May 2 2012
Politicians have been talking a lot about the role of women in society. We might all benefit from considering a little history on this not-so-new topic.
Betty Friedan is credited with sparking the modern conversation on the role of women when she wrote The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. Friedan described what she identified as a dissatisfaction plaguing middle-class American housewives because of the narrow role imposed on them by society. Friedan went so far as to compare the situation of housewives and moms to the plight of those in concentration camps.
Friedan wrote, “In a sense that is not as farfetched as it sounds, the women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed.”
This is the beginning of what is known as the second wave feminist movement in America. As part of this movement, feminists held “consciousness-raising” sessions, seeking to make stay-at-home moms aware that they were being oppressed. But feminists of the 1960s failed to convince many that they were unwitting victims of an oppressive patriarchy for the same reason feminists struggle today—some women truly want to focus on being wives and raising children as stay-at-home moms. Many women actively make—or want to make—this choice.
Feminists were supposed to have learned this lesson and moved on to building greater respect for the contributions of women, regardless of occupation. Yet today, women who are stay-at-home moms are once again painted as uninformed and unenlightened.
The tension between stay-at-home moms and current feminists recently surfaced when democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney “has actually never worked a day in her life.” She continued, “She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we — why we worry about their future.”
Ann Romney responded on Twitter, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.”
Rosen apologized for her remark, perhaps recognizing it was political poison to insult a large segment of the electorate. Yet the inconsistency in feminism on this issue lingers. Feminism originally emerged as a banner under which people sought to achieve equality for women. While feminists claimed they wanted women to have equal access to career and educational opportunities and not be limited to any one role, too often it seems like they want women to make certain career decisions.
To modern feminists, a major indicator of equality is when women reach parity with men in the workforce. But focusing solely on workforce statistics devalues or ignores a defining characteristic of women—the ability to bear children—which can lead to significant workforce participation differences between men and women.
Although women have achieved equality in many education-related indicators, we have not reached parity in the workforce, especially at some of the highest levels. Thus, feminist groups argue for a number of government policies to achieve this end—comparable worth and government-sponsored daycare, among others. But feminists are learning that government policies can’t change the desire of some women to forgo a job outside of the home to raise children.
Rosen’s comments are rooted in the same distrust of stay-at-home moms as The Feminine Mystique. Feminists should focus on the core value of trying to provide women opportunity.