“Who Can Find a Virtuous Woman?”: or How are women valued in twenty-first-century American society?

Recently, the question of women’s status, their success, and whether or not women can have it all has made it back into the news cycle.  Ann-Marie Slaughter in the July/August issue of the Atlantic moved this issue back into the forefront of American media (not that answering this question hasn’t been on many women’s minds all along).  Since second-wave feminism attempted to answer this question in the 1970s, the media periodically drags out this question and dusts it off, on morning shows, in breezy articles in women’s magazines, and frightfully on prime time news programs.  There is no good answer to this question.  Women and men who say women cannot have a successful career and a fulfilling family at the same time are demonized as anti-women and those who say that they can are often believed to be fooling themselves.  Or they are privileged women who have a lot of help.  Or both.  The trouble is when we start having this debate (again and again and again) it is difficult to tell whether we get anywhere.  Or if something else pops up to distract our attention elsewhere.

The most reasoned statement on women having it all I have read lately is this one by Kristin van Ogtrop, who is the managing editor of Real Simple and author of the blog, Adventures in Chaos.  Van Ogtrop correctly identifies that men never seem to have to answer this question.  They are not judged in the same way as being good fathers or husbands by how much time they spend with their children.  Often men are celebrated for doing the very things that women are condemned for (i.e. bringing children to work, taking personal time when children are sick).  It’s all a mess.  Add to that race and class and it gets even messier.  Who is actually having this debate?  It is most often white upper middle class women who have a degree of economic security.  About eight years ago, Caitlin Flannagan published an article in The Atlantic, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement: Dispatches from the Nanny Wars,” which reviewed several books new books at the time dealing with working mothers.  Flannagan pointed out that economically successful  working mothers had their success because they had hired a nanny or a housekeeper.  (And my how she was vilified for her article!) The suggestion in 2004 and again in 2012 is that if a woman works full time in a demanding job, something will fall through the cracks in other aspects of her life (home, family, personal life).

Laura Essig brings this question of class and race to the discussion as well in her recent post for the Chronicle of Higher Education blog, Brainstorm.  In her essay, “Does Good Mother = Miserable Woman?” Essig discusses a recent study of mothers who practice “intensive parenting” are more likely prone to depression and ultimately are bad parents because they are terribly unhappy as individuals.  They put their children’s needs and happiness above their own to the detriment of their own fulfillment.  This sounds vaguely familiar–vaguely post WWII-1950s-June Cleaver.

Essig goes on to say:

I think the answer is that I could look like June Cleaver if I wanted to. I am white and middle class and could vacuum in pearls and a sweater set if necessary.  For white, middle-class mothers like me there is particular pressure to be “perfect” and somehow perfect means selfless, sacrificing, and preternaturally patient. The reasons this particular pressure is focused on white, middle-class mothers are both historical and contemporary, but have much to do with the invention of the “lady” as a way of creating class and race hierarchies in the 19th century. As “lady” was expanded from nobility to a larger middle class, working-class and poor women were excluded from good mothering (as well as the economic and racial privileges thereof).

This whole question, Essig suggests, is about white middle and upper middle class professional women, but what is the larger concern?  Is our society, culture, whatnot crumbling into ruins because women work?  Are children being warped?  Is the economic crisis the fault of professional women?  Is the fate of the Western Free World once again resting on the diminutive shoulders of women everywhere?  OK, I may be going too far here.

As I thought about this resurrected question of good mother/bad mother, two things come to mind (for me): First, this is all very unfair to women who struggle with whether they should work, stay home with the children, or find some middle ground.  Second, I couldn’t help but think about an essay I read in the early days of my graduate work in women’s history.  It was a state-of-the-field historiographic essay written by Gerda Lerner, “Placing Women in History,” published in Signs in 1975 (it was a paper given at the Berkshire Conference prior to that).  Lerner traces the development of the field of women’s history over five or so years of existence, going through various methodological approaches.  The one thing that sticks out for me in this article is that she charges women’s historians to ask new questions and to de-center what is considered the norm; these are not new ideas for women’s history, but they were at the time.  Up to that point (and arguably still today) we ask questions and judge past events based upon what is normal for men’s experiences.  Aren’t we still doing that when we keep going back and back and back yet again to this questions of what women should and should not do to have it all?   In the face of other recent rants (a la Rush Limbaugh) about what women should and should not do to be “good women,” what purpose does this serve?

Ultimately, I am as guilty as the next person by once again addressing this issue and not moving to an answer.  I think about the parents I know today who are committed to their children, who decided what is right for their families within the context of their circumstances (economic or otherwise), who may be judged because they don’t work or they do work, and I do not see how this continued debate is helping.

I used the King James Bible version of Proverbs 31 for the title of this post.  The entire passage is here.  I think of this passage when I contemplate historically the role that women are to play in American society.  This construction of womanhood was valued in colonial America, through the nineteenth century Cult of Domesticity, and onto the twentieth century and the myth of June Cleaver.  Today, are women only valuable if they do everything, at home and beyond?