A number of women students just alerted me to Deborah Copaken Kogan’s “My So-called Post-Feminist Life” which recently appeared in the Nation. (http://www.thenation.com/article/173743/my-so-called-post-feminist-life-arts-and-letters). Kogan reveals decades of subtle and not so subtle sex discrimination, leaving her feeling misunderstood, alienated, and questioning her career as a writer. Although in different form, I too feel similarly discouraged. I was too young to have firsthand experience of the women’s liberation movement but I naively believed that feminists of the 1960 and 1970s had broken through so many barriers to equality, that my own career would be smooth sailing. Yet from the time that I entered law school, I have continually confronted sexism and I quickly learned that I was better off keeping as silent as my conscious would allow. Women have a hall pass to the corridors of male power which can be revoked easily should one actually identify, name, and voice their own discrimination. In this post-feminist world to be a feminist is to be labeled angry, humorless, weak, too sensitive, passé, irrelevant, overall a pain. “This was all taken care of decades ago, stop whining, get with the program.”
We are supposed to imagine that structural and institution sexism and racism are relics of the past, a long ago problem that has since been solved. Remnants of discrimination are understood be isolated and personal problems – a mere failure of communication or civility. In our current world, the personal is decidedly not political. If we look around and see few women colleagues well what does that matter? They had their chance. It is just another indication of women’s personal choice not to join or to stay. Such women have chosen to leave the party early. Yet few see that such decisions often mask exhaustion, frustration, and alienation. Were we ever really invited to the party in the first place? Hillary Clinton did it, why can’t you?
The faux pas of the New York Times obituary of Yvonne Brill is symptomatic of a larger problem in our culture of worshiping the abstract idea of motherhood if not actual mothers. We see this in a number of disparate places in the media. There is of course the ubiquitous media focus on pregnant celebrities in which we are reminded over and over again that an actress’ greatest accomplishments are her children and that her baby bump is the consummate fashion statement. Although we expect more from the New York Times than from People, its Sunday “Modern Love” column is endlessly devoted to stories of the laments of middle aged career women yearning desperately for children. Each of these articles is like a warning bell screaming to other women — watch out do not follow in my footsteps. We never hear from the voices of women who consciously decided not to have children and are content or even thrilled to be childless. The decision not to be a mother is instead perhaps silently tolerated but certainly nothing of which to be proud or discussed in civilized company.
Like the 1950s, motherhood is required to reach one’s full potential as a woman. This foregrounding of motherhood takes place even within the feminist media. The documentary Miss Representation explores the negative portrayals of women in the media. Yet the documentary maker is compelled to repeatedly tell her audience that the reason she is making the film is because she wants her daughter to be raised in a more just world. Why did she have to justify making a solid and intelligent documentary with the rhetoric of motherhood? This is but one example of many. Mainstream feminism often focuses on the problems of balancing children and work. Although this is a crucial issue other feminist demands including equal pay and reproductive rights are equally important.
Our society has become pro-natalist while true maternalism is in decline. That is pro-natalism encourages certain women to reproduce while neglecting the needs of real mothers and children. We might gaze at the latest pictures of glamorous pregnant women on the red carpet while actual women and children in this country live in poverty.