Feminists at work, whether they are mothers or not, have yet to reconcile several conflicts related to class, race, and culture. Most conversations about women in the workplace fall along two lines: they are single and ruthless, or they are coupled and supported outside of corporate work by a partner who helps them tend to family life. I have a feeling that there are many more working feminists who get left out of the discussion, though I can’t figure out why that is.
Amy Allen, writing for the Stone blog at the New York Times, did a good job of approaching the nuances of this discussion in her recent piece, “‘Mommy Wars’ Redux: A False Conflict.”
Much work in second wave feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s converged around a diagnosis of the cultural value system that underpins patriarchal societies. Feminists argued that the fundamental value structure of such societies rests on a series of conceptual dichotomies: reason vs. emotion; culture vs. nature; mind vs. body; and public vs. private. In patriarchal societies, they argued, these oppositions are not merely distinctions — they are implicit hierarchies, with reason valued over emotion, culture over nature, and so on.” Allen writes that some feminists “argued that the best solution was for women to claim the values traditionally associated with masculinity for themselves…Other feminists, by contrast, argued that this liberal assimilationist approach failed to challenge the deeply problematic value structure that associated femininity with inferiority…While both of these strategies have their merits, they also share a common flaw, which is that they leave the basic conceptual dichotomies intact.
I would add that those conceptual dichotomies often leave out racial and class-based divisions that undermine the work of feminism in an increasingly multiracial and class-conscious society. Allen nods at this by noting that discussions of feminism seem to boil down to questions of choice, which is problematic since, “framing the mommy wars in terms of choice is not just that only highly educated, affluent, mostly white women have a genuine choice about whether to become uber moms…the problem is also that under current social, economic and cultural conditions, no matter what one chooses, there will be costs.”
During the discussion here about motherhood and debt, a married woman of color who is not a mother noted that most of the women who responded were women who could afford to opt out of work if they wanted to, usually because they had the support of male breadwinners. This is what Allen meant when she wrote that the ways that educational, racial, and economic privilege structure women’s choices is serious and must not be overlooked.
I told my friend that I always assume working-class women—and women of color in particular—who are navigating these choices are so busy doing the work of being women with limited choices in the world and paying for the costs of whatever those choices are that they don’t have the time or inclination to weigh in on discussions like these. Just having the conversation is its own privilege, in other words.
But this idea of a false conflict is an important one, since the internal conflict in feminism now seems to be that working women who have the most to gain from the necessary work of eliminating remaining racial and class silos among women are largely absent from the debates, articles, and commentary that claim to reflect their realities. The false conflict of public work conducted by women and the private work of motherhood, then, remains a conversation that is dominated by the concerns of white mothers in our culture. Is the idea that if they can make gains, the rest of us will benefit even if we’re not a part of the conversation?