I grew up in a working-middle class neighborhood where all of the houses looked exactly the same, a handful of people had college degrees and most led average, comfortable suburban lifestyles. Throughout elementary school, all of the mothers would gather in the cul de sac with lawn chairs and chitchat while watching the kids play. It is probably a familiar image: Mothers staying home, caring for children, cooking and cleaning. This was the norm that remained unquestioned. In this context, standards for success were clear. Stable families with two children and no talk of divorce was the ideal that made people the happiest, and what I, and my young neighbors, would one day aspire to.
But as I grew up, these standards for success became hazier. Returning from Duke to my neighborhood with internships and job opportunities was definitely good reason for my neighbors to be impressed, but my pale skin, frizzy hair and glasses didn’t mesh with the image of what a girl should be achieving in college: greek letters and a boyfriend. With some haughty sense of superiority, I often casually dismiss the questions surrounding my dating and social life. I silently scoff to myself, “No, I didn’t go to a formal, but have you read Simone de Beauvoir?” I pity them. To me, they were those poor mothers trapped in a repressive, patriarchal regime that I’ve somehow freed myself of by identifying as a feminist. On my most recent trip home, however, I was able to interrogate my obnoxious, entitled attitude and the work that we, fellow feminists, are doing for the moms in my cul de sac.
I found myself having a conversation with my next-door neighbor who has a son my age and a daughter going off to college. Immediately I saw within her a never-before-seen sense of empowerment that came with deciding to separate from her husband. She confidently talked about her personal life and struggles as well as her hopes and goals for the future, and then reality sunk in. She told me her husband never wanted her to work and wanted her to stay home with the kids. She had gotten an administrative job, but was terrified because she had no idea how to operate within a workplace. Her finances were always tied with her husband’s. She had absolutely no credit, making it extremely difficult to get loans or make large purchases. Another neighbor consoled her by telling her she shouldn’t worry, that she was “still young-looking and fit.”
My mother and many of her friends are facing situations where they stayed at home, but now their children are leaving the house and they feel like they are losing their sense of purpose. One woman asked, “Where did my goals go? I used to have so many.” This really struck me. At a time in my life in which I have many goals and can’t foresee a time when I am without any sense of direction, I came to terms with the fact that this could easily one day be me.
I felt hopeless and guilty. I spend a lot of time critiquing feminism for being neglectful of issues affecting women of color and working class people. I despise elitist, white-girl, upper middle class feminism and make fun of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” Yet, here I saw a need for empowerment and no clear means of how to address it. Who is fighting for middle-class housewives? And how can we make feminism appealing to them?
It pains me to see my mother feel worthless. My mother was lucky. She had full agency when deciding to stay home, while most women don’t. She even pursued a master’s degree when we were in school, but could never finish because I would be sick, or I would be too busy. She was forced to sacrifice her identity when she made the decision to be a stay-at-home mom. Does it really have to be this way? Do we have to leave our middle-class mothers without a sense of self or financial security? And how does this whole feminism thing work in their favor?
While I am completely in favor of media and the blogosphere creating movements to make feminism more inclusive, quite honestly, I don’t think this is going to help the women in my neighborhood. Third-wave feminism and viral-feminism are great tools for empowering the somewhat privileged girls of my generation, but what about our mothers? To them, feminism is still that man-hating, bra-burning thing that girls who can’t get boyfriends do. I can tell you right now that my neighbor reading Jezebel isn’t going to change the fact that she is completely drowning in a system that disfranchised her. I can also tell you that being more outspoken at her job or, as Sheryl Sandberg says, being “bossy” isn’t going to suddenly make her independent. Where is their movement?
I am not arguing that feminism is the end-all, be-all for women empowerment, but it is definitely a start. Its previous forms and iterations are why women have increased visibility and mobility today. But even in its 100th wave, capital “F” Feminism can never appeal to a universal audience. When we craft and theorize ideas of how it should exist or what shape it should take, we neglect certain groups of women. There end up being consequences that transcend generations. So when we think about new age feminism and the third wave, we have to be careful about who we are ostracizing, because, one day, these women will be mothers—removed from the goals and independence of their past selves.
Adrienne Harreveld is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Monday. Send Adrienne a message on Twitter @AdrienneLiege.