to get pregnant on their own terms (so every pregnancy was wanted) and to maintain autonomy over their children as primary caregivers. These were not, most of them, the fore-mothers of the current hell-is-my-children mentality. 

Many of the early reforms these Feminists sought revolved around giving women rights as mothers. 

But, of course, as with all burgeoning movements, there were radicals. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood (who was also a prominent eugenicist), was one of the early Feminists, as was Mary Dennett, who advocated for birth control so that women could have sex like men — without commitment. As Feminism’s First Wave achieved its ultimate goal — voting rights for women — and the Second Wave took over, the radical ideas began to become mainstream. 

Choosing Work over Parenting

Fast-forward to today. According to research done last year by the Pew Research Center, the majority of American mothers work full-time outside the home — with about 80% of those mothers saying that working is what’s best for them. This is in spite of the fact that roughly half of working mothers say that working full-time makes it harder for them to be good parents. 

Given these statistics, the growing sentiment that our children are mere distractions becomes easier to understand. Even easier still when we couple it with the current Feminist rhetoric. 

The majority of American mothers work full-time outside the home — with about 80% of those mothers saying that working is what’s best for them.

“We should make it a legal requirement that all parents of children of school-age or older are gainfully employed,” wrote Sarrah Le Marquand in The Daily Telegraph a few years ago. And Linda R. Hirshman, in her book Get To Work, puts forward the thesis that women must remain in the workplace or risk “perpetuating a mostly male ruling class.” Even moms who do choose to stay home with their children frequently feel like “bad feminists.” 

In contrast, the early Feminists operated within a culture that held motherhood in high esteem. According to BBC History, many women during the early 19th century considered motherhood a “sweet vocation,” and advocated for middle class mothers spending more time than ever before with their children. So “Feminism,” in the original sense of the word, would most likely not sanction the kind of anti-childrearing rhetoric of the present wave of Feminism.

How Did We Get from There to Here?

But it isn’t really that hard to see how we got from the valid concerns of the original Feminists to our current predicament. It’s a fairly straight line from “women should have the same rights and opportunities as men” to “women shouldn’t have to be the main caregivers of their children” to “ugh, taking care of my children is hell!” Which leaves us with a rather sticky question: Can an understanding of the fundamental importance of motherhood exist hand-in-hand with Feminism?

Can an understanding of the fundamental importance of motherhood exist hand-in-hand with Feminism?

It’s not so much that we need to completely disregard all of Feminism and revert to Victorian notions about motherhood and childcare. Nor do we need to go back to the days of the early Feminists when women were still seen as “less than” and fought for things we now take for granted. But it’s worthwhile, I think, to contemplate a perspective shift. A step back from the relentless forward motion of Feminism which has pushed us far past the movement’s original ideals and into a work-focused mentality that may not be what’s best for us — or our children. We need a reevaluation of our priorities such that our children come out on top.

Closing Thoughts

Because what if — and hear me out on this one, okay? — what if this extra time with our children isn’t actually hell on earth at all? What if it’s actually a gift? An amazing, unexpected, beautiful gift. The gift of time. Time to stop, and look, and really see these little people who have orbited around us, swooped in and out of our days, begged for our attention all this time. Who, yes, are sometimes annoying, and needy, and covered in food. But who are also miraculous, and funny, and, loving, and changing, and growing so very, very fast. What if our children, not our career, was what really, truly mattered?

There is no doubt that this time of disease, quarantine, and uncertainty is difficult. Infinitely difficult for some, mildly irritating for others. And it’s true that our children — scared, lonely, stir-crazy, and bored — are maybe a little harder to handle than usual. But they are still our children. And we are still their mothers. And at the end of the day — when they’re gone and grown — it will be our children, not our careers, that was our greatest work. This isn’t hell on earth, it’s heaven. Enjoy it.

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