If there's one thing I think I know about feminism, it's that every woman should have the right to pursue being whomever she wants to be. So why is New York magazine's new feature, "The Retro Housewife," in which Lisa Miller discusses how feminists are "having it all" by "staying home" so controversial?
Miller's intro tells the story of Kelly Makino, who as a little girl transcended any gender normative stereotyping (she liked to go orienteering! Later, she wanted to be a spy!) and put herself through college expecting to work at a nonprofit and eventually climb to the top of wherever she worked. Now, she's 33 and "if dreams were winds, you might say that hers have shifted," writes Miller. She has two children and is a stay-at-home mom. She says that women are better at that role, given that they play with dolls when they are little. So her husband is making the money, and she, while "cool," i.e., with a silver-studded nose and Converse sneakers, has "given herself over entirely to the care and feeding of her family." [Subtext: Uncool.]
Miller continues, "Undistracted by office politics and unfettered by meetings or a nerve-fraying commute, she spends hours upon hours doing things that would make another kind of woman scream with boredom, chanting nursery rhymes and eating pretend cake beneath a giant Transformers poster." She spends her day with her kids! She pampers her husband! "She has given herself over entirely to the care and feeding of her family." These priorities are pronounced entirely retrograde (Miller, of course, is the one who uses the word boredom), and I suppose it's easy to make the jump that doing these things might hark back to a '50s-style woman. The key difference, of course, is that the typical '50s-style woman did not decide with her partner who would stay home and who would work. The '50s-style woman was simply who she was supposed to be. This new-style woman is who she has—presumably, if we believe this article—decided to be. And that's why Makino calls herself a feminist. She had a choice (given, of course, that her family had the financial wherewithal for her to have made this choice, and given that all choices come with a bit of compromise on either side).
All in all, acknowledging that nothing's perfect, it seems she's pretty happy being a stay-at-home mom and a housewife, and if she's happy, that's great. The "retro" housewife is not so retro when it's her choice. The problems creep in on a couple of levels, though. The first is with that inferred judgment of boredom, that this life might not be fulfilling enough, that others wouldn't choose to live this way. (But why should we all choose to live the same way, or think the same things are fulfilling? And why should we have to?) Women don't have any duty to not be "stereotypes" any more than they have a duty to embody them. None of us can live each others' lives.
Point two, more insidious, is that the reaction to a piece like this, and the fact that it exists in the first place, shows how rooted our beliefs about what a mom or dad or woman or man should be are. We're just not far away enough from those beliefs to simply take the happy homemaker in stride. That's why we get all worked up about pretty much all of these articles. Either she's not truly fulfilled and lying to herself, or she's a threat to those of us who would choose otherwise, or she's a teensy-tiny portion of society that's socioeconomically able to live this way and therefore should not count as a reality. (And those arguments go the other way, to be put upon the careerwoman, too.) The judgments begin to fly. It is very hard to be a woman who's on either extreme in terms of life choice—the careerwoman with her baby in a briefcase, or the stay-at-home aproned Betty—and not be judged, particularly when there's a feature story about you in New York magazine.
The truth is, most of us probably want something in between. Most of us probably want a balance. Most people probably do not reflect the extremes on either side. And yet what we see in writing tends to be the extremes. The extremes make us mad, they allow us to judge, they make us compare ourselves and feel bad when we don't measure up. They are a high-form of trolling. We have not gotten to a place where women are simply O.K. being women, without having to compare ourselves to someone or someone else's expectations and standards, whether those be about when we marry, whether we marry, whether we have children and when we do, how dedicated to our careers we are, what kind of moms we're being, how we're failing at having it all, and on and on.
I do, however, balk at the statement that women are simply naturally better moms. Perhaps a large number of women are more nurturing, for factors that are social as much as they are natural. That doesn't mean men can't be equally, or sometimes more so. And it doesn't mean all women have to be this way, or that women who aren't are doing anything wrong, or are somehow "unnatural."
That this article seems to treat Kelly's (and others') choices as shocking is part of what makes it off-putting. As Miller writes, "Far from the Bible Belt’s conservative territories, in blue-state cities and suburbs, young, educated, married mothers find themselves not uninterested in the meta conversation about 'having it all' but untouched by it. They are too busy mining their grandmothers’ old-fashioned lives for values they can appropriate like heirlooms, then wear proudly as their own."
We keep talking about who women are supposed to be, the standard versus the reality, and who we think we're supposed to be versus who we can be. And how that makes a lot of us feel bad. But forcing women to fit in this bucket or that one (or judging them if they deviate) is the most anti-feminist behavior of all. The unstated fear is that we're just reverting back, even those among us in those wacky liberal places where you'd never expect that women might be more complicated than the simple opposite of the retro stereotype. Oh God, it's a slippery slope, and why would anyone want to wear that old jewelry? But being terrified of the "retro stereotype" is as bad (and anti-feminist) as anything else. Again, balance. What's wrong with balance? What's wrong with taking the parts of our grandmother's lives that we liked and co-opting them for ourselves, if that's what we want? What's wrong with acknowledging that we have a lot of choices, and that some of us might see fit to choose differently? None of us are truly stereotypes.
Having it all might be a debate that resonates for few. But having what is is that you want ... and the opportunity to figure out what that is ... and then, if you think you've achieved it, not being judged for it ... that seems a modern sort of feminist ideal to me. So what if women want to stay home and take care of their kids? So what if they don't? The day that we stop freaking out, one way or another, about what women choose—it's a stereotype! It's against a stereotype! It's, it's , it's, it's!—the day we stop couching the new discussion in these same old terms, the day we don't get worked up about a stay-at-home mom anymore than we do about a woman who works 90-hour weeks and doesn't have children, is the day that we stop slapping old norms on new ways of being, and it's the day that we really are different.
As women, we can't rely on each other to all want to do the same exact thing, to want to have the same dreams and goals. We can only hope that someday we'd get to the point where we can support each other for being whatever it is that makes us happy, trusting each other when we say we've found that, respecting one another for the choices we've made, and not feeling threatened that we're not measuring up to some false ideal. If there is a coterie of young women who think they can be whatever they want without judgment about what that is (on either side) rising up, that's a good thing.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.