is “feminism” to blame?

In a comment after my recent post “Functional Illiteracy” a woman proposed that feminism was to blame for the decline in the literacy of our children. Her argument is that if mom isn’t at home when the kids get home from school, full of energy and ready to help them with their homework while providing a plate of warm cookies and a nice pot of stew bubbling on the stove, then all is lost. (She also bemoaned the fact that all those women working only served to make the world more expensive, the direct result of which she and her family spent their first seven years living in a “trailor” and were only now able to own a home because of the real estate crash.)

To paraphrase: What children need is discipline, supervision, and structure, and none of these things can be provided if mom works.

My first reaction won’t be quoted directly here, but when I stopped tearing at my hair and screaming, I decided I wanted to propose this as a possibility just to see what the world’s reaction was.


According to the Department for Professional Employees, the number of working women has risen from 5.1 million in 1900 to 65.7 million in 2005, and is expected to reach 76 million by 2014. In 2004 nearly half of all job-holders were women, although more women than men still work part time, and make 55-75% what their male counterparts do in most fields. (This is shameful, btw, but I won’t go off on a tangent.) The usual fields are also still well represented by women: teaching, nursing (82-98%) vs. engineering (10%) or airline pilot (3%). It is also noted that most mothers, even of young children, participate in some way in the work force.


My grandmother divorced her husband when my mom was in 1st grade. He was an alcoholic, and abusive, and my grandma decided she’d had enough. She had worked as a secretary before getting married, but had stopped upon her marriage. Once divorced, and not being paid any child support despite a court order, she had to go to work to support herself and her two daughters.

My mother-in-law was a public school teacher in Canada while my father-in-law was in seminary when she found herself unexpectedly expecting First Son (my husband). When she informed her principal of this upcoming blessed event, she was told that he would do her the “favor” of allowing her to continue until Christmas. As she would probably be “showing” before then it was important that she disguise this fact as much as possible so as not to make any of her colleagues or students “uncomfortable.” I can’t help but wonder if this principal also called each student’s parent and advised them against having any further children, as this could also cause some “discomfort” for the already-present children. Somehow I doubt it.

When the chair of the music department at the small, liberal-arts college where I used to teach and work as staff accompanist found out that I was going to be adopting a child and starting my doctorate he decided that it was “inappropriate” for me to continue teaching as, and I quote, my “attentions should be directed elsewhere.” I was promptly removed from the list of any courses I had been teaching, although it was determined that it would okay for me to continue to accompany students on juries and recitals.  (Isn’t this illegal?)

Anyway. . .


Kant once wrote that it was so offensive for women to speak in public that they might as well grow a beard.


I find myself being drawn down the path from the idea of men society deciding whether it’s appropriate for women to work or not, as well as deciding which endeavours are appropriate (teaching, nursing) and which not (engineering, math, science) to the fear and villification of women’s bodies throughout history. Women and their “parts” and processes are evil, unclean; we are temptresses and witches. “. . .men. . .defined by the lofty spheres of reason and intellect, while women, with their mysterious biological cycles, represent the base, dark, stormy, unpredictable realms of nature and emotion. . .” (Caroline Knapp, Appetites, p. 92)

So many tangents, so little time.


Just one more.

My husband and I just watched Forty Shades of Blue, made in 2005. Dina Korzun plays Lara, a Russian girl who had met the successful and influential, but volatile, music producer Alan James (Rip Torn), when he was in Moscow on a business trip. They now have a 3 1/2 year old son, and live in his house in Memphis, although they are not married until the end of the movie. Lara is lost, an empty shell. Our first sight of her is as she strolls like an automaton through the aisles of a swank department store; later in the movie she stands, drunk and helpless, on the street, trying to figure out how to get home while the father of her child is upstairs in a hotel room with one of “his” singers. She’s unhappy, and she knows it, but as she explains to Alan’s mostly-estranged son, played by Darren Burrouws, she “has more than anyone [she] knows; [she] doesn’t have a right to want more.”

This idea, that we don’t have the right, is probably more common than we think. I’ve felt that way myself.

