Being a Feminist, Being a Mom (or Not!)

Dear Kimberly,

In this letter and my next one, I’d like to comment on two topics you brought up in your Sept. 24 letter. One topic  is the parent-child relationship  — especially your questions about the stereotypical image of feminists as being uninterested and uninvolved in motherhood.  That’s what I want to talk about today.

The other topic, which you talked about in describing Carol Gilligan’s research on fathers, is the sense of loss that occurs when we realize that gender constructs may require us to be something other than ourselves.  I’ll save that topic for one of my next  letters.

Feminists and the Motherhood Question

You began your letter mentioning your sadness over the very public break in the relationship of third-wave feminist Rebecca Walker with her mother, second-wave feminist/womanist Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and numerous other writings.  Their estrangement saddens me, too, Kimberly.   And I know, as you said, that patriarchal traditionalists like to use such anecdotal evidence as proof that feminism is at its core “anti-motherhood” — or at least encourages poor mothering.

But to base a condemnation of feminism on a single example, such as the estrangement between the Walkers, neglects the complexities in any relationship, especially in the mother-daughter bond.  Phyllis Chesler writes about this in her June 10, 2008 Salon essay, “The Mother-Daughter Wars,” using the estrangement of Alice and Rebecca Walker as her starting point.

Although Chesler makes some excellent points, I wish she had qualified some of her statements and used the word “many” instead of “most” in a few instances, such as in this sentence:  “Most second-wave feminists therefore either condemned or feared motherhood.”  At the same time, Chesler takes care to name numerous second-wave feminists who cared deeply about motherhood and wrote about it.  And she also takes care to point out that what some women were rejecting was the notion of careermotherhood, not the idea of motherhood itself.  They were renouncing the way bearing and rearing children was essentially forced on women of Alice Walker’s generation. Society at that time was loathe to allow many other choices for women — including the choice not to have children at all.  (In addition, at that time, the parenting role of fathers was seldom discussed — or was considered fulfilled simply by their earning income to support the family. )

Daughters of Feminists

Still, it’s interesting and informative to hear how some adult daughters of second-wave feminists look back on their early lives with their mothers.

Often, those who choose to walk a different path from that of their mothers are simply making a generational statement about their ability to think for themselves.  Children sometimes adopt viewpoints that run counter to those of their parents as one way to establish their own separate identity.  An example would be a case in which politically liberal parents find that one or more of their offspring becomes ultra conservative, as in the case of the fictional Alex Keaton in the 1980s television program, Family Ties.

Or maybe you’ve heard  singer-songwriter Nancy White’s humorous song, “Daughters of Feminists,” which plays on the stereotype of a feminist mother who rejects many aspects of traditional femininity and doesn’t want her child to be “girly.”  Yet the daughter chooses frilly dresses and Barbie dolls and wants to marry a prince who will take care of her. The song asks if she is doing this to annoy her mom.  Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer have a nice rendition of it on  “Raise the Roof,” a  musical retrospective of various artists who performed at the Barns of Wolf Trap near Washington, DC. You can listen to a sample of their track online (number 10 on the album) on the website of one of my favorite recording distributors, CD Baby.

Alice Rossi and Her Daughter

Alice Walker is not the only prominent second-wave feminist whose daughter has voiced negative feelings about her mother’s involvement in a feminist career that was perceived as distracting her from attention to her daughter. I was rather startled last year to hear an NPR segment on the problems between Alice Rossi and her daughter Nina, a 47-year-old single mother. The difference between these two and the Walkers is that this mother and daughter have not closed off communication but are reaching out to each other and talking about their past problems. This is all the more crucial now that Alice Rossi is in her mid-80s and gravely ill with emphysema. Listen to this honest exchange between Alice and Nina.

