Feminism and the mummy mystique

Feminism is not here to make you feel good about yourself. It does not want you to swim in a warm soup of self-regard. Feminism’s job is not to reassure you that you are a “good woman”. Feminism is here to question what we mean by “woman” and ask whose version of “good” we’re adhering to.

The ultimate goal of feminism is not choice, however often people claim that it is: feminism shouldn’t need to laud you for making a decision while being a woman. Feminism is not your mum, here to take pride in everything you do and gently mop up your accidents.

Feminism is a political movement for the safety and equality of women. Stating that is the easy part. The hard part is defining what safety and equality will look like in practice, and how they can be achieved – and to answer that question, we (women, feminists) must become critics of our own lives and the context in which we live.

To reduce feminism to the feeble flag-waving of “celebrating choice” is, simply, to refuse to do the work of critical thinking. As Michaele Ferguson writes in her essay Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics, it is to reject the possibility of change, which is to reject politics, which is to say that the cosy sloganeering of “choice feminism” is no feminism at all.

Yesterday, I went to the excellent Mumsnet BlogFest and took part in a panel on the question “Can you be a ‘mummy-blogger’ and still be a feminist?” My feelings on this are fundamentally uncontroversial: yes, you can be a “mummy-blogger” and still be a feminist. At first sight, this could be one of those null questions of feminism: can you be a feminist and wear high heels, can you be a feminist and a stay-at-home mum, can you be a feminist and shave your pubes?

The answer to all these things is yes, because none of these things can possibly represent the whole of your political existence. There are broader questions a feminist could ask of all these phenomena and why they are particularly female, but none of them is inherently anti-feminist. Nor does deciding to do any one of them qualify as a feminist act just because you made the decision to do it. It’s simply a thing a woman has done, and as Glosswitch says, that’s as it should be: “one objective of feminism should be to help women’s decisions become less loaded. It’s oppressive to have to represent a whole sex in everything you do.”

Actually, though, I think “mummy-blogging” more interesting than that, which is why I agreed to do the panel. I think the act of blogging about motherhood and discussing the domestic in a public forum is potentially powerful for feminism, because it brings the hidden labour of the household into view and allows women to share the joys and pangs of the unpaid and often unregarded caring responsibilities that still fall overwhelmingly to female hands.

That’s “mummy-blogging” as cultural criticism or mass observation. But there is, of course, another form of “mummy-blogging” which is about cultivating a certain image of motherhood: they are often pastel, picturesque and present the work of mothering as the totality of the author’s life. They are a sort of fiction – particularly if the blog is a commercial concern, because anyone who works on the internet can tell you that you spend much more time worrying about stats and chasing PRs than you do exchanging tender moments with your subject matter.

In Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, she points out the incredible hypocrisy in the fact that those women journalists of the 50s and 60s who expounded the surpassing pleasure of domestic femininity (and Friedan was one of them) were not living the life they propagandised. They were working mothers, whose work was telling other mothers to find fulfillment through total immersion in home and family. To borrow a Moran-ism: they were Vichy France with tits.

Yesterday, inadvertently, I ran face first into the 21st-century feminine mystique. This is how I did it: by saying that motherhood should not be a full stop on a woman’s life, and that I am glad that I went back to university and finished my degree after having my first child, partly because I think having interests and ambitions that were not my child has made me a better parent.

A section of the audience reacted very strongly to that statement. This included: hissing, being accused of believing that less qualified mothers are bad mothers (I don’t believe this, not least because I’ve met so many stupid graduates) and someone saying that being a mum was a “full stop” for her and she was “proud” of that.

A woman can, of course, choose to disavow all involvement with the economic, social, intellectual and political world beyond her children. But I fail to see how declaring the end of your personal agency and development is something anyone can take pride in. I don’t think the full-stop mother is a bad woman (I don’t know her, though judging by yesterday, I think she might be a rude one) but I do think that her choice sounds like a bad one. As a feminist, I would never advise any woman to declare that her capabilities had topped out with reproduction.

