Feminism’s reach has undoubtedly grown in the U.S. since its inception in the late 18th century, but perhaps no other social movement has been more confusing as a result of its constantly evolving position. Even today, feminism’s simplified, overly-broad, and oft-cited definition, “equality for both men and women,” gives no explanation as to what equality actually entails. Some say that women should spearhead their ways through to the top of corporate ladders. Others argue that women are uniquely fit to bear children and ought to do so. Many overly energetic enthusiasts even synthesize the two positions and argue that every woman can be a superwoman. But that’s not the reality.
Gender inequality is not an isolated issue. Like any other identity, womanhood is one part of a complex, intersectional whole. Racial, socioeconomic, religious, and other aspects of one’s life give rise to both problems and privileges, all affecting each other in often invisible ways. Specifically in the U.S., most women are (or at least will be) both participants in a capitalist culture and mothers of children in need of care. This particular intersection creates tension between two feminist branches which otherwise would not (and should not) contradict: the one branch that champions motherhood as a valuable experience worthy of societal respect, and the other branch that upholds women’s rightful position as a productive member of the workplace.
It’s an exaggeration to say that the country has done absolutely nothing about the growing rate of mothers entering the workforce. In fact, twenty years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) was a major milestone for mothers who worked. This act of Congress guaranteed a maximum of twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave so that they could take care of newly adopted or newborn children (and some states even expanded upon that law, granting paid and/or extended leave). But a holistic view shows abysmal progress. After twenty years of policymaking, a whopping five states have paid leave for both the public and private sector, and less than ten states have paid leave for either sector. Compared to twenty other developed countries’ parental leave laws, the U.S. is among the least (if not the least) generous when it comes to parental leave benefits.
But why does that matter?
It means that most women can’t have it all. Most under-class, lower-class, and middle-class mothers simply can’t afford to go twelve weeks without pay, especially when their spouse barely makes enough to support two adults, let alone dependents. Women who come back to work are also less eligible for promotions and are paid less than non-mothers, supercharging the already upsetting 80-cents-to-the-dollar wage gap between women and men. When all these facts sink in, a startling conclusion comes together: motherhood is only welcome in the workplace in words, not in practice.
But many people would still argue: “Why does that even matter? Money isn’t the only goal in life, and motherhood is a very valued practice.” And, for the most part, I agree. Money is merely an instrumental goal, useful only when it’s used to pursue higher goods. Motherhood is also awesome, and I, along with the general population, deeply respect mothers, especially working ones.
However, my personal attitude is not indicative of how broader social forces treat mothers. My lack of racist intent does not make laws and the U.S. justice system less racist. My personal lack of class discrimination does not make U.S. politics less socioeconomically skewed. And my respect for mothers (even in conjunction with yours) doesn’t transform the workforce into a happy-go-lucky paradise for working mothers.
The problem rests in the contradiction between advocates of value pluralism and the capitalist society in which we live. In most cases, having a child doesn’t automatically put food on the table, ensure a good education, and provide transportation. Making money does. In most people’s eyes, being a mother doesn’t qualify you automatically as a “productive member of society.” Being a financially self-sufficient adult does. Simply put, rearing a child isn’t a step up society’s economic, social, or political ladder. Making money is. Thus is the danger of letting an economic system generate standards of success—entire groups are already excluded.
So what branch is right? Who wins in the end? I don’t know. That’s a philosophical question for another time. All I argue is that there must be some type of change if we want to be a country in which mothers are not simultaneously relegated to the backseat of the workplace and devalued because of it. Either society as a whole facilitates some paradigm shift towards more pluralistic values, or it fairly incorporates motherhood into the current standards of material success through extended leave benefits, closing the wage gap, etc. Both options have their respective challenges and disadvantages, but stagnation is no alternative.
Ray, Rebecca, Janet C. Gornick, and John Schmitt. (2008). “Parental leave policies in 21 countries.”
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Rampton, Martha. “The Three Waves of Feminism.” Pacific. Pacific University, n.d. Web. 26 May 2014.
Waldfogel, J. (1998). “The Family Gap for Young Women in the United States and Britain: Can Maternity Leave Make a Difference?”. Journal of Labor Economics 16 (3): 505–545.