Womb Envy, Title Envy

How much of the reaction to Palin and now to Gillibrand comes because they seem to be carrying infants in many photos and carrying them as they discuss policy? Traditionally, women have been granted more power after menopause. However, a woman carrying a baby – even one she has had relatively late in life – is clearly not post-menopausal.

While some who opposed Palin argued that her only qualification was not choosing an abortion, it seemed a strange observation, especially when she’d defeated ex-governors of both parties. Of course it reveals much about those who made that charge. The children weren’t props but part of her life. One of the few television series that tried to capture the casual and ever-present impact of children on professional couples was Thirty-something..

I was reminded of that in Foster’s interesting review of the new Zwick movie. Dowd’s response to Gillibrand provides another example: the Mommy wars are really about Mommies. Susan Faludi’s response to that series, like Maureen Dowd’s to Gillibrand and like some to Palin, arises from anxieties, prompted by the picture of woman with child; those most ill at ease are likely to be women. This dis-ease may well be subterranean -most biological prodding is.

The problems arise not because we women have it rough, but because we have choices so rich we wonder about that green grass over there. Willa Cather, that devoted scholar attracted to women, devoted herself to her art more easily with few demands of children and a friend more like a wife. But in My Antonia she captures the joyful life force of a heroine with a happy marriage and big family. Kate Chopin, whose marriage was apparently happy and certainly fruitful, was left as a widow at a young age and with six children to raise. She did so in a house full of children and relations. So, her one novel, The Awakening, follows a woman who has few and wants fewer relationships, who sheds her domestic responsibilities. Both imagined – with sympathy – lives quite different from their own. Perhaps it is because they can imagine their lives as different or perhaps Dowd and Faludi lack “Theory of Mind ” – they can’t imagine a different life. But, many a domestic goddess may also have trouble imagining the satisfactions of a career woman’s life.

It is a problem because it is a choice. No amount of gender role redefining will make men the childbearers nor child nursers. (This is ignoring the fact – and it is a fact – that women take more pleasure in mothering.) And many men still do not feel comfortable (they might hesitate to say “manly”) with the role of house husband. A woman who doesn’t work outside the home may be dissed – but hers remains a valid role.

In the early part of the last century, a large number of women (in percentages that would see a steep drop during the depression and not go back up until the seventies) chose professional or academic careers. But they seldom married, were seldom encouraged to marry, and sometimes would not have had the professonal positions they had if married. That we have changed this approach may have freed women, but it has also led to more extreme class distinctions as doctor marries doctor and blue collar worker marries blue collar worker. We have moved from a class hierarchy to a profession one.

The divisions have less force when we have smaller families and housework is no longer time-consuming. But the poignancy of women’s decisions remain. So, they prompt women’s reactions out of proportion to the politicians themselves – or irrelevant to their policies. Because this tension is real, these desires universal, they will not die easily. Post-menopausal women, of course, prompt less ambivalence when they command.

As an aside, I have more sympathy for the “mommies” – I think child-raising and keeping a marriage together are more important than any career. On the other hand, I’m not naturally a mommy myself – I have, as my children despair, a tendency to confuse their birthdays let alone their persons, I didn’t stay home – the person who was their mother in many ways was my mother-in-law. But this, of course, led to familial tensions. I understand the mommy wars because I’ve fought them internally; I suspect my mother-in-law may have been right about the big things – and I also suspect I could never have been the warm and omnipresent mother that children, in those first years at least, need. I also feel that people like Palin and Gillibrand must be superwomen – I know the time constraints of smaller families and less challenging work. Of course, that leads me to respect them.

Margaret Fuller thought about this a lot, but we will never know how successfully she transcended the dilemma she described. At last with husband and child, she returned to America; standing on the deck of the sinking ship, she was unwilling to be separated from them. Thus, all went down – husband, wife, child, wife’s history of Italy. We’ll never know what she feared in that choice and in that storm. Here is the conclusion of her essay, written a few years before she went off to fight in the Italian revolution and meet Ossoli, the man ten years her junior and father of her child:

A profound thinker has said “no married woman can represent the female world, for she belongs to her husband. The idea of woman must be represented by a virgin.”

But that is the very fault of marriage, and of the present relation between the sexes, that the woman does belong to the man, instead of forming a whole with him. Were it otherwise there would be no such limitation to the thought.

