No Slam-Dunk For the Mommy Wars

Kathryn Lopez

8/28/2010 12:01:00 AM - Kathryn Lopez

Could politics end the mommy wars?

What mommy wars, you ask? One short answer is: the ones that make for awkward silences at cocktail parties when a woman is asked what she does and she responds that she raises her children. The feminist revolution would have us believe this undignified.

That's bunk. It always has been.

With the increased media presence of women of all political stripes, especially in politics -- as candidates, as tea party players and participants -- that lie is being exposed in the mainstream, crowding out the delusion of the lamestream (to borrow one woman's word). Exposing that deception in a reasoned, well-researched, sober way was the goal of a panel presented by the Susan B. Anthony List -- a group that supports pro-life politicians -- on the 90th anniversary of the day women were granted the right to vote.

At the heart of it all was, as moderator Helen Alvare of George Mason University put it, "women's lived experience." You can only mess with reality -- and the natural law -- for so long before your feminist fantasy is revealed to be misery.

The event, billed as "A Conversation on Pro-Life Feminism," was a both a primer on the existence of such a thing and an attempt to replace the conventional approach to so-called women's issues.

And it was a real conversation, one aiming for real answers about real life, not life as Ms. Magazine and academy radicals portray it.

W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia delved into the myths of the mommy wars during the panel, and continued the discussion with me afterward: "Many in the media and academy think working women are one way, and that stay-at-home wives and mothers are another way. This overlooks the fact that many women who work outside the home would like to work less or not at all. That is, they are working because they feel they have to, not because they want to.

"This is particularly true for women who self-identify as gender traditionalists -- who believe men and women are fundamentally different, and that men should focus more on breadwinning and women should focus more on homemaking -- or maternalists -- who believe that infants and toddlers do best when they are cared for by their mother. It is also more likely to be true for women who have children currently in the home."

Wilcox bases his analysis on his university's National Survey of Religion and Family Life, which, he explains, "indicates that, among married mothers with children in the home under 18, only 18 percent of married mothers would prefer to work full-time; by contrast, 46 percent would prefer to work part-time, and 36 percent would prefer to stay at home. Clearly, the most popular option for married mothers is part-time work, whereas only about one-fifth of these mothers would prefer to work full-time."

Feminists claim to be all about choice, yet many women in our gender-equal paradise seem to be doing something they'd rather not, given other options. Most working women would like to spend fewer hours at the office, and more time at home with their kids.

About half of American women, says Wilcox, are "adaptive": They "have interests in both work and family, and . . . they seek to scale back their work when they have children in the home -- especially infants and toddlers. But when they don't have children, or their children are older, adaptive women are often interested in working outside the home on a full-time basis. So, their orientation to work and family shifts over the life course, and according to the needs of their children."

In other words, they're neither just stay-at-home moms nor working moms: They're women who do what's best for them and their families at a given time. They "don't fit the standard conservative stay-at-home model or the liberal full-time-working-woman model. For that reason, they are often invisible in media and academic debates about work and family," Wilcox sums up.

Wilcox does see this adaptability in some of the pro-life women we've been seeing this political cycle. He points to gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in South Dakota, and Rep. Michele Bachmann in Minnesota. "These are candidates who have pursued a variety of work-family strategies in their effort to realize their dual commitments to family and public life over the years. And they don't fit neatly in any boxes."

Wilcox tells me that "both parties could do a lot more to make it easier for women to realize their ideal work-family strategies by promoting public policies that encourage flexible work arrangements, dramatically expand the child tax credit, and add more off-ramps and on-ramps for women who are seeking to move out of or into the workforce."

Will this authentic view of womanhood usurp the old political archetypes of what women want? The conversation has begun to officially rise above what self-identified feminists have long insisted they desire. May it continue and bear fruit. And, whoever wins or loses, this is a whole new playing field in politics, one that more accurately reflects who American women actually are and, yes, what they really want. Women want to annihilate this idea that career is everything; they want a life; she wants life. They especially want help in being adaptive, not pressured into being something they're not.