Forty Shades of Blue, Sabina Sciubba


I can’t believe that, in the 21st century, we still have to walk down this road.

Sure, if the family is stressed and running in 65 different directions and no one’s “driving the ship,” then the children’s homework might suffer. But that could be as much a result of poor planning, disorganization, or over-scheduling poor little Junior or Juniorette; or perhaps “dad” is a little bit useless around the house. According to a British study, women spend an average of 3 hours per day on housework, men an hour and 40 minutes; this is considered a drastic improvement. I imagine it might help the cause even more if men were aware of the studies which show that those who “help” (how offensive is this? They help?) with the housework have more sex.

Is it time now to take a deep breath and hearken back to the “good ol’ days,” when men were considered superior and a woman’s Place Was in the Home?

Perhaps what we need, instead, is a society which supports our right, and ability, to do both.

Caroline Knapp again:

If only we lived in a culture that made ambition compatible with motherhood and family life, that presented models of women who were integrated and whole: strong, sexual, ambitious, cued into their own varied appetites and demands, and equipped with the freedom and resources to explore all of them. If only women felt less isolated in their frustration and fatigue, less torn between competing hungers, less compelled to keep nine balls in the air at once, and less prone to blame themselves when those balls come crashing to the floor. If only we exercised our own power, which is considerable but woefully underused; if only we defined desire on our own terms.

And what is the cost to us as women if we spend our lives denying our very selves? Being made to believe that we aren’t good enough, smart enough, capable enough, responsible enough, articulate enough, valuable enough to make a contribution to society other than the one that is prescribed for us?

I fear this post has devolved into rambling incoherence. There are so many thoughts and ideas competing for my attention, I find myself writing and deleting much that seems too tangential. I’ll leave you with a few parting clips as my closing thoughts.


I clicked “publish,” decided I was going to avoid one more tangent, started to write this out as a separate post, and then decided it absolutely HAD to be included in this one. This probably isn’t very “professional” of me, but so far no one’s paying me to be here, so I guess it’s okay.

Caroline Knapp, one more time:

. . .a dash of Hegelian despair can be a useful thing, a check against consumer culture’s blaring strains of false promise, and also fodder for a deeper kind of acceptance. To know that hunger is an essential part of what it means to be human, that it’s possibly epic and anguished and intrinsically insatiable, is at least to muffle the blare, to introduce a sense of proportion.

And yet proportion is hard to hold onto, and may be particularly hard for women. During an interview on National Public Radio’s “The Connection,” conducted following the publication of her 1999 book, “The Whole Woman,” feminist Germaine Greer described something she sees with increasing frequency: the weeping woman, the woman stopped at a traffic light with tears streaming down her face, or exiting a stall in the ladies’ room with red-rimmed eyes, or slumped in her seat at the movie theater, clutching a handful of Kleenex. The weeping is always private, indulged on the sly, and Greer sees the sorrow behind it as a cultural phenomenon as well as an individual one, a reaction to the lingering understanding among women that despite several decades of social change, the world remains largely indifferent, disdainful, even hostile to their most defining qualities and concerns.

Women weep, Greer believes, because they feel powerless, and because they are exhausted and overworked and lonely. Women weep because their own needs are unsatisfied, continually swept into the background as they tend to the needs of others. They weep because the men in their lives so often seem incapable of speaking the language of intimacy, and because their children grow up and become distant, and because they are expected to acquiesce to this distance, and because they live lives of chronically lowered expectations and chronic adjustment to the world of men, the power and strength of a woman’s emotions considered pathological or hysterical or sloppy, her interest in connection considered trival, her core being never quite seen or known or fully appreciated, her true self out of alignment with so much that is valued and recognized and worshipped in the world around her; her love, in a word, unrequited.

In a nod to the diminishment of outrage that began to take hold in the eighties, Greer told her interviewer, “We tried to mobilize women’s anger. We spent years telling women to get in touch with their rage, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s just not enough rage to go around. Women don’t get angry enough. What women do is get sad.”

