1.imperfect or faulty.
I’m sure this title offends. It is provocative, to be sure. But when we examine perceptions of women through the social-cultural lens of their choices as they relate to work and family, this word seems to emerge regardless of the choice we make. Whether we are a stay at home mom, a working mom, or a woman who has chosen not to have children, the choice results in a litany of judgement and punctuation of our shortcomings. We’re made to feel that we are falling short, every time, regardless of our choice. The message is clear; you’re not doing something right, you’re substandard, you are in some way…defective. The bar has been raised very high for women in society today, in both the workforce and on the home-front.
Since the women’s movement and the resulting emergence of more women in the workforce, the way society defines success for woman has blurred. In the pre-suffragette era, the expectations were clear, male as breadwinner, women as homemaker. Today though, women work in greater numbers than ever before while the domestic expectations for them in the home persist.
The cultural climate during the first wave of feminism (the suffragette movement) advocated women’s domestic roles and what historian Barbara Welter (1966) referred to as the “cult of true womanhood” where a woman was a “hostage to her home” (p. 152) and the ideal attributes of womanhood included piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Women’s primary role was viewed as a reproductive role, to bear children. Dicker (2016) notes how women who desired more intellectual pursuits beyond their roles as wife and mother were viewed with suspicion, ostracized and warned of the dangers of their intellectual quests negatively affecting their ability to bear children.
Although the discussion of women damaging their ability to reproduce due to intellectual pursuits and professional work has waned, the social narrative persists where often working mothers are viewed as not fulfilling family responsibilities while women who exit the workforce after the birth of their children are viewed as not meeting their full intellectual and professional potential. The message is that they are letting down the gender and setting the Feminist movement back. Miller and Bryan (2005) note the lose-lose paradigm which exists whereby women who choose both career and a family are faced with this constant stereotyping, for which they receive in exchange lower pay, less prestige, less authority, and increased home responsibility compared to their male counterparts. Researchers overwhelmingly support the idea that there is a bias against mothers that remains embedded on the job, culturally, and at home. But working moms don’t have a stronghold on bias. There is plenty of judgement to go around. Society can find imperfection and fault in all women. Plenty of ways to suggest we are all in some way defective.
What about women who choose not to have children? Surely, these women can prioritize their careers without letting our gender and the whole of society down right? Actually no. In fact, society often unfairly deems these women most defective. These are the women who don’t follow social-cultural expectations for women to have children. The repercussions of this “failure” to meet societal expectations include judgment and unwarranted pity. They are often stigmatized and labeled most defective of all.
Elizabeth Plank notes in her 2015 article What’s Wrong with Women Who Don’t Want Kids? that although men are sometimes criticized for opting out of having children, they don’t face nearly the same amount of contempt as childless women who often get cast as “shallow” or “cat ladies” for choosing not to procreate. These women are clearly defective. And if you stay home with your kids you are defective. A failure to our gender, feminism, and the women’s movement. And if you work full time you are defective as a mom. Less than. And if you try to do both – flexing work and family, you are doing neither well. Defective. This is how many of us feel and while it is unfair and absurd, we feel it none-the-less.
Although the women as homemaker man as breadwinner model may seem antiquated in a culture where both men and women are in the workforce in equal numbers, what is socially valued remains gendered with women’s value being inextricably tied with the home and family as men’s value is inextricably tied to their work.
Here’s the worst part of this lose-lose paradigm resulting from this bias against women. Women judged by society as defective or “less than” no matter what path they take results in conflict among women. To cope with this cultural castigation women often adopt coping strategies which reinforce their life choices. Stay at home moms, working moms, and women who choose not to have children have one thing in common to be sure. They often note they feel judged by other women. Bias against women fosters conflict among women. Williams and Dempsey (2014) note in their best-selling book What Works for Women at Work how bias against women often leads women to judge each other on the right way to be a woman. And these constant comparisons are exacerbated by social media.
So, what’s the answer then. How do we fix this? We must start by first talking about it and acknowledging that it happens (the judgement) and that it is damaging to all women. Understanding the complexity of the experience of women and holding up to the light, the distasteful social constructs and biases that lead to conflict and judgment among women feels like a step in the right direction. We need compassion in the face of conflict and bias, and importantly, to remind ourselves often that the choices of others are not an affront to our choices.
A woman who makes another choice is not somehow marginalizing our choice and none of our choices make us more or less of a woman or a mother. We need to remind ourselves that we are all doing the best we can in a world where women have so many unique biases and barriers to overcome. As author Regina Brett astutely states “Don’t compare your life to others’. You have no idea what their journey is all about”. So, let’s get into the habit, maybe even start a movement, to stop the comparing and judging and commit to supporting each other on this journey.
If you like this content, please share and subscribe! Warmest, Kimberly
Dicker, R. C. (2008). A history of U.S. feminism. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.
Miller, M. M., & Bryan, L. (2005). Beyond the frying pan: Addressing work issues with women in therapy. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 27(1), 51-63.
Plank, E. (April, 2015). What’s wrong with women who don’t want kids? Mic.com retrieved
February 12, 2019 from https://mic.com/articles/116676/what-s-wrong-with-women-who-don-t-want-kids#.QEA3B1Res
Welter, B. (1966). The cult of true womanhood: 1820-1860. American Quarterly, 18(2), 151-174.
Williams, J., & Dempsey, R. (2014). What works for women at work? New York, NY: NYU Press.