Chew on this: Does the term “feminist mother” constitute an oxymoron? Two months ago I threw those words into cyber space and discovered that somewhere between feminist and mother a whole lot can go wrong.
I took a picture of myself next to two four-foot high piles of laundry, talking on the phone and typing on the computer with one child in my arm and my other two standing on the dryer, a sign reading “I Am A Feminist Mother” precariously balanced on the top of the laundry pile. I did it for my I Am A Feminist Mother Photo Exhibit and Contest. And I made that contest/exhibit in preparation for the publication of my second novel, I’ll Take What She Has, a book about friendship, envy, motherhood and feminism. The response, either a shying away out of confusion, or total silence, amazed me.
On the other hand, it confirmed the very trouble I thought just such a photo project could rectify: the idea that motherhood and feminism are, at their root, antithetical.
Here’s my experience. I see conservative, religious, Republican, pro-family, anti-choice women creating mom conferences attended by upwards of ten thousand, writing hugely popular mommy blogs, and, as in the case of Michelle Duggar, gaining international fame via television. These woman do not like the feminists and the feminists don’t like their politics. Yet, these same women actively encourage mothers, seek to infuse mothering with meaning, significance and integrity, and labor long and hard to redefine mothering as something more than drudgery and housework. In other words, they uplift women–in their own way.
On the other side, the liberal, progressive, Democratic women have more important things to do than deal with the dull mom-stuff. My own alma mater, Smith College, published a letter to the editor from a woman who had no interest in hearing about mothers. Smith trains women for better things than that. She wanted to hear about the interesting work graduates did. The work a women’s college trains women for–to make a real difference in the world.
But don’t possibilities to educate, empower and transform women’s lives exist in every profession? We can’t all work in Congress. We can’t all travel to the third world. For some of us, at least some of our lives is consumed with childcare. Does it help any of us, any woman, any feminist, any child, any man, to perpetuate the myth that mothering is a tedious, side-bar to the only life that matters–that life of business, commerce, prestige, finance, government? Does not the same potential exist in child-rearing as in the Smith College history classroom? To change a life, to open a door, to introduce liberating ideas?
The conservative mothers fervently embrace this mother-identity. The liberals run in terror trying to escape it. What’s a feminist to do? Where are our mothering conferences packing sport stadiums? Where are the women standing up and saying I am a feminist mother?
When I announced the I Am A Feminist Mother event, I wanted a photographic archive of diverse images of every kind of mother. I wanted to blow the tiny box of what it means to be a feminist (or what it means to be a mother) wide open. Instead, in the curious quiet that followed, a few friends asked (and I don’t make this up): what is a feminist? Aren’t feminists angry? And others said: I don’t like that word. It is bulging with negative connotations. And this is in a progressive part of the country.
Can I be the only woman passionate about motherhood, devoted to it, interested in it, improved by it, made better by it, more creative and intelligent not in spite of it, but because of it, who is also a wild liberal and life-long feminist? Is the work of wanting children, having children, raising children, nurturing children, educating children, loving children, anti-feminist? It can’t be. Yet the gulf between those two words is much more than political.
Please prove me wrong. Give me the evidence. Show me all the feminist mothers in the room. I want to see what they look like.
You can see some of the images collected for the exhibit of feminist mothers here.