Do you believe that stay-home moms can be feminists? Elizabeth Wurtzel, writing for the Atlantic magazine, says no – and vehemently – in her recently published essay, “1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible.” Though the title states she is writing about “the 1%,” the essay is in fact a broadside against all mothers who do not have a job that earns money. Wurtzel argues that feminism is about economic independence and equality – that is, earnings parity with men – period. Whereas, to stay home is to choose dependence and undermines the work of “real feminists” like herself to attain equality. She makes some good points, but I think her definition of feminism is too narrow. Wurtzel, a lawyer, best-selling author, and single-and-childless-by-choice, wants us, like her, to win at the game that men designed. I, a stay-at-home mom and budding entrepreneur, want feminism to change the rules of the game.
Wurtzel’s essay reads like a repeated finger poke to the chest. You can almost see the spit fly. Now, I learned and in turn have taught my children to ignore this kind of blind hostility; engaging it only fuels it, and it says more about the attacker than the attacked. But it was so absurd, it was kind of entertaining. It is an epic rant. She calls stay home moms morons and idiots; they have done the “easy” and “obvious” and have no integrity. She repeats her conviction that raising children is not work and implies more than once that staying home is really just a flimsy cover for a life of self-indulgence. Her delight in heaping contempt on stay home mothers shows in her creativity at imagining their lives and thoughts. But that creativity was the key in helping me to get past her rage: I realized she has no experience with the people she writes about; she had to invent them. She doesn’t actually know any stay-home moms, or children for that matter. Putting “the 1%” in the title doesn’t fool anyone. Like the social conservatives who tried to create a straw-man “slut” out of Sandra Fluke during the arguments over access to contraception, so Wurtzel has created a straw-man in the grotesques she imagines.
In her attack on stay-home mothers, children are oddly absent. In Wurtzel’s world children don’t seem really to exist. If they did, she would be forced to acknowledge that they need care and that care has economic value. “Being a mother isn’t really work,” she writes. Rather, “something becomes a job when you are paid for it.” So if I hired someone to come into my home and do the work that I do – the organizing, the cleaning, the shopping, the cooking, the myriad tasks of raising children – and paid her money, it would count as work? But because my husband and I are married and treat our finances as joint – in other words, no money changes hands between us – the work I do for our family does not count? Would Wurtzel apply the same logic to an entrepreneur who depends on a bank loan to live until her business gets off the ground? What about farmers who work year-round just to break even? Full-time volunteers with religious organizations or the PeaceCorps? The exchange of money is only one signifier of work, hardly the one true validation of it. Children do not raise themselves. They need parents paying attention to and caring for them. If Wurtzel knew any real children, she’d know that her refusal to acknowledge this basic fact does not make it go away.
Another fact of life with children that Wurtzel has no concept of is parental love. Her essay reveals a great deal of discomfort with feelings generally. She refers to emotions as “hullabaloo,” says that love makes us “idiots” and “fools,” that love is “foolishness.” She has chosen not to marry – which, apart from foolishness, she equates with being “bossed around” – out of a sense of “integrity and independence,” implying that those who do marry lack these qualities. The only emotion besides anger – the one emotion that our culture sanctions for the public sphere – that she admits is to feeling “betrayed” by women who are educated but still stay home. I am a mother, and I know a tantrum when I see it. The funny thing about tantrums is that they aren’t usually the mother’s fault, but a child will wait until she’s with her mother before she allows herself to melt down: mothers are safe, and they love you, even when you’re acting hateful. I know, Elizabeth. I know. Oh, honey, I’m angry with the conservatives, too. I want economic and social parity with men, I do. I want a family leave policy! I’m furious, too, with the men who want to control women’s bodies with trans-vaginal ultrasounds and name-calling. It’s an outrage! Shhh, honey, shhh.
Parents love their children in a way that people who do not have children just do not understand. I know because once I did not have children, and I looked in bewilderment at parents. “What’s so fascinating?” I wondered. (Another favorite was to wonder what stay-home moms did all day.) I was devoted to my career, and I loved my independence. But then I had children. It is a cliché, I know! And I don’t expect Wurtzel to understand; how could she? But the fact is that becoming a mother changed me in a fundamental and completely unexpected way. The pull of my baby overwhelmed any pull my career still had, and I thanked my lucky stars that my husband’s salary could support us. Call me foolish, if it makes you feel better, but do not question my integrity. Being a mother is my truth. It has made me a better person. It inspires me. Feminism that tries to factor out the feelings of motherhood just does not work. Maybe that’s why the feminist movement hasn’t made more progress. “Equal” does not mean “same.” It never has and it never will.
So, yes, Ms. Wurtzel, there is a war on women. But after you calm down, I think you’ll see that, rather than ignore the financial and emotional realities of parenthood, real feminism accommodates them. There is lip service enough given to the contributions of mothers – just ask Mitt Romney. You’re right: it’s overcompensation and it’s condescending. I want real progress, not a pat on the head. I want feminism to represent my values, because I want the world to be a better place for my children. My feminist values include taking care of the earth; improving the educational system; universal health care; ending poverty; the inalienable right to bodily integrity; family leave policies and work environments that make room for the needs of children. It would be a hollow victory if we limited the mission of feminism strictly to economic equality and gave up our values in the process.