I am an almost 42 year old woman. I have a Bachelor's degree in Medical Laboratory Sciences. I have worked in a blood bank, a microbiology lab, a transplant research lab and had a very successful career working for a billion dollar pharmaceutical company. Now, at the pinnacle of my life, I have been married for 10 years, I am a mother to two beautiful children and I left my career almost 7 years ago to care for them and manage our family household.
For a lot of the world, I am the prime example of the opt-out/lean-out woman. For some I am a 'bad' feminist because I am not using my education and contributing my talents to the greater society and earning a living and that I have taken two steps back for womankind, because I am not fighting my way up to and through the glass ceilings of the world.
Recently, Michelle Obama was called a "feminist nightmare" for making decisions in her life very similar to mine; for choosing her 'Mom-in Chief" role over her ivy-league credentials and career success. She has been criticized by some for not living up to their image of the ideal, high-profile feminist role model for women everywhere. And as one critic put it:
The "kind of thing" being referred to, is of course, being a mother. One who worries about what her kids (and what the nation's kids) are eating, one who is concerned with her children (and the nation's children) finishing high school and getting a higher education. You would think from these arguments that these are the kinds of things that only mothers do. That mothers are the only ones concerned about the state of our childrens health and education. That if you are indeed a brilliantly educated and well-connected woman than it is your duty to don your "power-suit" and lean all the way IN, get that big corner office and be in the 'game' with all the big players (read: men) and leave all of those "other" kinds of things for who exactly? All those less educated, less connected grown women?
This is where I think feminism actually starts to confuse people and why it may seem alienating to some as well.
A common theme that I read over and over lately, is how women are damned if we do and damned if we don't in practically all things. If we have children and work - neglect. If we have children and don't work - privileged. If we don't have children - selfish. If we have TOO many children - even more selfish. If we cover up our bodies - fat shamed. If we are naked - slutty. If we are passionate about something - too emotional. If we are not touchy-feely enough - bitch. I could go on and on...
The problem as I see it is that women are indeed damned in this world, because it is a world that was not made for us to succeed in. We are fighting for something that doesn't exist in our past or present society, a world where all humans are equal, where women are not seen as "other". And because this doesn't exist, because no where in our history do we see women valued as equals, we assume that equality means being like the dominant power holders, ie, the men. Regardless of the immense progress that has been made by women towards the goal of equality, our current world is still one of inequality and in our quest to reach our goal, sacrifices are made. Choices must be made by women within a framework that is not of our making and thus judgment ensues.
As I was hashing all of these thoughts out in my brain, the closest, most pop-culture-y analogy that I could think of was The Hunger Games. No, really, just stay with me here....
Think of Katniss and all of the people of Panem outside of the Capitol as women and the Capitol (political and financial power holders) as men. The Hunger Games are a metaphor for The Great Equality Playing Field. Women are all Tributes and placed in an arena that men have built and are forced to make choices that they would otherwise NOT make in order to survive in that arena and win the game. The players have to take down all other tributes on their way to the winners circle. They have to be ruthless. They have to be angry. They have to KILL. The only option for any of the tributes to become more than just a starving citizen of Panem is to win the Hunger Games and even when they do win, they are still living, albeit more lavishly, by the good graces and according the the dictates of the people of the Capitol.
When we take a look at our world and believe that the only way for women to be equal to men is by emulating them, then we are nothing more than tributes fighting in a game that was not created to have more than one kind of winner. There is no winning of the Feminism/Hunger Games given our current socioeconomic and political arena. What happens over and over is a society successfully pretending to change so that nothing changes. The goal is status quo and the outcome of this game is/has always been predetermined. No matter what decisions you make in this game, you are going to sacrifice something and you will be judged for that. And when one of the most visible and high-profile women in our world is maligned for her choice to be a mother first, no one is winning anything.
Oh, there is definitely a "Feminist Nightmare" out there alright, it is just not to be laid at the feet of this one woman and it is not because of her choice to be a mother. Like Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner, the founder of MomsRising.com said:
The real feminist nightmare is that motherhood is now a greater predictor of inequality than gender, and we have yet to shine a bright enough light on this type of discrimination to address its rippling impacts.
What we need now is a different arena in which to shine this light. We need to change the rules of the game. We need to shake up the status quo and we need to start by placing real value on the roles that women choose to prioritize in their lives.THAT is what I see Michelle Obama doing. I see her taking a leading role in changing the way families look at healthy eating and healthy living. I see her making a difference by addressing issues that matter to all mothers (and really, these should be issues and policies that matter to everyone, like Whitney said... "I believe the children are our future.") FLOTUS is showing the world that there is immense value in being a mother and providing the care and nurturing that is important to the well-being of all families. By doing so, she is also bringing to light the issues of economic security for mothers and women, and how and why this is good for everyone.
Women like Michelle Obama are making it possible for women like me to answer the question, "What do you do for a living?" with a sense of pride and confidence in my own Mom-in-Chief-ness. And I am getting better at answering that question with a straight up, I am a MOM. The thing that irks me the most in all of this is that quite A LOT of people think that my life choices (and Michelle's) are not actually real "choices". That I have made them based on the belief that I have somehow been robbed of my agency and forced to make this terribly un-feminist choice for myself. And therein lies the crux of the issue...
How exactly are women to have agency in a world created BY and FOR men?
The hard truth of the matter is that the patriarchy isn't about to step up anytime soon and suddenly say, "Oh, FEMINISM... I see what you've been trying to say now!" Why would they? The playing field has been forever tipped in their favour. And sure, we'll get a few shots and even score some points now and then, but within the current framework of our culture, our history and our society, it is an unfortunate truth that women, and especially mothers, just can't win.
But that doesn't mean we won't stop fighting.
The landscape is changing and our time is coming.