Retrograde Feminism

In 10 Colleen Carroll Campbell on 2012/08/10 at 9:11 AM

Feminists who scold stay-at-home mothers misunderstand education and motherhood

The New York Times recently published a front-page story on the increasing willingness of Ivy League women to make career sacrifices for their future families.  Based partly on a survey of 138 undergraduate women at Yale, the article reported that more than half of the respondents plan to cut back on work outside the home or stop working entirely when they have children.  The piece also cited recent Yale alumni studies which showed that nearly half of female graduates in their early 40s no longer work full-time.

Reactions to the article were intense.  Feminist pundits and bloggers pounced on the report, questioning its methodology and mocking the “throwback views” of the “smug” and “oblivious” Yale women.

“These future moms betray a startling combination of naiveté and privilege,” wrote author Karen Stabiner, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed typical of the backlash.  “To plot this kind of future, a woman has to have access to a pool of wealthy potential husbands, she has to stay married at a time when half of marriages end in divorce, and she has to ignore the history of the women’s movement.”

Most women do not have as many career choices as Ivy League graduates, and many women who work outside the home do so because of financial pressures that some of these Yale graduates may never face.

Still, if feminism is truly about choice, why should women who have the opportunity to devote more time to motherhood be condemned for seizing it?  Why should they sacrifice the right to raise their children as they see fit simply because their lifestyle does not conform to the ideals of the “women’s movement?”  And what sort of women’s movement promotes the retrograde idea that women who plan to be full-time mothers are guilty of ingratitude for their first-rate education, or are even unworthy of it?

That idea was repugnant to early feminists.  Mary Wollstonecraft, widely considered the “mother of feminism,” criticized it in her landmark 1792 treatise, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”  In a society that considered higher education largely irrelevant for women because of their role as mothers, Wollstonecraft argued that the education of women was all the more important because mothers play such a vital role in shaping the next generation.

She wrote: “As the rearing of children, that is, the laying a foundation of sound health both of body and mind in the rising generation, has justly been insisted on as the peculiar destination of woman, the ignorance that incapacitates them must be contrary to the order of things.  And I contend that their minds can take in much more, and ought to do so, or they will never become sensible mothers.”

Today’s feminists seem to have lost Wollstonecraft’s appreciation of education’s intrinsic worth, and their resentment of highly educated stay-at-home mothers reveals a flawed understanding of both education and motherhood.

As John Henry Newman wrote in The Idea of a University, knowledge is “its own end.”  An education that imparts knowledge and the ability to think critically has value regardless of which career path a graduate takes.  And graduates who choose to share the fruits of their education primarily with their children are making a significant contribution to society.  They are forming citizens and guiding the intellectual and moral development of the next generation.

Rather than being scolded, these young women should be congratulated for realistically assessing the demands of career and motherhood, and making provisions now to achieve a balance that will suit their families in the future.  A women’s movement that condemns them is not worthy of the name.

Our Sunday Visitor  November 20, 2005 

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. 


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