Hearing this segment on NPR’s Weekend Edition held particular interest to me, because Alice had been a feminist heroine of mine many years ago. I remember being especially impressed and informed by reading her 1973 book, The Feminist Papers, which is an outstanding compilation of original writings by women (and a few men) who had dared to believe women were fully human and equal to men — even during periods of history when such an assertion was far from welcome. The authors included in the compilation ranged from Abigail Adams to Simone de Beuvoir.  Alice Rossi also wrote introductory essays about each one, thus providing historical context, sociological insights, and human interest narrative.  (She and and her husband Peter Rossi were highly regarded sociologists who taught at the University of Massachusetts.)

In 1964, two years before she became one of the founding members of the National Organization for Women ( NOW), Alice had contributed an essay to the spring issue of Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It was a special issue on the theme, “The Woman in America.”  Alice’s essay, titled “Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal,” asserted that the feminist ideals and activism that had reached a peak with the winning of women’s suffrage had gone downhill thereafter and had lost its spark.

“American women,” she wrote “are not trying to extend their claim to equality from the political to the occupational and social arenas and often do not even seem interested in exercising the rights so bitterly won in the early decades of the twentieth century in politics and higher education.”  She said when she’d ask her brightest students about their future educational and career plans, she would find “they either have none because they are getting married in a few months, or they show clearly that they have lowered their aspirations from professional and research fields that excited them as freshmen, to concentrate as juniors on more practical fields, far below their abilities.”  She said she was finding young women “increasingly uncommitted to anything beyond early marriage, motherhood, and a suburban home.”

Kimberly, you’ll remember from my own letters to you describing the 1950s and 1960s, that the homemaker aspirations of both college and non-college women that Alice Rossi was describing constituted the norm at that time.  But Rossi was daring to question it.  And her views caused quite a stir. She later told the Cambridge Forum that she was viewed as “a monster, an unnatural woman, and an unfit mother.” Some anonymous person even sent her husband a sympathy card “lamenting the death of his wife.”

The Ideal of Shared Parenthood

In her Daedalus essay, Rossi writes that “for the first time in the history of any known society, motherhood has become a full-time occupation for adult women.”  That was the idea she was challenging. She pointed out that women of previous generations could not possibly be full-time mothers because of all their other responsibilities as coworkers with their husbands on farms or in family businesses and were not worried about their children’s being made insecure or psychologically damaged when they were cared for by other adults. Rossi expressed her belief that “the American woman has been encouraged by the experts to whom she has turned for guidance in child-rearing to believe that her children need her continuous presence, supervision, and care and that she should find complete fulfillment in this role.”

When few people espoused ideas such as those she was presenting, her Daedalus article stressed the importance of both choice and shared parenthood. She wrote about the importance of  a man’s “weeding out of nonessential activities either in work, civic or social participation” when he assumed the role of father.  Ideally, “unless a man can make room in his life for parenthood, he should not become a father.”  She believed that a woman should marry and have children “only if she deeply desires a mate and children” and that she should “not be judged a failure if she decides against either.”

My Thoughts as I Heard the NPR Segment Again

As I listened again to the honest exchange between Alice Rossi and her daughter, I realized that at the time that Alice published that famous essay, Nina must have been three or four years old.  Was that when she sat outside her mother’s study door crying because she could not go in?  Or was that at a later age when she needed to confide something in her mother and felt shut out?  I can imagine the pangs of regret and struggle in Alice’s mind as she listens to Nina.  Alice’s work was so important for all of us; and as she said, it would be hard for Nina to fully understand how difficult it was to speak out for women’s equality at the time and how much her voice was needed.  But at the same time, it must also have been hard  for Alice to hear of Nina’s childhood yearning for Mommy and her feeling of being neglected. Alice also says in that NPR interview that in spite of the co-parenting she and her husband wrote about, Nina’s father did not take up the slack adequately to make up for Alice’s increasingly busy life as a feminist scholar and activist.   We also don’t know whether Nina’s brother and sister felt similarly to what Nina felt or whether their childhood needs and experiences were different.

