Viewpoint: Balancing feminism


The cover story of the July/August issue of Atlantic magazine has created a firestorm, to say the least. If the image of an infant in a briefcase wasn’t enough to spawn debate, the title — “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” — guaranteed it.

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The cover story of the July/August issue of Atlantic magazine has created a firestorm, to say the least.
The article, penned by Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, recounted her reasons for leaving the upper echelons of the U.S. State Department. After two years as Director of Policy Planning and commuting between Princeton, N.J. and Washington, Slaughter left the department, in part, to spend more time with her family. When she got home, many women either responded with pity or condescension that she would leave. All her life, Slaughter had been on the other side of the debate, holding up the feminist banner for the next generation, telling them they could have it all. Her current situation partially changed that outlook.

Slaughter wrote, “I had opportunities to stay on. … But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home.”

For me, the article, and honest discussion that followed, was a breathe of fresh air. Rather than repeating the trite “you can have it all” mantra, Slaughter honestly admits having it all isn’t as easy — or even enjoyable— as we like to believe.

The question to work or stay at home is a particularly weighty one for women. With it comes swirl of baggage and guilt that can leave ones head spinning. Either you have “abandoned” the feminist cause and stay home, or you are a liberal, feminist career-woman who never sees her children or spouse. Either way, you can’t win.

During a coed debate about the article on Slate, writer Marcelle Friedman discussed the idea of motherhood eclipsing professional ambitions: “It’s something I rarely express to friends, in fact, because in some ways it feels lazy, shameful or blasphemous to say that I can foresee a moment in my life when being a mother may seem much more important, worthy of my time and potentially fulfilling than pursuing whatever professional goals I am setting for myself now. … I intellectually reject the idea that choosing to prioritize one’s role as a mother is a defeatist cop-out of some kind, yet I can’t help but anticipate the personal feelings of disappointment or failure I might experience should I choose this route.”

In academic and business fields, it’s become almost taboo for a women to admit she would rather spend time home than pursue a competitive career track. Like Friedman admits, no matter how consciously we may reject the idea, after years of women telling us to reach for the stars and save the world, it’s easy to feel a sense of guilt leaving the workforce.

At BYU, the issue becomes even more complicated. As women raised in LDS culture, we’ve been taught motherhood is the highest calling  of a woman. There can be a cultural expectation for women to stay home. In such an atmosphere, one can feel guilty should she need, or even want, to work.

In the web of pulling forces, it can seem like there’s no space for a middle ground.

[media-credit id=162 align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit]One of the healthiest responses comes from Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve: “No woman should ever feel the need to apologize or feel that her contribution is less significant because she is devoting her primary efforts to raising and nurturing children. Nothing could be more significant in our Father in Heaven’s plan. Second, we should all be careful not to be judgmental or assume that sisters are less valiant if the decision is made to work outside the home.”

The home-work balance isn’t an either or principle, but rather the obvious balance. It takes adjustment as situations and pressures change. It also is not a one-size-fits-all program. What works for one family will vary greatly from another depending on the needs, personalities and desires of those involved.

This issue also encompasses both men and women. Several months ago, my sister questioned the logic of mothers not working, but fathers working long hours. Just as it is important for mothers to be involved with children, it is important for fathers to be involved as well. Just as men shouldn’t assume women want to stay home and put careers or education on hold, women shouldn’t assume men want to plow forward in a career and put family life on hold. Like in all things, a balance must be struck.

Bottom line: the personal choice of whether to work, stay home or pursue that promotion shouldn’t determine one’s worth.

Katie Harmer is the issues and ideas editor at The Universe. This viewpoint represents her opinions and not necessarily those of BYU, its administration or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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