Feminism: the right to choose
Last week, Hilary Rosen, a Democratic political strategist, set off a major debate when she publicly claimed that Ann Romney, who was a stay-at-home mother when her five children were young, “never worked a day in her life.” The remark was pure mudslinging, and Rosen apologized. Implications about the state of political discourse aside, Rosen’s remarks set off debate about the roles of women, both in and outside of the home. As a young woman living in a society shaped by the feminism of past decades and also the backlash against feminism, I am still in the process of sorting out my options about what kind of woman I want to be. Now that American women aren’t hobbled by expectations of becoming baby factories, it’s time to reexamine what we, as women, want for ourselves.
Rosen’s remarks offended me on a personal level because, in many ways, my mom fits the model of woman Rosen, intentionally or not, attacked. My mom was not employed after she had my brother and me, but that is not to say she didn’t work. And by the way, she graduated from Stanford. I’ve met other women who managed to work and raise children. Does it compromise my image of myself as an independent, intelligent woman if I want to have a family, altering the trajectory of my (hypothetical) career? Girl power doesn’t really address these issues, unfortunately. I don’t want to sell out, but damn it, I want the two kids, the golden retriever and the disgustingly saccharine Christmas cards.
That these comments came from a woman is especially telling; at least in my experience, there’s an expectation among college women that we are going to have careers before we get married and have children, if that happens at all. It seems like there’s an increasing stigma attached to the 1950s suburban ideal. If I were simply a stay-at-home mom, married right after graduation, I would feel as though I were wasting my degree and my intellect, not to mention betraying the work of feminists across the ages. They worked hard so I wouldn’t have to sit at home knitting, covered in baby crap. How could I throw that away? I’ve never taken a women and gender studies class. But I know that, the Republican “war on women” notwithstanding, I live in an age where women have unprecedented opportunities for personal and professional advancement and that this did not come without a struggle. I want to be successful and self-fulfilled. Figuring out what that means unfortunately still has gendered implications.
A few years ago, St. Louis native and anti-feminist critic Phyllis Schlafly came to speak at Washington University and received an honorary degree. Many of the faculty and students present turned their backs on her in protest of her anti-feminist views. While I hardly identify with her as an intellectual role model, and most of her views are approximately as appealing to me as contracting lung cancer, she does have a point. It’s perfectly okay for a woman to want to be a classic stay-at-home mom. Not that Phyllis Schlafly was a stay-at-home mom in the classic sense; she was a lawyer and activist as well, the epitome of a woman who got to have a career and have her family. One might even call her a hypocrite, but really, it doesn’t matter. Romney went to college and then decided to have five kids. If she’s happy, why does that matter? The legacy of feminism should be that women get to choose the trajectory that feels best for them, rather than being pigeonholed as either a simpering housewife or a career woman harpy. Easier said than done, and it’s not just the “patriarchy” that perpetuates the problem.
Since the breakdown of the archetypical too-happy 1950s nuclear family, complications concerning gender roles have become increasingly complex, to the benefit of men and women alike. Women have so many options. Rosen’s remarks show that the real women’s issues we should be focused on are reproductive rights and equality in the working world, not attacking mature women for their life decisions. Romney, educated woman that she is, chose to be a stay-at-home mom. And frankly, that’s nobody else’s business. Women still encounter sexism and inequality, but we now have more than two options. We don’t have to choose between Gloria Steinem and the Stepford Wives, Elana Dykewomon or Phyllis Schlafly.