• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Long Distance Mom: Bra burning and Debutantes

“I am woman hear me snore.”

I still own the cover to Helen Reddy’s much beloved 1972 album “I am Woman.” I remember singing the lines loudly with my sisters: “I am woman, hear me roar! In numbers too big to ignore, and I know too much to go back and pretend…”

December 2, 2009

“I am woman hear me snore.”

I still own the cover to Helen Reddy’s much beloved 1972 album “I am Woman.” I remember singing the lines loudly with my sisters: “I am woman, hear me roar! In numbers too big to ignore, and I know too much to go back and pretend…”

I was raised in a family of four sisters, (no brothers), with a mother who was fortunate enough financially to stay home with us while we were young. It’s no surprise that my sisters and I inherited many of the cultural and political beliefs of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s, along with some of the contradictions. The satirical reference to the Reddy song I came across this month in a New Yorker review by Ariel Levy (but it’s also a title from a collection of comic strips by Cathy Guisewite). Levy reviews two new books on the history of feminism -- Lindsy Van Gelder’s When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present and Leslie Sanchez’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Sarah, Michelle, Hillary and the Shaping of the American Woman. After pointing out Van Gelder’s identification that feminist bra burning is a “myth” similar to hippies burning draft cards, Levy spends much of her review analyzing the Sanchez book (the snoring feminist..). Sanchez, a Republican political analyst, supports women leaders who reject the “feminist” label, such as Sarah Palin, Cindy McCain (or herself). These women foreground their experiences as “soccer moms” while denying the contradictions inherent in their obligations as elected political officials (Governor Sarah Palin) or serving as the chairperson of one of the largest beer distributors in the U.S. (Cindy McCain).

When I say I was raised with “some” of the contradictions of women’s liberation, I should explain this qualifier… My sisters and I were raised in the socially conservative South, sang in the church choir for 12 years, and were ‘presented’ as debutantes to society (a fact I don’t admit to very often…). Out of all of the “girls,” I acquired the most feminist rhetoric, the most degrees, the most debt, but my sisters weren’t far behind me, becoming ordained ministers, State department officials, and occupational therapists. My sisters and I have differed in our balancing acts between work and family life, and we’ve all needed to and wanted to maintain our careers. But none of us have figured out how to talk about the constant shifting between our homes and our work habitats, nor the costs we’ve borne as a result. As big as an ego boost at it may be to work and make more money than our husbands or partners, is it a boost that we really needed?

Levy points to a similar contradiction in conservative writers recently — a shift from identifying motherhood and outside employment as incompatible choices to claiming that motherhood is now “a credential for higher office.” Republicans were initially more comfortable with women’s rights than were many southern Democrats. Republican mothers could work outside of the home (as long as they could afford to pay for the child care assistance). Money for child care or the messy details of parenting on a budget were issues that stayed out of the public eye for a generation. But there is no doubt that after Hilary's and Sarah's runs for office, both parties are ready for women in power.

Now that my daughter, Katie, is fourteen, we are starting to have discussions about relationships, career choices and children. I am trying to be straightforward with her about how difficult it is to start a career and a family at the same time. Academics are not alone with this challenge. Contrary to the myth of the 1950's housewife, women who work outside the home have not changed much since WW II--except to increase in numbers, particularly the numbers of women serving as majority breadwinners or co-breadwinners.

Katie had a father who stayed home for years while I worked, so she should already have some different expectations. The challenge, as my daughter realizes, is not just with creating finances that balance either staying home with the children or having both parents work part time, but rather, with maintaining a happy partnership while these choices are being made. Child care! Child care! Child care!

I repeat this phrase because I think it’s important enough as a political cause that women who believe in equal rights (I won’t say “feminists” since many of us don’t identify with the term) must band together to get a child care provision passed by Congress, as it was almost passed in the 1970's. Academic centers of “women’s studies” or now “gender studies,” need to move beyond mere identity politics or the cultural studies involved in teaching students how to subvert the patriarchy into some real political lobbying, particularly while universal health care is on the table. AAUP speaks directly about how raising a child takes “20 years” not “a semester” in their “Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work,” but more direct political work still needs to be done, in my opinion, on the child care issue.

My daughter will not be a debutante. And I don’t think she’ll be destroying her polka dotted brassieres to make a point any time soon, but it’s still too early to tell. I hope that Katie will find a happier balance between work and family life than I have (and she can enjoy state subsidized child care and family leave)!


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