So what’s a feminist anyway?
For many, feminism has an ugly connotation, though I suspect much of the ugliness originated in false accusations, hurled by people who felt threatened by change.
In the media, I saw the raging feminist who discredits the stay-at-home mom, ridiculing her for baking cookies. I also saw the “go-getter” feminist who was running the corporate law firm, putting dinner on the table, while being sexy the whole time, without somehow falling short. These are two examples of usual icons we as a culture have collectively bought into.
I bring this up because it is a controversial issue, infamously dubbed the “mommy wars” — a debate between moms who work outside of the home and stay-at-home moms. No job is better or more important than the other, but the debate persists.
It’s also an issue that has historical and racial undertones that makes it all the more complicated due to the nature of intersectionality. This concept was addressed in the BSA’s annual “Black Lives Matter Teach-In Series” in early April. The three-day teach-in series embarked on an exploration of different ways in which past and current national structures have consistently undervalued black life. Though the events spearhead specific topics, the series aims to critically engage with greater systemic establishments, insofar as garnering a holistic understanding— in order to work to more readily identify and combat these sources of injustice. The talk I attended was “Nothing A J. Crew Cardigan Can’t Fix: The Radical Re-Styling of Michelle Obama” given by U.Va. English graduate student Shermaine Jones. Jones considered the restyling of Michelle Obama as the Black Jackie Onassis and the politics of this aesthetic turn, as well its implications for black feminism and black women’s expressions of discontent.
One sub-topic of discussion I was most intrigued by was about motherhood and the criticisms First Lady Michelle Obama received during the 2012 Democratic National Convention when she said her most important role is being the “mom-in-chief.” “[There are] tensions within Black feminism and White ‘liberal’ feminism in the notions about what is an acceptable position” when it comes to motherhood because “calling yourself mom-in-chief is somehow not being progressive enough; it’s relegating yourself backwards,” Jones said. Much criticism about her statement and “lack of a stance” on controversial issues (veteran’s benefits, reproductive rights, etc.) spoke to critic Michelle Cottle’s disappointment. In Cottle’s article, “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare,” she said, “Her Ivy League degrees, career success and general aura as an a**-kicking, do-it-all superwoman had some women fantasizing that she would at least lean in and speak out on a variety of tough issues. It was not to be.”
For First Lady Obama to publicly say her No. 1 priority is raising her two daughters (ages 15 and 12) is radical in itself. When it came to who had the privilege of being a stay-at-home mother, history shows for many women of color, especially black women, this was not an option. Black women have almost always had to work outside of the home. According to the report, “Historical Changes in Stay-at-Home Mothers: 1969 to 2009” by Rose M. Kreider and Diana B. Elliot, “There is evidence that married black women have always been employed outside of the house in large numbers […] Even black mothers with young children were in the workforce following World War II, when many of their white counterparts had withdrawn from the labor force.” Dr. Camille Charles, a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, brings up another point in “Stay-at-home motherhood not an option for most black women” saying, “Women usually have better success getting jobs than black men do. So if you’re talking about a two-parent household, she’s more likely to end up being the one to pick up the slack because historically the women have been more employable and more desirable employees because of the gender stereotypes we have as African-Americans.”
After putting this history into perspective, I began to understand how a decision like this was personal but also political. Now, I do not see professional women who have decided to give up their careers to raise their families as throwing away their success and erasing progress which past generations worked to achieve through hard fought battles. The First Lady does not have to live up to high expectations and be a “superwoman.” She is being the best woman she knows how to be for herself and her family. What many have failed to realize is the absence of black women in national conversations about parenting in positive ways, tracing back to the Reagan era's welfare queen -- the myth of single black mothers who saw their numerous children as nothing more than taxpayer-subsidized paychecks. With her personal declaration of the title “mom-in-chief,” the First Lady is illustrating how women should be living their lives on their own terms.
No woman should be made to feel like their decision to stay at home and raise their children is a “waste” of their education. I have re-evaluated my own prejudices about motherhood and being passionate about your convictions. Feminism to me also means having a right to choose your own ambitions. It means not having either/or propositions: You can be a career woman, and you can be a mother.