Sunday, November 28, 2004

The backlash

In a recent Age newspaper column Joanna Murray-Smith questioned the feminist values she had been brought up with. She felt that feminist careerism hadn't left her enough time to properly mother her children.

Predictably there was a backlash. There have been five newspaper columns in The Ageattacking the single Joanna Murray-Smith column. On Friday alone, there were two such columns.

There was nothing terribly new in these opposing pieces. One of the Friday columns, by a single mother and full-time writer, Allison Croggon, was most interesting for the kind of liberal language it used.

According to Allison Croggon motherhood has been a lot more fun than she expected. However, she describes the "role" of being a mother, rather than the "tasks" (which she enjoys), as an "iron cage" from which women have to seek "freedom".

Why attack the "role" of motherhood in this way? Because liberalism (on which feminism is based) insists that we choose our own roles. Traditional motherhood is not a role that women choose for themselves but is, according to liberal thought, a mere "biological destiny" from which women have to escape. That's why Allison Croggon can simultaneously confess that she enjoys the actual work of motherhood, but still insist that women need to "escape" from the "iron cage" of the motherhood role.

Again, you can see the language of liberalism when Allison Croggon twice talks about "negotiating" her role as mother. She says of the rights of women versus those of children that "These rights are not incompatible. They require constant negotiation" and later of her family that "For the last 16 years we have lived argumentatively and hilariously together, negotiating all our different needs."

Why is negotiation such a key word for liberals? Because it helps to sustain the pretence that we are rationally choosing our own roles and identity. When we negotiate we use reason to decide on outcomes and we finish by giving our assent to a decision. This means that we are creating ourselves through individual will and reason as liberalism wants us to do.

Of course, as a conservative male the idea that I would "negotiate" what I'm supposed to be doing as a father with my own young children seems absurd. For a liberal, though, believing that you're a mother by negotiation makes the role appear more legitimate and respectable.

The other Friday column was written by an academic and writer, Liz Conor. She does not deny the basic assertion made by Joanna Murray-Smith, that important things get lost when women try to combine full-time careerism with motherhood. She admits that,

Every week I drop a bundle of some description in the effort to combine care and career. My kids will give graphic accounts to their therapists in years to come.

She writes also that "the present conditions under which [women] are mothering are doing their heads in."

Her argument, though, is that feminism is not to blame for this. First, because feminists aren't so anti-maternal as people generally believe, and second, because things would be better if only men gave up work to take over the motherhood role.

For Liz Conor, therefore, the task is to keep up the feminist fight, until men have changed their ways and stay at home to care for children.

This argument presumes, of course, that men and women have no masculine or feminine nature and are therefore interchangeable in their roles within the family. It presumes also that the traditional male role is unnecessary and that male involvement in the family can only mean taking over mothering tasks.

I believe Liz Conor is wrong in presuming these things. The fact that after several decades of feminism only 1% of Australian families have stay at home fathers also strongly suggests that fatherhood and motherhood roles are not as collapsible as Liz Conor believes.

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