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The Search for Perfection: Where Did Feminism Go Wrong?

5 years ago
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Well, ladies, I must say I've been having a jolly old time here in London reading your takes on the Loh and Weil articles. On a day when my combined maternal/spousal duties left me thoroughly winded and already jonesing for that third espresso before 9 a.m., I take comfort in the fact that:
a. Unlike Weil, I actually like French kissing and
b. Unlike Loh, I'm not trying to raise my children in a car.

But before I tell you what I found worrisome in both of these articles, let me tell you what I liked.

First, Loh. I agree with Melinda that she can't go and muse about her marital indiscretions in The Atlantic Monthly and not expect to get the odd raised eyebrow or judgmental e-mail thrown her way. (I mean who does she think she is, Tiger Woods??) I also agree with you, Lynn, that her casual dismissal of motherhood is not only ridiculous, but disingenuous. (She herself admits that her girls are doing just fine, even half-living in a Volvo.) In that sense, I found her indictment of companionate marriage after her affair last summer much more compelling than the "Bad Mommy" treatise this time around.

But I still love Loh. I've listened to her radio show -- The Loh Life -- for years, and I've also read several of her books, including her most recent, "Mother on Fire." She is, for starters, laugh-out-loud funny. (You don't need to live in SoCal to relate to her hysterical rendering of the all-too-involved parent searching for that idyllic kindergarten . . . guilty!!) She's also eternally self-deprecating and willing to own up to the fact that as both a wife and mother, she's made a lot of mistakes. I don't know about you guys, but I'll take that any day over earnest and sanctimonious, especially where parenting is concerned.
As for Weil, there too, I found myself nodding in agreement and semi-recognition as I read through her l-o-n-g exposé about putting her marriage under the microscope. Yes, to paraphrase Donna, "You think you have problems? Get a grip, sister!" But I think Weil is onto something in her detailed and honest description of the ennui, resentment and petty frustrations that slowly envelop couples once they've settled into "middle marriage."

And unlike Lynn, I wasn't bothered by the narcissism of either article. These are both confessional memoirs of a sort, and, by definition, it's a narcissistic genre. (I blog regularly about adulthood, where both marriage and parenting are standard fare, and I think it's fair game to use your own life as a prism.)

No, what's troubling me is that both articles offer a variant on the question: "Is it possible to be a perfect woman?" And the conclusion each comes up with is the same: A resounding "No." And I guess I'm left wondering if -- 40-plus years into the Women's Movement -- and all of the energy and commitment and analytic firepower that gave rise to it -- this is where we want to be?

I'm far from a bra-burning feminist. But at the end of the day, I wonder whether all of us -- Loh and Weil and you and me both -- ought to go back to basics and focus less on perfection and more on placing women on equal footing. It seems like a terrible indictment of feminism that we're all sitting around berating ourselves about falling short of perfection in the domestic sphere, instead of getting out there and demanding equal rights in the public sphere. (Yeah, yeah, I know. The personal is political, and all that good stuff.) But wasn't this the very trap we were meant to avoid?

I also got to thinking about this after reading Barbara Ehrenreich's thoughtful assault on the uproar over the new mammogram guidelines. Ehrenreich basically asks why women are mobilizing so much more to oppose a new, scientifically grounded set of guidelines about breast-cancer screening than they were about the restriction on women's rights embodied in the Stupak Amendment. As she colorfully puts it:
Welcome to the Women's Movement 2.0: Instead of the proud female symbol -- a circle on top of a cross -- we have a droopy ribbon. Instead of embracing the full spectrum of human colors -- black, brown, red, yellow, and white -- we stick to princess pink. While we used to march in protest against sexist laws and practices, now we race or walk "for the cure." And while we once sought full "consciousness" of all that oppresses us, now we're content to achieve "awareness," which has come to mean one thing -- dutifully baring our breasts for the annual mammogram.

And I guess I feel a bit the same way about the perfection debate. We can and should do so much more than just sit around and ask ourselves whether we're good enough wives/mothers.
So I'll meet you at that consciousness-raising march next Thursday . . . and I'll be sure to bring my bra along . . . and some matches. But first, just let me finish this post I'm writing about why I'm such a terrible mother . . .

Follow Delia on Twitter.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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