Echoes of the Mommy Wars in #MeToo

In many ways, this intra-gender debate feels appropriate, healthy even. But is it inhibiting the movement’s progress?

#MeToo protesters march in Hollywood.
Protesters march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in Los Angeles, California, on November 12, 2017. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

The first, furious wave of #MeToo has receded, but the reckoning is hardly over. Stories continue to surface. Workplaces (and beyond) continue to grapple with the shifting terrain. The terms of the debate continue to evolve—including, predictably, heated back-and-forths about the dangers of overreach and backlash and witch hunts and neo-puritanism and political correctness run amok. With a movement at once so intimate and so vast, almost everyone is a little anxious about where this is going. Almost everyone has skin in the game.

That said, the bulk of the public agonizing—about missteps and momentum, about what is and is not fair—has fallen to the ladies. Overwhelmingly, women are the ones both pushing this train to go faster and fretting that it has already run off the rails. (Most recently, professional provocateur Katie Roiphe kicked the hornets’ nest with an extended lament about what she considers the silencing effects of #MeToo.) Across traditional and social media, women of every race, age, orientation, and ideology are going at this issue—and often at one another.

In many ways, this intra-gender debate feels appropriate, healthy even. Women’s voices are now strong enough to carry such a discussion on their own. They are confident enough to disagree fiercely without worrying overmuch about undermining the larger movement. Women no longer need to look to men to champion their cause or legitimize their views.

Which is just as well, because most men are happy to stay quiet on this subject. Not that you can blame them: In territory this fraught, it is all too easy to stumble. The line between engaged debate and mansplaining can be fuzzy, at times nearly impossible for even well-meaning guys to distinguish. Lord help any man seen as trying to “hijack” the conversation. Ditto the poor dolt who ventures an opinion deemed insufficiently supportive. (Hello, Matt Damon!) In the midst of this furor, it is the rare man who will risk offering anything more nuanced than a blanket apology for his gender’s piggishness and sense of entitlement. And so the field largely has been ceded—perhaps properly, perhaps unavoidably—to the women.

At the same time, there is something unsettling about watching my gender splinter into factions and slash at one another over how to navigate yet another sexist aspect of American society. Forget the public nature of the debate: In private discussions, I’ve listened to friends and colleagues agonize about whether other women are judging them, disparaging them, and disapproving of the way they have chosen to navigate these murky waters.

Take the generational split within #MeToo: Generally speaking, women in their early 40s and younger seem to be taking a less tolerant view of male misbehavior than are their elders. They have a broader definition of what qualifies as harassment and whether they have ever been the target of such. At 47, I seem to sit rather awkwardly atop the fault line between the earlier, shake-it-off approach to male misconduct and the emerging, call-it-out path. I sympathize with Millennials’ distress that more senior women see them as fragile flowers, as self-identified victims unable to cope with the stickier realities of male-female relations. But I also relate to the older Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who are hurt, and vaguely insulted, that younger lasses seem to feel that they failed to stand up for themselves, that they were too willing to put up with inappropriate behavior in the name of going-along-to-get-along.

All the hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and knife-fighting carry more than a whiff of the Mommy Wars, that never-ending cultural cagematch in which women have felt compelled to savage one another’s choices about everything from pursuing a career to breastfeeding to mommy-tracking to co-sleeping. Lean in. Lean out. Jump down, turn around, tie yourself into knots in a furious, ultimately futile effort to do the exact right thing and thus avoid judgment by other women. As though there were any exact right thing. As though any of us should feel the need to justify our choices to anyone, male or female.

Nor is mommyhood the only personal area to prompt such public divisions. One of my favorites: Remember back in May 2013, when everyone was praising Angelina Jolie for disclosing that she had the BRCA breast-cancer genetic mutation and, as a result, had undergone a preventative double mastectomy? Remember a few weeks later when singer Melissa Etheridge, a breast cancer survivor and fellow BRCA carrier, announced that not only did she disagree with Jolie’s decision, she felt it was “the most fearful choice one could make when confronting anything with cancer”? As someone who’d recently had my own (non-prophylactic) mastectomy, I sympathized with the tough calls both women had made. But of course different people deal with medical conditions in different ways. (My mom, for instance, tackled her breast cancer, diagnosed a few months before mine, with a combo of surgery, radiation, and chemo.) Which is why I found Etheridge’s slap at Jolie jarring. I thought, Is this really where we are: women calling out each other’s medical choices?

Obviously, such comparisons to #MeToo are inexact. But once again women have landed in a situation where we are squaring off to brawl about how to address a major gender injustice—while men mostly watch from a safe distance.

At times it feels as though women cannot stomach the thought that other women might not approve of the choices we make—even, or perhaps especially, in the most excruciatingly personal corners of our lives. Maybe we need to battle one another as a way to validate our choices to ourselves. And maybe that’s a fine thing—or at least a cathartic one.

Still, I can’t help wondering if we are doing that thing we so often do, where our tendency to be way too hard on ourselves, and each other, keeps us from making as much progress as we otherwise would.

I’d gently suggest as much. But who am I to criticize?