In fact, I’d call it a heinous waste of human potential and suggest that it puts an alarming amount of pressure on your children to support your ego. I often think of parenting as like one of those perverse games where the aim is to shed all the cards you hold as quickly as possible. You win (or succeed would probably be a better word) when your children have achieved their full potential for independence and let go of your hand. But if you see yourself as a mother to the exclusion of all other roles, I think you become dependent on your children. You need them to need you: the cult of self-abnegating motherhood is ultimately one that gives more prestige to the mother than benefit to the child.

My children are still young, but in them I can see the lineaments of the adults they will become. I know that one day, surprisingly soon, my children will cease to depend on me and I imagine that day as a happy one. As a mother, I very much hope my children will accomplish more than just providing me with grandchildren. I am ambitious for them – as distinct from being ambitious through them.

I hope that, in whatever way they find, my boy and my girl will continue the work of debating the world we live in and doing what they can to change it into a better one. Change is frightening when you are comfortable. But that’s OK, feminism is not necessarily here to make you comfortable. It’s here to redistribute power equally between men and women. And if you don’t want that, you cannot simply “choose” to be a feminist.

33 thoughts on “Feminism and the mummy mystique

  1. I left Mumsnet last night worrying that you would be upset by the unfair treatment you received yesterday. And here you are today, writing this amazingly powerful essay that had me yelling YES! YES! YES! all the way through. Clearly, my fears were unfounded.

    You got a raw deal yesterday, as did all of the rest of us in the audience who were nodding along with you and mumbling that we didn’t think motherhood was our biggest accomplishment. We are all so busy being so damn sensitive about the decisions that we, as individuals, make, that we have forgotten that someone making a different decision does not mean that they disapproved of the one we made. It simply means that they had a different equation with different variables that added up to a different end result. Full stop.

    I do think that feminism in the past gave us the right to choose our own path today. But maybe choice isn’t what we should be thinking about for the feminist future. And as a mommy blogger who doesn’t hesitate to talk about breaking down under the weight of motherhood, of the challenge of returning to work and of the frustration of raising kids, I hope that my honesty will in some very small way contribute to the future discussions of what being a mother really means.

    So thanks, thanks for sticking through the debate yesterday and thanks for being so eloquent today. You rock.

  2. I have 3 children, I was a stay at home mum for 13 years, but for the last 3 I combined that with completing my MSc and 3 full days of voluntary work. Once I was past the hectic, labour intensive early years, I realised I needed something more, and so did my boys. We were all starting to see me as part of the furniture, and I had started to become increasingly irritated by the casual dismissal of the importance of my role. I also realised there is only so many hours in the day to be spent reading the paper and avoiding housework, and decided to stage an escape. Since starting work (part-time) I’ve realised a secret all those people with jobs who patronised me over the years never admitted to, work is just like being at home, except you have to drive there.

  3. I was not there (though heard the run-down extensively), and do not call myself a feminist, but AMEN AMEN AMEN to what you have written. Amen to showing the ugly with the triumphant, amen to loving being a mother…and loving a whole other world within you where that doesn’t take precedent, and amen to the concept that when our children grow up, we then don’t start living – we’ve shown them their whole lives who we are.

  4. I was there yesterday, and took your tale of returning to finish your degree as it was meant, as your own personal experience as opposed to as a prescription for all.
    I am not ‘ambitious’ in the traditional sense, as in I am not particularly career driven, instead being a happy, creative pauper. My over-riding ambition is happiness, and while I derive much of that happiness from my role as a Mother, I do not consider that to be my entire self by any means, also obtaining joy from music, writing, the wider arts and acquisition of knowledge, as well as in loving and being loved by a circle considerably wider than just my children.
    I certainly consider myself a feminist, as I do not wish to see anyone’s ambitions thwarted or chosen path made harder merely by nature of their sex, and will firmly stand shoulder to shoulder with women to fight for their right to equality. Is it ok to be a staunch believer in the cause while not personally striving to break any glass ceilings other than those I occasionally impose on myself? I would feel sad if my own life choices prevented me from being able to defend others right to theirs.

  5. I think I answered that Sonya, and I hope it’s the answer you want: yes, you can be a feminist and live the life that is right for you. What you can’t do is *nothing* and then asked to be praised as a feminist for your choice to do nothing; but I know from your comment, that isn’t what you’re like in any sense. Glad you were there.

