Amplifying Disappointment in an Age of Female Empowerment

Orgad’s interviews highlight very meaningful themes: the fact that oppression can be experienced alongside privilege; that structural inequality masks what are perceived as personal choices; and how the public discourses and media representations of ‘choice’ shape the self-identity of women who in fact did not have much of a choice.

~ Dafna Lemish, Rutgers University

We’re kicking off Women’s History Month with a special post by Shani Orgad, author of Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality.  In this post, Orgad discusses the disappointment professional women feel in deciding between their careers and motherhood more than a century and a half after Lucy Stone’s famous speech in October 1855.

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On 17 October 1855, at the anniversary of the Women’s Rights Convention held in Cincinnati, Ohio, the suffragist and abolitionist, Lucy Stone, delivered one of her greatest speeches. “From the first years to which my memory stretches, I have been a disappointed woman,” Stone stated. “In education, in marriage, in religion, in everything, disappointment is the lot of woman. It shall be the business of my life to deepen that disappointment in every woman’s heart until she bows down to it no longer.”

Over a century later, American feminist scholar Betty Friedan famously highlighted that—despite the many advances that had been made since the end of the 19th century—disappointment was still the lot of many women. The women Friedan surveyed in her germinal book The Feminine Mystique seemingly embodied that ‘Happy Housewife’—the idealized wife-and-mother image that populated 1950s and 1960s magazines, advertisements, newspapers and advice literature. Yet instead of fulfilment, these women expressed a profound sense of emptiness. Around the same time, in the UK, sociologist Hannah Gavron described how middle- and working-class women were conflicted about their experience of being ‘captive wives’ and ‘housebound mothers.’

The disappointments of Friedan’s and Gavron’s generation propelled mass political struggles, particularly, the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s, which led to significant social transformations. Today, we continue to bear the fruit of this radical era. In the US and the UK the majority of women now participate in the workforce, and the ‘Happy Housewife’ is no longer the feminine ideal. Instead, we are regaled with media stories, reports, social media posts and discussions celebrating women who assert themselves and achieve influential positions, especially as they combine their professional ambitions with motherhood. Self-confidence, empowerment and leaning in are du jour in discussions related to women in the workplace. Indeed, if the media buzz around successful women in the world of paid work is any indication, empowerment, rather than disappointment, seems to be the new lot of women today.

So, the women made a choice to quit their careers, but it was a choice forced by toxic workplaces utterly incompatible with family life, deep-seated sexist norms and practices, and powerful cultural narratives that still regard mothers as the ‘natural’ primary parents.

However, my new book Heading Home: Motherhood, Work and the Failed Promise of Equality tells a very different story. It tells the story of professional women who quit successful and rewarding careers as lawyers, accountants, teachers, engineers, marketing managers, and designers in order to take care of their families. Most of these women entered the workforce in the late 1980s and early 1990s, excited by the prospect of ‘girl power’ and the promise of ‘having it all.’ They advanced in their careers and many reached senior roles. However, when they started a family, and particularly after having a second child, they decided to leave their jobs. Their two-earner households could not cope with the pressures of combining highly demanding careers and parenting. So, the women made a choice to quit their careers, but it was a choice forced by toxic workplaces utterly incompatible with family life, deep-seated sexist norms and practices, and powerful cultural narratives that still regard mothers as the ‘natural’ primary parents.

Of course, these women derived meaningful pleasure investing time, skills, and emotional labor in their families. Simultaneously, however, they also felt deep disappointment: disappointment that they sacrificed years of education, training and rewarding careers for their families; and disappointment at a culture and society that continuously insist that women are equal to men in every sphere, yet do not create the conditions required for achieving true gender equality. They also felt a painful sense that they had disappointed others: their mothers–the generation of Betty Friedan–many of whom had had either to give up their jobs to look after children or could not afford to quit their jobs; their daughters–for failing to live up to the ideal of the perfect mother and worker; and crucially, themselves. “My 16-year-old feminist self would be horrified seeing me not having a kind of role outside of the home,” one woman told me with deep sadness. She felt that the decision she had made to quit her job as an engineer to look after the children so that her husband can carry on with his career, was a betrayal of her desires and her very identity.

She felt that the decision she had made to quit her job as an engineer to look after the children so that her husband can carry on with his career, was a betrayal of her desires and her very identity.

Yet these painful disappointments remained largely buried. Perceived as the fortunate beneficiaries of ‘choice feminism,’ reaping the rewards of the abundant possibilities opened up to women of their generation, these women felt they had no legitimate space to talk about their disappointment. Having ostensibly chosen to leave paid work, they felt they had no right to express their dissatisfaction and disappointment, especially as they occupied a role that is still widely perceived as women’s ‘natural’ and most important job.

This self-silencing ensures that these women’s families continue to run smoothly, and that their experiences of inequality and feelings of frustration and anger are rarely expressed. As a forty-three-year-old mother of two who had left her job as an actress eleven years earlier put it so poignantly, “the family life is set up on me being here as a taxi service, as a collection point.” If she were to realize herself professionally, this deeply unequal arrangement would have to be disrupted. As she underscored, to do so she’d have to “throw the table over and go: ‘Mom wants a job! You know, you can’t all just depend on me anymore. Mom wants a job!’”

It is time that we tackle the structural, social, and cultural roots of gender inequality in the workplace, in the home, and in society at large, to ensure that women no longer have to bow to disappointment.

It may seem odd that privileged and educated women like the ones I interviewed mute their desires and silence their disappointments in an era of #MeToo and the celebration of women who ‘roar’ their desires. However, my book shows just how powerful messages about a woman’s duty to be the ‘foundation parent’ and the ‘good mother’ are; how stubborn the unequal distribution of labor in the home continues to be and how caring is still largely associated with women and is still hugely devalued. It also underscores how the heterosexual family continues to be an inflexible structure with rigid gender roles, and how, despite the noise about gender equality in the workplace, many workplaces remain extremely rigid and incompatible with family life.

It is now more than a century and a half after Lucy Stone’s famous speech. It is time that we dismantle these stubbornly sexist structures once and for all, structures that have silenced women’s desires and sustained inequality for far too long. It is time that we tackle the structural, social, and cultural roots of gender inequality in the workplace, in the home, and in society at large, to ensure that women no longer have to bow to disappointment.

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