This sentiment stayed with me for a long time. I was driving from Boston to Rhode Island while I heard it, to visit a friend for the weekend, and I spent much of the trip thinking about the steady press of sorrow in a woman’s life, the feeling of discord that may run through her days, the singular loneliness of living in a wrld that emphasizes and rewards so many qualities that may run counter to her central humanity: independence instead of interdependence; distance instead of closeness; self-seeking instead of cooperation; the external world instead of the internal world; glamour and wealth and celebrity instead of kindness and generosity and warmth. I thought about the private pain of women, expressed with so much wordless anguish: the anorexic, isolated and terrified and working so relentlessly to starve away her own hunger; the shoplifter, trying to compensate for what she never had with a Clark bar; the self-cutter, lashing at her own skin instead of out at the world; the bulimic, hunched over a toilet bowl, retching out a river of need. I thought about thwarted connections–a girls’ from her mother, a woman’s from her culture–and then I did something I almost never do: I pulled my car over to the side of the road, and I sat there, and I wept.


Can’t embed the audio clip I want, so go to: http://www.righteousbabe.com/ani/educated_guess/index.asp  and click on the little speaker next to Origami.

16 Responses to “is “feminism” to blame?”

  1. November 20, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Wow! I like this blog; you bring a lot of good information to the table. I have to agree and disagree.
    I also feel that children have changed for the worse drastically since women began working as I have seen in my experiences as a middle school teacher. My grandmother even tells me that when women went to work (she did not), she automatically saw a rise in women spoiling their kids with treats as they felt guilty for not being with their kids all day. I believe that kids can have less discipline and attention while getting spoiled. My mother worked, and I did not get all the attention and support I needed. My grades were average as I recall her never helping me with homework or making sure I was being responsible, depite her good intentions. I have chosen to stay home with my kids, at least while they’re young, and I feel very passionate about doing so.

    However, I made the choice to stay home because I know this is the only way that would fit with my personality. I prefer a less hectic schedule for me and my family. There are plenty of women out there, like yourself, who can do more with less time. My favorite story is the biography of Ben Carson, one of the best neurosurgeons in the world. His mother was single, poor, and working. Yet, she pushed her sons to work hard, despite their many challenges, and she was very involved with their tasks and now he’s amazingly successful. I don’t think that every working mom is doing a bad job.
    More importantly, it is not anybody’s decision but your own. In this day and age, no one should decide what you are and aren’t capable of doing. I do not follow politics well, but I know Sarah Palin was ridiculed for supposedly ignoring her family. I never looked into it, but why can’t the father or another relative step in? The mother has a right to a career as much as the father. As long as the children are well-cared for, it doesn’t matter how the family devides the responsibilities.

    The Teacher’s Desk at carlienoelle.wordpress.com

    • October 9, 2012 at 12:47 pm

      I’m re-reading this as a result of the article in the Nation I just blogged about, and feel badly that I never responded directly. I agree with you 100%. It’s the regimenting of it, and the guilt attached by people who feel compelled to criticize or judge, and the fact that people think they have a right to tell you you’re wrong, or to limit you professionally because they disagree with your choice, etc., etc. that is the problem.

      As you say, it should be no one’s decision but your own. And too many people think they know better. I think it’s terrific you know what you want and need and how you want to live, and respect those who choose or want or need differently.

  2. November 20, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Sorry about all the typos in the long quote — I was hurrying, and distracted by a multitude of teenagers in my house. Please forgive me. I think I fixed them all, but please don’t hesitate to point out any that I may have missed.

  3. November 20, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    I’m sad to say I’m not the least bit suprised by any of the completely ridiculous stories. Recently I was having a conversation with some of my colleagues about how we continue to develop and grow as professionals and as leaders. One thing I mentioned is that I do a lot of reading about women in business. A male colleague actually responded with “Do you think that’s actually hurting you?” We have a LONG way to go.

