I go back a long way. I came of age before anyone questioned the role of women. I welcomed marriage and looked forward to motherhood, delayed until my husband finished graduate school. I believed that my role was the easier one, and one I was trained and well prepared for. It was the men who faced the great unknown. Looking back, this seems unbelievably naïve, even blind, and I realize that the key to my unquestioning comfort with that role was the respect it held in my family. I never questioned my value as a woman.
My father believed women’s role was in the home. He raged against professional women but never treated my mother with anything but respect. It wasn’t that my sister and I never felt the brunt of his misogyny. We did. To entertain his friends, he teased my three-year-old sister, telling her she had a tail, until she ran off sobbing. Or retold the story of the day I was showing my newborn brother a nickel when it slipped and went down his throat. He told it as an example of what women do to men—which I didn’t understand until much later. It was just that we never connected it with our gender. When he referred to the high school drill team of which I was captain as “bouncing bosoms,” my mother silenced him with a word. But never did he direct such mockery at my mother or the role of women as homemakers. My husband once commented that my mother treated homemaking as a profession, and he likewise held her in great respect, as he did me.
It wasn’t until I was working out in the “real” world that I encountered the belittling of women. As a graduate-student-wife working for the state of California, I was promoted from clerical work to a job as an interviewer on a research project. But the powers-that-be decided I would still be paid as a clerk because graduate-student-wives just got pregnant and so were temporary. My response was an astounded “What?” and I immediately filed an appeal with the state—and won. Looking back, I realize I had never learned my place, because my attitude at the time was, “You’re not serious!”
All of this simply demonstrates how those closest to us shape our lifelong attitudes—especially our mothers. I came by that knowledge in a rather oddball way, but I still hold to it, and it has made me wary of the women’s movement from the start. I join in the rebellion against the devaluation of women wholeheartedly, but not in the belittling of homemaking and motherhood. The men I’ve lived with have not belittled it, and I know parenthood as the most important and maturing job of my life. Handing it off to whoever might be available is a grievous mistake.
Enough of belittling my housewife years as “barefoot in the kitchen,” “washing dirty diapers.” I spent those years as an activist, working with the League of Women Voters and the Democratic Party, as well as motherhood and homemaking. I recently heard a young activist complain that our neighborhoods are hollow—there is no community, no center. That’s what the women did, and they’re gone. My chief affirmation, through all these years, is Alexis de Tocqueville, who viewed American women as the strength of the nation, and the power that might make democracy work. They are the moral center, he said, a counter to men, who he doubted would ever move beyond self-interest. I thought of him as I watched Cassie Hutchinson testify at the January 6th Committee hearings, revealing the ugly details of President Trump’s power-hungry plotting.
What the women’s movement has done, and perhaps there was no alternative, was to buy into the male value system. They were faced with the truth I heard one woman lament long ago: “Respect in this country is measured by the greenback.” The simultaneous rise of Reaganism gave a great boost to a value system centered on competition, self, and wealth. Anything else is a lack—of ambition, brains, or self-respect. This is the battleground where our men have had to prove themselves, and therefore, now, so do women. I’ve been a part of that battle and am proud of it, but I also know it’s all-consuming. Women need to look at Cassie Hutchinson’s decision to risk her career to tell the truth. She is the hero, and her strength lies in her commitment to something beyond herself and her career. That is womanhood.
I’m not proposing that women give up the gains they have made, or that they all return to homemaking full time. I know well that I developed parts of myself in the workplace that never would have developed at home. But I’m urging them to recognize and hold onto the value and rewards of serving others, raising the next generation, shaping the future. They have the power now to turn the nation’s attention away from the eternal “self” to the care, feeding, and development of the next generation. Both men and women must grow beyond self-interest or we’ll extinguish ourselves together.