Woman, self-centred, would never be absorbed by any relation; it would be only an experience to her as to man. It is a vulgar error that love, a love to woman is her whole existence; she also is born for Truth and Love in their universal energy. Would she but assume her inheritance, Mary would not be the only Virgin Mother. Not Manzoni alone would celebrate in his wife the virgin mind with the maternal wisdom and conjugal affections. The soul is ever young, ever virgin.

And will not she soon appear? The woman who shall vindicate their birthright for all women; who shall teach them what to claim, and how to use what they obtain? Shall not her name be for her era Victoria, for her country and her life Virginia? Yet predictions are rash; she herself must teach us to give her the fitting name.

(Margaret Fuller: The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.

The Dial, IV, July 1843. Hypertext by Ann Woodlief.

6 thoughts on “Womb Envy, Title Envy”

  1. Ginny,

    Have you read much Anita Brookner? I ask because she is a writer who has mused, beautifully and quite unfashionably, about contemporary feminism. It’s not what you think, and it’s not what her critics think, either. Well, that’s my thesis.

    She’s a writer that tends to get a bit of an eye-roll because of her sensibilities, but, she has that Booker and all those, one senses, reluctantly positive, Kakutani reviews.

    I had a hard time with this: choices are plentiful, and then you make them, and they are less plentiful. Men do this, too, we just don’t tend to make such a poetic fuss over it, I suppose.

    And, to your original thesis, no, I don’t agree, entirely. Any happy, healthy, successful conservative seems to get strange reaction from certain quarters. I don’t think what President Bush got in terms of criticism was any less harsh than Palin.

    I think my working mother, who had a hot dinner on the table every day, and kept a beautiful house, and worked hard at her job, was a SUPER woman. I often feel I don’t measure up. She’s amazing.

  2. Oh, I agree that conservatives get a bad press – and that Gillibrand as pro-NRA is likely to, even if she is in many ways a liberal democrat. I just think that babies make people uneasy; raising children is so hard and we can screw it up in so many ways that we are always a bit insecure. And if you haven’t had kids, you feel a certain sadness, too. In other words, you can’t win. But our own ambivalences lead us to strike out in ways prompted by these deep, intense, and mostly pretty ambivalent and chaotic feelings. And I do think that women gain power in primitive societies when they are no longer childbearing – but seeing a woman with political power and a child stirs us in some interesting ways.

    I haven’t read Brookner. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Ginny: “But our own ambivalences lead us to strike out in ways prompted by these deep, intense, and mostly pretty ambivalent and chaotic feelings.”

    Yes, that’s true, I agree. Many of the medical residents I supervise have children, and because I don’t have children, I often feel I am simultaneously *too hard* and *too easy* on them. I am concerned that they spend enough time with their children and want them to have time off for that, but, also, I want them to be VERY prepared for their jobs because it won’t be easy, balancing medicine and children. Yes, the more I think about it, you may be correct.

  4. …”that’s a common immigrant child way of thinking. Our parents’ stories, to our eyes, are heroic.”

    They probably are heroic; it’s just that others haven’t known them, and unless somebody gets the stories from them and writes them down, nobody ever will. The immigrants of the past century have had to bridge enormous gaps, from very primitive, impoverished societites to the world’s most modern industrial civilization. It required amazing resiliancy and perseverance to succeed.

  5. I had children at a relatively young age, before I had quite figured out what I wanted in a career. Many times I was told that I should have gone to law school and maybe I would have if I hadn’t decided to stay home and raise my children. As it was, I dropped out a few times to have a child and went back, finally getting an English degree 16 years after entering college. Now that they are older and pretty much on their own, I am finding my career in the business world these past 10 years or so and it has been a big adjustment to raising my last child (an 11-year-old boy) who was in child care as opposed to being a stay at home mom. I can see and understand both sides of this issue. But, down in my heart, I believe very firmly that for me raising my own children was an experience and an education in itself, even though I was out of the work force for quite a while. When in an interview I’ve been asked about dealing with difficult people or disgruntled customers, all I’ve said is, “No problem, I’ve raised teenagers! Now I’m pretty bullet proof.” I admired Sarah Palin for her commitment to her job and raising her children but I don’t think I’d have the energy to do anything like that! I truly don’t feel like I missed out on a high powered career, my stream just diverted in a different direction…

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