  6. Thanks for this. I think your words slipped, or the microphone, or our ears, or a bit of all three. It sounded like you said something like ‘if I hadn’t have gone back to uni, I wouldn’t have been a competent mother’ (or something like that, I honestly can’t recall). I think some people (most people?) ‘oohed’ or ‘booed’ in a ‘ooh I don’t think she meant to say that’, light-hearted way that befitted the tone of the rest of the day, but some were angry and then, of course, some further misunderstanding followed, many sentences weren’t allowed to be finished (on the panel and in the audience) and ultimately all hell broke loose. I think some people have video/audio so can probably relay what you *literally* said word for word, but context and logic is key. I think most people, if not at the time, then now in the light of day know that how you put it above is genuinely how you meant it then, and surely no one can reasonably argue with personal feelings about your personal choices.

  7. Sorry. Meant to add in balanced defence of those who were angry…I really don’t believe anyone was attacking you for your personal choices. Rather, because of the words misspoken and/or mishead, they felt the need to defend the choices of others x

  8. Surely the point is that those mothers who stay at home must be either financially dependent on their partner or the State in order for them to opt out of the ‘economic, social, intellectual and political’ world outside. Apart from the few who are independently wealthy of course; mind you, they would probably delegate child rearing to their staff. And this is why motherhood was originally the target of feminism: it implied an economic dependency that infantilises women. And, yes, these are the political and economic questions that feminism must address. As long as being a successful ‘feminist’ seems to be predicated on hiding your economic advantage then feminism will never appeal to women outside a very narrow class. Working class women never had the choice of work or motherhood. It was always both.The focus on self-improvement and fulfilling one’s potential is a peculiarly middle class obsession and fits very nicely with the neo-liberal notion of the self as the locus of all meaning and starting point of liberation whilst easily co-opting that urge into the workplace. So, either way, you’re screwed. I don’t know what the answer is but I do know that feminism needs to get political and stop listening to certain ‘feminist’ voices that are overprivileged and judgmental and have come from a position of such total economic security that they have no right to comment on other women’s lives. We can’t afford to join that club. Perhaps we’ll start our own.

  9. I can’t stress this enough: this isn’t about work vs stay-at-home (which after all is not really a choice for most people anyway, when parental leave structures and the cost of child care are taken into account). It’s about whether women believe that motherhood is the whole of their identity, and whether they buy into the idea of being a certain kind of carer at the expense of their ability to participate in the world.

  10. Thanks for your reply, shall retrieve all placards from the recycling bin… ;) Have to say that it was a shame the debate on the day ended up less productive than we would all have liked, but the huge positive is that I have seen a lot of resulting discussion about feminism and what it means to people taking place, and that has to be a positive thing. Also I spoke as part of the feminist panel at a different parent blogger event, luckily for me that was far less of a bear pit, and I found that, and the discussions following Saturday to be a pleasant reminder of how many women do consider themselves to be feminist. I am delighted that feminism is back on the agenda at these type of events after feeling it had been sidelined prematurely for a few years. Also as a former member of a Riot Grrrl Band (all be it a far lesser known was, we were a bit shit!) I loved your piece about that too! brought back memories of that era for me!

  11. I wish I’d heard this discussion, as ever, where motherhood’s concerned it seems there was plenty of judgement and a lot of defensiveness thrown in the mix. I’m guessing the ‘full stop’ mother feels has got lost in her role as mother and was rude because you voiced what deep down she feels if only a little.

    I bet she agrees that it’s important for her to be ‘more’ than just mother to her children and she both doesn’t know how she wants to do this and so if fiercely angry at those (like yourself) that seem to do so successfully.

    It worries me how vitriolic women can be towards each other when it comes to choices made in motherhood. Depressingly I don’t think it’s just society’s attitudes to the role of mother that need to change but mothers’ attitudes to themselves and each other.

  12. I was there, I heard you, I understood what you were saying and the point you were making. I thought you were eloquent, dignified and unfairly treated by a (VERY) vocal minority.

