The American Mommy Wars


Alice Béja in Eurozine:

Reading Hanna Rosin's End of Men, one would think Friedan completely obsolete. For Rosin, women are very close to taking over the world: they do better than men at school, and will benefit from the end of blue-collar jobs and the rise of the service industry. For Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, women have to “lean in” in order to make it in the workplace; they can succeed without giving up on having a family. The success of the few will benefit all; for Sandberg, the “trickle down” theory of wealth is applicable to the cause of women. In fact, according to Kate Bolick, women should relish the independence they gain through work, and enjoy their lives without succumbing to the fetters of marriage and children.

The debate about the place of women in the professional world has gained momentum in the United States mainstream media over the past two years, and has reignited the 1980s “mommy wars”, which, at the time, pitted housewives against working women, and were one of the legacy of the feminist movement led by Betty Friedan. Should women be more confident? Have they already won the struggle for professional emancipation? Or is it time to question the focus on work and career, and to reappraise the value of family life?

These issues are particularly sensitive in the United States, where women's social protection largely depends on their employer. For a while, they were sidelined by the struggle for reproductive rights, especially the fight to defend women's right to choose, Roe v. Wade being under threat in many states. The media's focus in this debate on women who are white, rich and have high-profile jobs has had two consequences on the national conversation around women and feminism: on the one hand, it has revived the language of “responsibility”, the “when there's a will there's a way” logic which is also applied to the poor and the unemployed, on the principle that if they're not making it, it means they don't want it enough. In this perspective, individual initiative alone is the key to success and if women are to make it in the professional world, they should simply “lean in”. On the other hand however, there has been a reaction against this paternalistic approach to women's place in society. Dissent published an issue on “the new feminism”, that stressed social issues and the fact that women, far from “having it all”, seldom have a choice between work and family; most of them have to work in order to be able to support their family.

More here.