Remember Elizabeth Wurtzel? Quick recap: she wrote a book about depression and addiction called Prozac Nation (maybe you saw the movie), got famous, then posed naked on the cover of her next book, Bitch, flipping us all off. She’s now a lawyer and one would assume has a slightly more settled life than the memoir-making chaos that led to her early publishing success.
But she wants you to remember that middle finger. She’s flipping it again, and this time it’s directed at women. Namely, those who choose domestic responsibilities over career ones. In a new essay in The Nation, Wurtzel blames who she calls “1% moms” for the failure of feminism and the reason the war on women exists.
The bulk of her argument is directed at the Desperate Housewife set—the moms with expense accounts (provided by their husbands), nannies and acrylic fingernails that eschew the dirty work of motherhood. Some of them have Ivy League degrees. Others just lucked out marrying a rich guy.
These women exist and, yes, I agree that their “work” as stay-at-home mothers is far different than nearly every other mom in the country. But the problem with Wurtzel’s argument is that her finger pointing drifts. In one paragraph she calls out the 1% women, and in the next, she makes a grand assumption that women who choose to stay home to raise their children and take care of the household are betraying their potential, and have the unique luxury to do so only because they’re wealthy.
“To be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege, and most of the housewives I have ever met — none of whom do anything around the house — live in New York City and Los Angeles, far from Peoria. Only in these major metropolises are there the kinds of jobs in finance and entertainment that allow for a family to live luxe on a single income.”
Staying home to raise children is, indeed, a privilege, especially in today’s economy. But non-millionaire moms do it all the time. Perhaps the reason she’s never met a truly middle-class stay-at-home mom is because she only operates in the worlds of New York and Los Angeles. This is a typical problem of national journalists, especially those with any type of link to the entertainment industry. I, myself, lived in the NY-LA void most of my career, covering entertainment, working for multinational companies, and critiquing culture with tunnel vision. I recently moved to a Northern California suburb to follow my husband to an amazing career opportunity and raise my son around his family. I’m such a shitty feminist, right?
I can now be classified as a “stay-at-home mom,” despite running a website, writing books and essays, and teaching writing online—all done during baby sleep hours and the few hours of family childcare I am privileged to enjoy each week.
My household went from two middle-class incomes to one. We are fortunate that my husband’s job offers him a generous income. It supports us without me working full-time but we are hardly 1%-ers. I do yoga in my bedroom while my son naps, not in a fancy studio. A trip to Whole Foods is made with caution, and vacations are of the “stay” variety for the foreseeable future. We get by comfortably but every day I don’t work means less in savings, college and emergency accounts. And this was a conscious, deliberate, important decision for my family. I could go back to full-time work at any point, spend most of that income on childcare, and stop being such a bad, betraying feminist. But the time I am able to spend with my son during his first years of life is far more important than putting my fancy college degree to “good use.”
My household is hardly unique. There are approximately 5 million stay-at-home moms in the country. Many still work part-time from home, be it for financial necessity or emotional fulfillment (for me, it’s a little bit of both). These women aren’t kicking back and watching daytime TV and eating Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches. They are on a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week shift of cooking, cleaning, teaching, calming, nurturing, preventing, protecting and innovating that never stops. They are sacrificing income that they probably desperately need, and they’re doing it on purpose. Living on a shoestring budget or even struggling for a few years is worth it to many moms if it means giving their children the best they have to offer them. Or even if it means not missing that first step, first word, and other daily joys of watching your child grow before your eyes. Men need feminism (the answer to ever having reasonable family-leave policies) so that they have more opportunities to enjoy this too.
Women who choose to go back to work after baby, or those who don’t have any choice but to, are not better feminists than I am. And this is why feminism needs to be—and is—a flexible ideology. It’s inclusive because we all need it. Wurtzel’s picture of a perfect feminist is this: A woman who gets an advanced degree, works in a prestigious field, never marries and certainly doesn’t stay home with children, if she decides to have them, which she probably won’t. This antiquated vision of feminism is the real problem with the movement today, insofar as the more people who think this, the less informed participants feminism has.
When second-wave feminists prescribed similar me-first scenarios for themselves and other women in the 1960s and 1970s, the drama was necessary. Social movements must shake up the status quo in order to take root and awaken a collective consciousness. See: civil rights, anti-war protests, suffrage, etc. Today we’re fortunate to have made enough progress that we can live our feminism as individuals. Every woman gets to decide what her feminist life looks like. Social responsibility is still important. Not kicking other women down to get ahead is critical. Continuing to push through gender barriers and glass ceilings is a fight that remains fierce and necessary. And perhaps most importantly, we need to stop attacking feminism for causing the very problems and inequalities that it alone can fix.