  4. 6 jill
    November 20, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Another great post, Sheri! Sometimes I agree that women aren’t angry enough. I wish we all could realize the power we have. We need to be careful that guilt and insecurity don’t turn back the clock to where we are prescribed our destiny. But we have come a long way (baby) and I hope the young women I teach realize that. Sometimes it feels like we feminists are a dying breed.
    I love June Cleaver, by the way. 🙂

  5. November 20, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    A great post and very thought provoking but please everyone… going to work or staying at home with your kids is a choice! Lets be thankful that we do have the choice to do whatever we feel is best in our particular circumstances.
    I can’t say I know first hand as I do not have children, but I will not judge any parents decision on what is best for them and I’m sure when the day comes I will base my decision on what is best for my family.
    I think given the right influences and guidance children can thrive in either situation. My mother worked part time and I always felt very supported and I believe she found this the perfect balance for her.

    I can’t bare any judgement either way. REAL feminism is not about women ‘bigging themselves up’ or hating men. it is about equality and choices. Lets focus on individual needs and not sweeping suggestions.

    I could go on writing about this for pages and pages too!

  6. November 20, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    Wow. I have been told all my life (since my late teens) that I was “too angry”. However, my anger has often devolved into sadness. It’s very, very difficult to be an angry woman in our society. I’ve come to the conclusion the worst thing a woman can openly be is angry. No one likes it. Not other women, and certainly not men.

    My husband tells me I have an anger problem — just for expressing anger! I think I never had enough anger to blast through the impediments, the not good enoughs, smart enoughs, etc., that I have constantly faced. I had more energy to deal with all the “shoulds” when I was younger, but to be honest, as I’ve gotten older it’s worn me down.

    Sadness/depression is a mask for anger. Someone (a psychologist, probably) once told me this. As soon as I heard that I recognized why I get sad, or depressed, or lose interest, or just “don’t care” so often. Because I’m angry. But that’s not o.k. in our society. It doesn’t work as an employee, it doesn’t work in relationships — not in marriage, not in friendships, no where. Everyone seems to be wary of angry women. It’s fine to be angry if you’re a man. No one thinks that’s abnormal or unusual. Angry men are accepted, they are considered normal. But not women. I’ve been the odd woman out because I seem to wear my anger on my sleeve.

    As to women being blamed about our children not being properly educated, this is no surprise. Of course women are going to be blamed. We pretty much get the blame for everything. Because women are not accepting their “place”, the finger gets pointed at them. When hasn’t this happened? I’m just surprised it took someone so long to actually say it. Women are always responsible for what’s wrong. We are always the scapegoats.

    How many times have I wept alone? How many times am I overwhelmed by what I can only describe as a sob — often I can suppress it and not burst into tears, but my sorrow is deep and often wells up when I least expect it. I can’t tell any more why it comes up. It seems to be part of me. It’s just there.

    I was a “feminist” in the 70’s and 80’s. I still consider myself a feminist, even though that has become a dirty, undesirable, even laughable word. I thought, in my youth, that the world would change and by the time I got older women would get respect, we would be able to express our true feelings, own our strengths, and be considered 100% equals in life, work, society, etc.

    Instead, misogyny has gone underground. It’s become more subtle. Everyone knows the buzzwords to use and not to use. Male-run organizations purport to support women’s rights when what they really exist for is to undermine women’s choices. Plural marriages are rampant and there are even t.v. shows that celebrate this “alternate” lifestyle, when in reality these are basically concentration camps for women. The examples are many.

    I now have no illusions that equality will be achieved in my lifetime. I know that this struggle will continue for many generations after I’m gone, and believe many young women will continue to have to struggle as much as I have just to be authentically who they are. Feminism failed, not because we didn’t try, but because we didn’t understand how deeply rooted misogyny really is.

    • October 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Misogyny is alive and well, and living in . . . .
      Let the anger out, and then find something useful/positive to replace it with. Don’t carry it around, it will poison you from the inside out.
      And I plan to be a rabid feminist when I grow up. As opposed to what I am now. . .???

  7. November 21, 2010 at 3:27 am

    I too am finding this post and also the responses (especially Julee’s) very challenging and thought-provoking. Thank you.