    I think the problem was that the definition of ‘a mummy blogger’ was never clearly identified. So for one of the panel to state, in front of several hundred Mumsnet Bloggers (Hint: Clue is in the name) that you can’t be a mummy blogger and be a feminist was pretty inflammatory to an audience who were already narked about the way the question was phrased. We were ready to be provoked.

    But I entirely agree that to peg your entire identity on being a mum is not a healthy thing to do. Motherhood is not a full stop, it’s just part of the Venn diagram that makes us who we are. I’m a different person now that I have children, but fundamentally, I am me with a more fully fleshed out personality than just the label of ‘mother’. I am a whole host of other things too, and my children understand that. I’ve said before that I want them to stretch the elastic of our relationship until it twangs, I want them to challenge me, I want them to argue with me. I want to be a person to them, not just a badge. And I’m not a mummy blogger. I am a blogger who happens to be a mum.

  13. I agree with you. I was trying to make the point that motherhood is quite a privileged choice to make. And that when either choice, work or motherhood, becomes disconnected from the economic imperatives that govern most women’s lives (work as fulfilment, motherhood as different kind of fulfilment) then we lose sight of the majority of women who still don’t have the choice, or luxury, of fulfilment in either category

  14. Thanks for this Sarah. I was also there, and while I know what you meant, and I also vehemently agree that being a mum shouldn’t be a full stop (nor, I would add, my ‘biggest achievement, whatever that means), I think your particular choice of words as they came out, in the moment, did sound a little misleading. I can see why someone who might not have made academic choices might have, in the moment, thought it was a judgement, because the whole tone of the panel sounded to be that of judging anyone choosing to write a mummy blog. And given the context of the conference, that was a lot of your audience.

    I often tell people that being a mother is just a facet of who I am. I am lots of things, and in certain contexts, I use “mummy blogger” because I write about being a mother. Just like I used to say “litigation lawyer” rather than just lawyer, in some contexts, because it more accurately described what I did. My CV just says “blogger/writer” though.

    I think perhaps part of the problem was in the provocative title of the discussion, the lack of adequate chairing of the discussion and the rather jarring opening of trying to define what interests or hobbies are “allowed” to be feminist.

    I’m going to add your blog to my reader though!

  15. Thanks for this Sarah. I was also there, and while I know what you meant, and I also vehemently agree that being a mum shouldn’t be a full stop (nor, I would add, my ‘biggest achievement, whatever that means), I think your particular choice of words as they came out, in the moment, did sound a little misleading. I can see why someone who might not have made academic choices might have, in the moment, thought it was a judgement, because the whole tone of the panel sounded to be that of judging anyone choosing to write a mummy blog. And given the context of the conference, that was a lot of your audience.

    I often tell people that being a mother is just a facet of who I am. I am lots of things, and in certain contexts, I use “mummy blogger” because I write about being a mother. Just like I used to say “litigation lawyer” rather than just lawyer, in some contexts, because it more accurately described what I did. My CV just says “blogger/writer” though.

    I think perhaps part of the problem was in the provocative title of the discussion, the lack of adequate chairing of the discussion and the rather jarring opening of trying to define what interests or hobbies are “allowed” to be feminist.

    I’m going to add your blog to my reader though!

  16. I’m so pleased to see that you posted about this because, I suspect, many of the audience who disagreed with what they thought they heard you say would probably agree with much of what you’ve written in this post. I think a lot of the problem with the discussion seemed to be a confusion over what mummy blogs are (i.e. just about making jam and reviewing Soda Streams) – I wonder if that had been made clearer at the start then there may not have been the anger later on. It was a tough panel to watch because I found myself feeling angry at some of the comments (“Daddy blogs are arguably more feminist than mummy blogs” being one) and then feeling embarrassed at the tension in the room. I expect with such an emotive subject it was always going to stir up strong reactions though!

  17. Agree completely with your summation of how feminism is not about patting each woman on the back for their choices. However, it is not about tearing people down for their choices either. If for no other reason than that simply doesn’t work, it only causes rage and a schism of misunderstandings. Too often I have seen pseudo intellectuals look down their noses at stay at home mothers and deride them and chastise them (and yes, vice versa of course) and that comes from a need for superiority, not a desire to educate or advance the cause of feminism.