In hearing stories such as those of both Alices (Walker and Rossi) and their daughters, there is so much we don’t know, and their lives are not for us to judge.   But perhaps we can learn something from them.  As you pointed out in your last post, Kimberly, we also know all too little about how children of famous busy or absent fathers feel about their childhoods or how various dads feel about missing out on much of their children’s lives.  I have read various interviews in which evangelist Billy Graham, for example, has said his one regret in life was not having spent enough time with his children.

“A Writer Because of, Not in Spite of, Her children”

These word above are the title of a chapter in Alice Walker’s collection of her essays, published under the title, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. In this “A Writer Because of . . .” essay, she tells of reading a novel by Buchi Emecheta which is dedicated to her five children. In the dedication, she lists each of their names and then this statement, “without whose sweet background noises this book would not have been written.”

The central character in Emecheta’s apparently partially autobiographical novel is Adah, a Nigerian woman who moves to England and, in spite of immense hardships, is determined to write a novel which she says is really written for the adults her children will become.  Walker comments that thus “it is okay with her if the distractions and joys they represent in her life, as children, become part of it.”

In her essay about the novel, Alice Walker says that she herself has always needed absolute quiet and privacy to work but found herself wondering whether it’s possible to rethink “the traditional Western ideas about how art is produced.” She goes on to say, “Our culture separates the duties of raising children from those of creative work.”

I loved the paragraph Walker wrote about Adah’s story of working on her novel, surrounded by her children, and aiming it toward the adults her children would become:

“In this way, she integrates the profession of writer into the cultural concept of mother/worker that she retains from Ibo society. Just as the African mother has traditionally planted crops, pounded maize, and done her washing with her baby strapped to her back, so Adah can write a novel with her children playing in the same room.” (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, p. 69)

I loved that part of the essay because it brought back to me the warm, cozy feelings of my own earliest writing days. My two young boys were playing with their toys on the combined kitchen/living room floor of a small Eugene, Oregon student apartment, as I sat at the kitchen table pounding out my first book on a manual typewriter in the fall of 1963.

I interrupted the writing of the book to write some articles, including my earliest article on issues related to women, work, and children. It may surprise some people who know my later writings to know it was called, “Homemaking: Prison or Privilege?” It was published in The Sunday School Times, May 30, 1964, the same year that Alice Rossi wrote her Daedalus essay.  Somehow I thought both worlds could be combined.

To me, child-rearing, not housekeeping, was what I was writing about in saying “homemaking” in the title.  And thus, I came down on the side of “privilege” in answer to the question.  I enjoyed my time with the boys, knowing they would be young for such a short time, and somehow I hoped I could fit together my work and my time with them.

But I also know that’s because I am a writer by profession and can work at home, and that in itself is a privilege.  And I also know one’s personal temperament enters in.  Alice Walker said she needed quiet and privacy to write.  Alice Rossi apparently also kept her study door closed.  Somehow we all find our own way.

But that’s more than enough for this time, Kim! I’ll be eager to hear your thoughts about all this.

Your friend,
Letha

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Letha and Kimberly,
    I think we give too much weight to how wonderful the mother-child relationships were when mothering was all women were expected to do! I don’t know about every home, but I know about some of the homes in the farm community where I was brought up. Mothers didn’t work outside the home, except in the field and the barn and the pigpen and the chicken house. I don’t remember my mother spending “quality time” with me, although we did sometimes work together. (I basically worked for her, not with her.) She baked bread, churned butter, hosed off the sidewalks where the geese had spent the night, planted and harvested a garden and canned the produce, sewed dresses for herself and two daughters, darned socks, cooked for a family of eight, washed and ironed (no permanent press in those days), kept a large house reasonably clean, nursed five kids through scarlet fever while she was carrying the sixth, supervised the kids’ chores as we helped with all the above, and on and on. Walker and Rossi are certainly not alone in feeling left out. I had similar feelings as a child, although I considered it “normal” in my environment!

