In the early to mid-19th century, a list of implicit rules began to develop for women and the education that they should receive. These ideas came to be known and expressed as the “Cult of True Womanhood.” According to these prescriptions, women needed to cultivate four primary virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Women who had access to education were instructed in subjects that would help them to cultivate these virtues, like needlepoint, French, cooking and other “appropriately female” topics. This education was meant to prepare women for appropriate female vocations: being a good mother, daughter, sister or perhaps, in special circumstances, a teacher.
Many of us probably know that the women’s movement throughout history has pushed back against these limited understandings of how women should be educated and what they can achieve. Feminists over the course of the last 50 years have been working to make it possible for women not to have to choose between having a home life and a work life, and making both of those spheres accessible to both women and men.
Recently, in a much-televised comment, democratic strategist Hilary Rosen suggested that Ann Romney, wife of soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romeny, had “never worked a day in her life.” This comment launched outrage from Republicans and Democrats alike, who saw Rosen’s attack as belittling the choice Romney had made to be a stay-at-home mother. Soon, NPR and other popular news outlets were naming this debacle the next round in the “mommy wars,” pitting professional women against stay-at-home moms in a battle to see who represents that most liberated expression of womanhood. (For a great take on the media pitting women against each other, check out Rachel Held Evans’ blog here)
As I was recently reminded through class and through another great blog post by a classmate, Ruth Marston, having the ability to choose whether or not to stay home or to go to work is a privilege. For many women, the realities of family economic situations means that women must be primary childcare providers and work. And this is not a privilege that should be taken lightly.
As I think about welcoming Baby H in August, I have been surprised by the number of people who have asked me whether or not I am planning to continue working or how I will be able to travel for work when a baby arrives. I know that juggling these things will be tricky, and I already know and anticipate that there will be times when I feel highly torn between home and work. And, I am grateful that I have a supportive partner in parenting who will also be both working and parenting and collaborating with me to figure out what balance will look like with a child.
But I am taken aback by the number of people who see my choice to work as controversial, and Justin’s choice to be a full partner in parenting as something revolutionary and laudatory. I have also been taken aback by people who are relieved that I will continue working, and who seem to imply that, as a good feminist, there would be no way for me to choose to be a stay-at-home mom.
All of these conversations lead me to believe that we have a ways to go when it comes to exorcising the “cult of true womanhood” from our collective psyche as a society. And we have a ways to go in cultivating a robust idea of what feminism can be and is.
The way I see it feminism is more about treating all women with respect and working to reinforce systems that empower women than it is about status or vocation. There are many great feminists who stay at home with children, who work full-time, and who choose not to have children of their own at all. Perhaps getting caught up in the “war of words” between women is actually a greater liability to feminism than any choice about the work with which we fill our days could ever be.