    Note, I am NOT saying you are doing that. Just addressing what I have seen. I was not there and certainly reading this piece does not give that impression.

    Also, our motivations and priorities do not remain static. A mother of an infant may be a very different person to a mother of a toddler, or a school age child. She may temporarily lose herself in all things maternal, but that doesn’t mean she’s not still in there, ready to re-enter the workforce and the fray when she herself is ready.

    And it doesn’t hurt for all of us to re-examine our genuine motivations from time to time, whichever side you fall on SAHMs. I recall two women – years back – who openly owned that they just didn’t enjoy being with their babies (not deriding them for that) or any of the duties and cares and work involved in looking after an infant who chose to go back to work as soon as they could. It seemed clear to me they were doing so to avoid caring for the infants. Again, this is a statement of fact, I am not deriding them for that.

    BUT the hypocrisy lay in one of them then stating, in hindsight, that she did this from a feminist standpoint. Of course I can’t know her inner motivations. But I rather doubt it. I think feminism was a handy place for her to hang her hat because she was being made to feel guilty about the fact that she wasn’t terribly maternal. Which was wrong, obviously. But, just as I wonder about the motivations of some SAHMs I wonder about the motivations of some paid employment mothers. I suppose the difference is that, whatever the motivation of the paid employment mother, she cannot be said to be harming feminism by that choice.

    I guess I am saying that while it might not be the best thing for feminism, I believe that ultimately we generally do what is best for ourselves on a personal level and what we are most comfortable with. Perhaps that’s why feminism is sometimes so difficult, it requires us to subliminate our selfish urges and give serious consideration to our choices.

    To be honest, I don’t really see large changes happening until we can start educating school age children about the patriarchy and feminism. And I don’t see how that is going to be allowed to happen at all. Sigh.

    It’s an important message, that is essential to keep your interests, hobbies, education, employment opportunities and training as evolving and living parts of your personality and not to allow yourself to be so swept away by love and maternal feeling that you lose yourself. And that no, feminism is not here to pat you on the back for every personal choice you make.

    But to those who choose to denigrate or belittle stay at home mothers – in any way, whether openly or, slyly, passive aggressively, condescendingly or by any other means – if you truly want women to listen to you – don’t do that. And if they still won’t listen, that is their choice, and their right. It’s just not a feminist choice.

  18. This article really resonated with me. I was a stay at home for 20 years. I gave 110% to my children and my husband. I didn’t realize the importance of developing within myself my own personal goals and interests until my children were grown. I definitely was in a tailspin after realizing that 20 years ago I stopped investing in my own self. Now I am in college. I love learning and I love being intellectually challenged. I now understand that aside from being a mother, I can also make a contribution to my community and to the world.

  19. Solidarity is for the liberal bourgeois ‘media feminist’ commentariat. Until you start to address the economic privilege implicit in either choice I don’t take your claim to understand the need to politicise feminism at all seriously. Women who are forced to stay at home because the benefits system keeps them trapped there, or women forced to work zero hours contracts, or women who have abnegated their ‘freedom’ to look after a disabled child or relative; none of these women form any part of your discourse. And as long as that remains the case you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  20. Not that I wish to be rude, Anna, but that’s bollocks and a rather deliberate misreading of a piece in which I say that I’ve got no political beef with SAH parents. I don’t discuss work as the object of a woman’s non-maternal identity, because I know work may not be either available or fulfilling. I even clarify in the comments that it’s not about work vs SAH. (I’ve stayed at home myself for a time. Most women who have children do so, temporarily at least. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice, more economic exigence: childcare is expensive and parental leave almost all given to mothers.) It’s about the willingness of women to stake their identity in their children at the cost of all other engagement in the world. You might have noticed that I mentioned nurturing children to their full capacity for independence. I phrased it that way because I know that some children’s full capacity will still leave them very much dependent into adulthood. And one reason I value the benefits system so much is that it gives (or should give, though in practice it is sorely insufficient) women the chance of economic independence even if their labour has been outside the profit-making economy. So, satisfying as I’m sure it was to lambast me, you didn’t really have any basis for what you said.