    I enjoyed the balanced reviews that Anne Eggebroten and Sharon Gallagher wrote on Frank Schaeffer’s “Crazy for God,” which I had read earlier. His story, understandably subjective, is another example of famous parents’ kids paying the price for that fame.

    MM

  2. Thank you, Letha, for all these links to feminist women and their parenting as reflected in their own thoughts and their daughters’ views: I didn’t know about Phyllis Chesler’s essay “The Mother-Daughter Wars” or about a crisis between Alice Walker and Rebecca Walker, or about the Nancy White song. I did hear the Alice Rossi segment on NPR–with pangs of guilt.

    I couldn’t have worked with a child crying outside my study door–in fact, most of the time I didn’t have a room of my own; when I did, it was a hall with two doors that I never had the courage to close. I stayed too available to get much work done–but according to my daughters, I neglected them. I was always at work or at home grading papers, preparing class, or working on my abortion book.

    So my perception of not getting enough done vs. my daughters’ perception of being neglected fit the pattern of Alice Walker and Alice Rossi and their daughters. I don’t know if any human can ever get it right: really accomplish something outside the home and still meet the needs of one’s children.

    Another example of the conflict: see the documentary on Alice Neel done by her grandson, where her two sons speak about how their mother’s dedication to being a painter hurt them in the 1940s and 1950s. There’s much pain there, but now they also value and respect what their mother did accomplish.

    Children’s needs are endless, bottomless. I found my toddlers would dance and perform for as many hours as I was willing to watch. Yet not meeting our own needs for income and rest and fulfilling work can result in damage to children also. I never comprehended how Buchi Emecheta could perceive her children as enabling her to write, not hindering it. I guess I am too culture-bound by my perceptions as a second-wave feminist.

    To really be a part of this important dialogue, I would need to quit my part-time teaching job. It’s all I can do at this point to maintain two houses and a marriage, mentor three daughters in their twenties, and clear the boxes of letters, papers and photos left from my mother’s things after her death in April.

  3. I think that part of the issue is that now more people (men and women) are experiencing all the nuances of choice and freedoms. Every thing we do has a consequence (consequence being a neutral term here rather than negative) to it.

    For instance my grandmother and grandfather. They did not really have much choice or freedoms to make many choices available to them like they may have today.

    My grandmother was catholic and so she had a large family. There really was no choice on that because everyone she knew was also catholic and thought the same way. But this also robbed her of being able to make other choices. She also had to work (and so did the children) on the farm and tending to the house and children. She also did not have a choice in this. It was just how things were done and she did it. But that too took away choices and freedoms.

    And the same applies to my grandfather and his roles and choices and freedoms or lack there of.

    But today we have a lot of different choices and freedoms that were not normally available to people before us. But because of this there is also quite a bit of searching and anxiety amongst some as they try to figure out what is best and that also causes more problems. Some people focus on the dichotomy “True or False” or “Good or Bad” when it comes to these choices. I prefer something a bit more useful than this, and that is, for me, the Latin phrase “cui bono,” who benefits. Rather than asking if a claim is true or false, ask who benefits from promoting it and believing in it.

    Ultimately there is no one answer that is true or false, good or bad that applies to everyone and every situation. What should matter most is that the parent or parents are trying to do what is best for those they love (including themselves) so everyone benefits. Sadly this also means that sometimes the choices available to us are not always the ones we would hope for or prefer.

    With more choices also comes more anxiety about making the “right” choice and the possible regret and rumination over past choices. Life is often much less complex (which does not mean better) when choices are limited or made for you.

    Ultimately it is, to me, about balance and acceptance. With people being able to have more choices and freedom comes the need to understand balance and accepting that we all will make some missteps on the way and the more choices we have the chances there are to innocently make some mistakes. I don’t see being a feminist means not being a mom or vice versa. It only becomes a problem (and this applies to anything really) when it dominates and takes control of your life to the harm and exlusion of others. I think it is more important to be a person first and foremost.

    Sorry for the long rambling rant. I hope it made sense.

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