Even without the amplification of today’s digital platforms, GenXers were still well-schooled in social polarization four decades ago. Simply utter the terms ‘latch key kids’ or ‘mommy wars’ to women of this generation and we shudder at an unsolved puzzle that has followed us into adulthood. And surely we should have known that fighting against each other instead of a patriarchal construct would end badly for everyone? Because had we sorted out the stay-at-home mom vs. working woman fight any time over the past 40 years, we might not be facing the social and economic crisis we are today.
A War Everyone and No One Saw Coming
The world knew that someday a pandemic would be upon us, but perhaps didn’t see as clearly how it would reverse decades of slow movement toward gender equality. Nor how it would cripple global economies. Heading into a third-quarter of work-from-home with children out of school and vulnerable relatives needing assistance, women have borne the brunt of this non-work, work. Even in two-parent households (regardless of the sex of the parents) one is, out of necessity, taking on the lion’s share. Coupled with being furloughed, and in some communities (Communities of Color specifically) suffering higher rates of Covid-19 infection, the exit of women from paid work is devastation that will be hard to recover from.
A Look Back
From Diane Keaton wearing a suit and awkwardly holding a kid on her hip in the late eighties. To reading Allison Pearson’s 2002 I Don’t Know How She Does It and the 2003 New York Times article heralding the “Opt Out Revolution” (which quickly reversed itself). We were already getting dizzy. Then we thought we heard the sound of glass breaking (a female president!); but it turns out there wasn’t even a crack. And now here we are, 40- and 50-something women (…GenXers that is; because all women are in this big ‘ole boat right now) teaching our kids science and how to read. Could it have been different? A quick (and surely incomplete) timeline…
The eighties introduce us to the ‘mommy wars’
We scarfed Oreos at the homes of friends whose moms worked in the 80s (a ‘nanny’ was something that only existed in the movies… not in our suburban homes). But we really didn’t see our stay-at-home moms baking cookies either. There is no lack of research and social insight into the path to gender roles in the eighties. From the happy housewife of the 50s to the Gloria Steinem 70s… it was a hard-fought journey to believing we could do anything. And yet GenXers seemed to take it all in stride; not feeling particularly hamstrung in what we could achieve academically or maybe even career-wise (which seemed so far off).
But then the mantras and themes of our life-long struggle started to manifest themselves. The most notable: Child magazine coining the term ‘mommy wars’ in the early 80s followed by Newsweek letting us know that by working we’d likely become lonely spinsters; ‘more likely to be killed by a terrorist‘, in fact, than marry over the age of 40.
Unidentified Man (Actor): You know, it’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to get married over the age of 40.-From the 1993 Script of Sleepless in Seattle
MEG RYAN (Actress): (As Annie Reed) That’s not true. That statistic is not true.
ROSIE O’DONNELL (Actress): (As Becky) That’s right. It’s not true. But it feels true.
The nineties tell us we’ll forever be single
Maybe it was all true? In the early nineties women started outnumbering men in achieving bachelor’s degrees. And then a recession sent (those who could afford it) to graduate school. From Ally McBeal to Sex in the City, what couldn’t we achieve, we thought. Well, apparently we couldn’t easily get married (Newsweek’s “Marriage Crunch” discussion continued; and then there was Carrie Bradshaw’s journey). And if we decided to go at it on our own? Well, a fast track to hell, apparently. Case-in-point, the outrage caused in 1992 by the fictional Murphy Brown having a child out-of-wedlock. Proclaimed by Vice President Dan Quayle as setting a poor example for American women. Bottom line: damned if you do; damned if you don’t.
2000s meant ‘opting out’ … and then back in
The back and forth never stopped. Some of us got the job, the partner, the child; but were ultimately privileged enough to ‘opt out’; so proclaimed the New York Times Lisa Belkin’s “Opt-Out Revolution”. The article took on the “phenomenon” of women who chose to forgo their high-powered careers and advanced degrees to instead dig into full-time motherhood. And guess what? Whiplash. A decade later the women wanted back in: (“The Opt-Out Generation Want Back In”). And even if all of these ‘defining’ articles presented a fair look into choice and sacrifice, the headline-grabbing nature of it all was/is exhausting.
How do we get off the merry-go-round?
And not only did the mommy wars never actually abate; the fires burned stronger and the dialogue became more parsed. Anne-Marie Slaughter brought the flame to the social media era with her polarizing 2012 Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All“. Which ironically brought her so much attention that her career skyrocketed albeit in a different direction and now she’s had a sort-of ‘change of heart.‘ And, finally, then the very privileged (though well-meaning) Sheryl Sandberg who suggested we all just push a little harder. With our reticence to ‘lean in’ being the titular problem.
The Mommy Wars Face a Reckoning
So here we are. A pandemic has ironically removed all discussion of choice (which has over the decades been relegated to those privileged enough to consider her position). We have spent so much time arguing, postulating and navel gazing we forgot to consider what would happen if none of us had a choice. Nobody was prepared to homeschool kids, care for sick family members, cook, clean, squeeze in ‘paid’ work, or forgo it all together. And no amount of money can make it go away. Between August and September of this year, a staggering 865,000 women left the workforce as a result. And there is no real, meaningful end in site.
While the damage is done, perhaps from the ashes true change can come. Here are just a few ideas how:
Finally recognize the work done at home
Perhaps it’s Universal Basic Income or meaningful corporate participation in helping parents and caregivers take care of family. From daycare, to tutoring to support for seniors. Surely there are smart people out there who have ideas worth seriously considering. So let’s start listening.
Support female entrepreneurs…like really support them
A combination of ‘necessity’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘opportunity’ entrepreneurship had driven the number of women-owned businesses to record numbers in 2018 and 2019. But investment is still only funneling to the (perceived) high-revenue opportunities and few women-owned businesses appear to qualify. Had investors thought about investing in businesses differently, would there have been a cushion around this pandemic?
Learn from Women of Color
Black-owned female businesses, in particular, are outpacing every group in new business creation. But while clocking women-owned businesses in numbers, the revenue disparity affects us all. According to American Express: “The disparity has an enormous effect on the U.S. economy. Four million new jobs and $981 billion in revenue would be added if average revenue of minority women-owned firms matched that of white women-owned businesses.”
Think differently about where we work
Remember when Marissa Mayer, queen of mommy wars, and then CEO of Yahoo! put the kibosh on remote working in 2013 while simultaneously installing a nursery in her office? Well, considering she is no longer CEO and the company essentially ceases to exist (sorry Verizon) maybe that was a bad idea. And surprise… most industries have been able to survive and thrive while operating remote. So, it shouldn’t just be tech companies introducing flexibility into their workplaces…post pandemic. It’s time to redefine the ‘workplace.’
Stop fetishizing at-home businesses as quaint side gigs
Selling on eBay, Etsy or having a blog have are often looked at as a side gig to other work or full-time parenting. So these business often don’t become much more as a result. Women need the support networks, skills, resources and self-belief so that they can turn a skill or passion into a ‘real’ business.
Please Don’t Give Up
So now we implore you. Please, please do not call quits on using your smarts, skills and overall awesomeness to create good in the world. Let’s declare the mommy wars over and focus on finding a solution to work and to life.
Women need the support and space to excel at any work they do. Be it child-rearing, caring for elderly relatives, temporary homeschooling or trying to turn an idea into a moneymaker. We need more networks that provide skills, support and funding. We need women to change course when they need to and continue to find an opportunity to contribute. Run for office, try something new, but please don’t give up on yourself or the greater good. We were led astray and forced to fight with one another rather than fixing the problem. But now the time is ours and we can use the super powers inherent to womanakind.