  8. 13 Boston Margy
    November 21, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    I’m in my mid 50s, a baby boomer, whose mother worked. I am none the worse for it. I’m quite literate. And, horror of horrors, my dad took on a number of household chores, including cooking. I can’t say I’m scarred for life. I’m about as normal as can be. I doubt my mother would define herself as a feminist, but in her experience everybody worked because that’s what it took. It did us no harm whatsoever.

  9. November 22, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Hi. I’ve been lurking around your blog on and off for about a week and I’ve enjoyed it very much. I often allow it to distract me from working, but oh well. I still get the job done. =)

    There was a lot to comment on in that post, and I wish I could comment on everything. Maybe we could correspond via email instead because I have so many questions.

    I’m sorry you, and your mother in law, and grandmother, went through those things with pregnancies that you described. I am especially shocked and angered by your story, because I really want to believe that motherhood in the workplace is not considered a taboo anymore. You’d think at least at a university there would be more people with more enlightened attitudes toward gender roles. I work in academia – the first lab I worked in was almost all women, and my current lab is at least half women with a female PI. One of the grad students had a baby that she often brought with her to the lab and the rest of us would take turns babysitting. She and her husband would switch schedules so they could take turns being home with the baby, too.

    Although, I suppose academia has it’s own gender roles — female scientists are found mostly in the area of biology and medicine, while men still dominate physics, chemistry, and math. I honestly regret not having the confidence to pursue a chemistry degree. Instead, I went into nutrition which is 98% female and arguably was not challenging enough for me. But I was afraid of calculus and physics so I didn’t push myself. I will probably live with that regret forever, even now as I pursue graduate school and a career in science research.

    That being said, I’ve had a hard time working with women in the lab because they tend to have a lot of confidence issues and my female bosses have always been somewhat crazy and micromanaged too much. My male bosses usually didn’t question their abilities as researchers and approached the workplace with more sanity and level headedness, and they usually trusted me to get the work done without micromanaging.

    Which brings me to one of the huge questions I have, which I’ve been trying to understand for years. I’m a musician — not an academic one, although I have studied piano in college and received a minor in piano performance. Since then, I’ve done a lot of improvising and playing with people in groups and have found it to be something I can’t live without. I play in a band right now whose original music is based entirely on improvisational jams with no real style associated with them — we just play who we are. And, that scene is almost all men. I’m usually the only female at any of the larger events we play at, and I’ve never been able to find women musicians to jam with on the side.

    The one time I did try to set up an all female jam session, it didn’t work out. The women I talked to told me that they didn’t feel comfortable “just making things up on the spot” and didn’t know how. I spoke with several classically trained instrumentalists and the two who did show up were not able to freely play. They had to know what songs we were playing or at least what “style” or “genre” and we could never lock into anything. I left feeling frustrated and never called them again. it seemed like nobody had a good time, and I was busy so I reluctantly let the idea die.

    My piano studio was all women. There were plenty of females in all of the different studios, but once i got into the popular music scene, the women were gone. And, those I did meet were either singer/songwriters or lead singers. Clearly women have the chops to play in bands, but none of them are? Why? I meet guys who picked up a guitar or a bass or drums when they were 13 and couldn’t WAIT to start playing with their friends, no matter how awful they were. The women I meet seem to be so terrified of playing with others that even if they have the talent to do so, they won’t go out on a limb and try it. It took me at least five years of improvising before I became good enough at it to play in a band, and I keep improving everyday. I’d really like to see more female instrumentalists who can cut loose and be themselves with their instrument. Why don’t they have the confidence?

    Man, that was a long comment. I have so much more to say. Feel free to email me anytime. I really don’t have too many people in my life to discuss these things with anymore…except my boyfriend, but he’s a man and often doesn’t understand. Haha.

  10. November 24, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Ack, sorry. I didn’t realize my incredibly long comment was going to make me look like one of those insane people who thinks their opinions are critically important.

    • November 24, 2010 at 10:49 pm

      No need to apologize.

      And not insane, just hurting, in a world that doesn’t pay all that much attention much of the time.

      There are men, and women, who do understand. Those kinds of relationships are important to find, and cultivate. I hope you can find them.

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