Weighing In on Katie Roiphe and the Feminists

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Aug 27, 2009 5:47 PM
After Jillian's post and then Meredith's about referencing the controversy over Katie Roiphe's essay about motherhood, I decided to check out the piece for myself. 

My conclusion?  Like so many other aspect of the "mommy wars," the piece is essentially a Rorschach ink blot test for other women's attitudes about motherhood.  The more positively you feel about the joys (and the burdens) of motherhood (in the abstract or by experience), the more positively you're going to react to the essay.  And vice-versa.

Roiphe asks a simple question -- why can't feminists admit the delirious joys of motherhood -- and then, inadvertently, answers it herself.  She admits that her professional life now seems unimportant (or secondary, at best) to her role as a mother.  That admission constitutes a lethal threat to most strands of  modern feminism, which have sought to define women's worth (or "equality") primarily in terms of their capacity for breadwinning.  Hence, the hostility.

But the problem with equating "liberation" or "equality" with working outside the home is this: It conflicts in significant ways with most women's entirely normal and laudable desire to have children and then to watch them grow.  As a result, the kind of feminism that requires working outside the home ends up putting most women in a bind.

Those who defer or sacrifice their professional aspirations in order to be full-time mothers too often feel as though they're "letting everyone down" or failing to live up to their potential or reneging on the unspoken promise they made when they took up that seat at law, medical or business chool.  Those who work by choice too often feel guilty, like inadequate or uncaring mothers to children, the vast majority of whom -- let's face it -- really do want their mothers around.

To the extent that feminism has enabled women to secure the political, economic and legal rights to which they're entitled, I'm a fan.  But wouldn't it be ironic if the "mommy wars" turn out to be the most enduring legacy of radical, '60's style feminism?