  21. You’ve completely missed the point. I’m not setting up a false binary opposition here I’m talking about economic disadvantage that exists for women outside your social class. The ‘choice’ is predicated on having that advantage. In other words, it’s a middle class problem for liberal feminists. Nowhere have I supported one ‘choice over the other. They are both evasions of the real economic oppression that a majority of women live under and that denies them the opportunity to even make that choice in the first place.

  22. No, I haven’t missed your point. I didn’t think you were privileging one “choice” over another. But I know from what you wrote that you believe I am, despite the lack of textual evidence for that belief. It’s really interesting that, after I point out the ways in which my views do encompass families with disabled children and low incomes, you continue to insist that I’m only speaking for my own class (which is indeed middle, though my age at primigravida and family background possibly wouldn’t fit with your assumptions, but don’t let that shake your certainties). Again, because you don’t seem to have caught this point: choice is inadequate as a rubric for feminism because we need to talk about the contexts of those “choices”, which are often severely pressed by economic need and social expectation. You should read the Ferguson essay, I think you’d agree with it.

  23. Bit disappointing that Ferguson essay. She recognises the liberal individualism and consumerist implications of ‘choice’ feminism but then falls back into a typical American idea of the political as just something you ‘do’ as an individual through engagement and debate rather than properly analyse what, and where, the ‘political’ is and how it infuses the very terms of the debate itself. But she does recommend that feminists shouldn’t shy away from healthy argument and being judgmental about other women’s ‘choices’. More confrontation, less mutual affirmation seems to be her message. Ironically.

  24. From Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics: “We need to give voice to these dilemmas, and we need to provide guidance to one another on how to live with them” – which is precisely about mutual support, and being generous with our own experiences to practice judgement rather than judging other women.

    Not completely sure what you mean by “typically American”, but then you initially responded to this post with comments about my presumed class that were unrelated to the words I’d written, so perhaps you’re just better at reading what you expect people to say than what they’ve actually said.

  25. She also says; ” encounters with our critics contain an important possibility of pleasure”. Personally, I’d like to see far more debate between women about feminism and its multiplicity of meanings. And I also think women shy away from the confrontation implicit in some debate as they see it as intrinsically threatening and/or it goes against their learnt appeasement skills. Ferguson is, I presume, American but I didn’t mean that exactly. She writes very obviously from the liberal American feminist tradition with its focus on the individual and fairly stable notions of a centred subject and this is why her prescription for political engagement only goes so far. It could never lead to a proper Marxist analysis, for instance. I think the American Academy has had a largely detrimental affect on UK feminism in the last ten years and we need to relearn the much more politically engaged feminism of European theory. But, don’t worry, I’m not about to start ranting about all that! We probably agree more than disagree. I just dislike cliques.

  26. The possibility of pleasure doesn’t mean the pleasure of smashing other people up, though. It means the pleasure of learning and persuading – of exchange – which was of course what the panel on Saturday hoped to do. There was a brilliant moment when Charlotte Raven announced that actually, despite having come on feeling quite anti-mummyblog, she had been persuaded that they can be a focus for feminist good. But the resistance to self-criticism when it comes to womanly roles is so strong in some that even the implied criticism of someone else having done differently is perceived as a personal attack, and so the hissing. And that’s why the Ferguson essay is important, because it’s an argument for feminists to stop evading these fraught subjects and find a way to engage with them.

  27. I agree there is a tendency to confuse a belief in feminism with ‘a feminist’, or with the person espousing the position. This is where it all goes wrong: as long as feminism can’t be debated properly for fear of being seen as an ad hominen attack on the woman holding that view then we won’t move forward as a movement or be properly politically relevant. The personal may be political but you should also be able to ‘judge’ and critique someone’s feminism otherwise we drown in a sea of total post-feminist relativism where one view is as valid as another. Not all feminist positions are equally valid: that doesn’t mean the women espousing them are not equal. There are some great materialist feminists around like Rosemary Hennessey. Well worth looking at.

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