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The Mommy Myth

The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women

About The Book

Taking readers on a provocative tour through thirty years of media images about mothers -- the superficial achievements of celebrity moms, the sensational coverage of dangerous day care, the media-manufactured "mommy wars" between working mothers and stay-at-home moms, and more -- The Mommy Myth contends that this "new momism" has been shaped by out-of-date mores, and that no matter how hard they try, women will never achieve it. In this must-read for every woman, Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels shatter the myth of the perfect mom and all but shout, "We're not gonna take it anymore!"


Chapter One: Revolt Against the MRS

Imagine it's Mother's Day, and you are being taken out to one of those god-awful brunches where you and hundreds of other mothers will be force-fed runny scrambled eggs and flaccid croissants by way of thanking you for the other 364 days, when instead of the brunch you get "Mom, you shrank my sweater in the dryer and I need a new one by tomorrow," or "All the other mothers will be at the hockey banquet," or, simply enough, "I hate you. You never listen to me! I wish you weren't my mother!" As you walk toward the restaurant, you notice broadsides posted on the telephone poles all over town. They begin, "Today, one day of the year, America is celebrating Motherhood, in shop...flower store." Obvious enough. But then the tone changes. "The other 364 days she preserves the apple pie of family life and togetherness, and protects the sanctity of the male ego and profit. She lives through her husband and children." Now things get more radical. "She is sacrificed on the altar of reproduction....she is damned to the dreary world of domesticity by day, and legal rape by night....She is convinced that happiness and her lost identity can be recovered by buying -- more and more and more and more."

Or a bunch of women are handing out flyers. They are titled "Notice to All Governments" and then demand "Wages for Housework." (Yes!) They read: "We clean your homes and your factories. We raise the next generation of workers for you. Whatever else we may do, we are the housewives of the world. In return for our work, you have only asked us to work harder." As a result, "we are serving notice to you that we intend to be paid for the work we do. We want wages for every dirty toilet, every painful childbirth, every indecent assault, every cup of coffee, and every smile. And if we don't get what we want, then we will simply refuse to work any longer." The result? "Now you will rot in your own garbage." The broadside ends with "We want it in cash, retroactive and immediately. And we want all of it." Oooo-weee. Don't you think this would make Mother's Day a lot more, well, interesting?

The poster described above actually appeared in Cleveland on Mother's Day, 1969, courtesy of The Women's International Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH, founded in 1968 with the express purpose of staging outrageous and often very funny profeminist actions). "Wages for Housework" was a feminist broadside as well, one of many that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s denouncing the fact that housewives and mothers were overworked, underpaid, and very much underappreciated.

Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, millions of women across the country, many of them mothers, stood up for themselves, and demanded to know why women, and housewives and mothers in particular, were second-class citizens, consigned to financial dependence on men, relegated to do housework that was necessary, endless, yet looked down upon, and why women were deemed to be the only gender who should give up everything in exchange for raising children. Young women started wondering why they should get married at twenty-one, let alone eighteen, if that meant getting chained to the diaper pail all the sooner. Simply put, motherhood became political.

Welcome to the Women's Liberation Movement, which was, for those involved, lots of hard work, scary, exhilarating, dangerous, exasperating, infuriating, and fun. "Fun?" you ask. "Weren't feminists these grim-faced, humorless, antifamily, karate-chopping ninjas who were bitter because they couldn't get a man?" Well, in fact the problem was that all too many of them had gotten a man, married him, had his kids, and then discovered that, as mothers, they were never supposed to have their own money, their own identity, their own aspirations, time to pee, or a brain. And yes, some women indeed became bad-tempered as a result. After all, no anger, no social change. But to see that you had common cause with other women, to fight for your rights, to believe that you could change the world, your very own future, and that of your kids -- all this was bracing, invigorating. So we want to unearth from the graveyard of history the brazen, outrageous, passionate things that women dared to say about motherhood and child-rearing in the late 1960s and early 1970s so we can see how far mothers have and have not come since those heady, rebellious days.

As outlandish as the expectations are today surrounding intensive mothering, they are hardly the fault of feminists. Feminists never said, "Hey, great, mothers are working ninety hours a week as it is, let's add a forty-hour-a-week job on top and not ask Dad to do an iota more than he's already doing." Feminists were the ones who tried to make motherhood less onerous, less lonely, less costly to women. Look at Gloria Steinem's hopes for the future, printed in U.S. News and World Report in 1975. She predicted, "Responsibility for children won't be exclusively the woman's anymore, but shared equally by men -- and shared by the community, too. That means that work patterns will change for both women and men, and women can enter all fields just as men can." Well, we're not there yet, but if you are a mother and have your own salary, let alone a job you find remotely rewarding, a day care center near you, after-school programs, maternity leave (however stingy), a daughter who gets to play soccer or basketball, a partner who understands that making lunches, finding baby-sitters, and taking the kid out in the stroller are not entirely your responsibility, and if you stay at home and see this as a choice and not an edict, then your life as a mother has been revolutionized by feminism.

Nonetheless, one of the reasons so many women say "I'm not a feminist, but..." (and then put forward a feminist position), is that in addition to being stereotyped as man-hating Amazons, feminists have also been cast as antifamily and antimotherhood. Since we are feminists and mothers (and married, too, to men we actually like), and in point of fact know lots of unabashedly doting mothers who are also feminists, a question persists: How, exactly, have these stereotypes been sustained?

Sometime in the 1980s, in what we imagine to be a deep, subterranean grotto filled with stalactites, bats, and guano, a coven of men and women came together with an apparent simple mission: to rewrite the history of the women's movement and distort what feminists said and did. We'll call this group the Committee for Retrograde Antifeminist Propaganda (CRAP). The high ministers of CRAP have included -- but have hardly been restricted to -- Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Christina Hoff Sommers, Phyllis Schlafly, Anita Bryant, Pat Robertson, John McLaughlin, and George Will, to name a few. Because they were always invited to hold forth on political talk shows, or hosted their own (sponsored by GE, or cures for male-pattern baldness, or God), they got to rehearse the CRAP version of history on a regular basis, which is how you turn something that is false into something everyone starts to take for granted as true. The CRAP version of women's history was essential to the promotion of the new momism, because the alleged evils of feminism made the new momism seem all the more reasonable, natural, inevitable, and just plain right. Of course, millions of women see through the CRAP line and would rather leave the planet for a space station than inhabit a world designed by Pat Robertson (who, we remind you, blamed September 11, 2001, on feminists and other evildoers, like gays). But the CRAP line has nonetheless sustained major misconceptions about feminism.

Let's see how successful CRAP was, by administering the patented "Full o' CRAP" quiz. What was the very first thing feminists attacked in the late 1960s and early 1970s? If you answered "motherhood," that is the correct CRAP answer. (If, however, you said "patriarchy, the fact that women made fifty cents to a man's dollar, widespread discrimination against women in education and employment, and the assumption that the only things women's tiny little brains were capable of handling was scraping cradle cap off their kids' scalps," then maybe you were around in 1970 or have read some real history and know what actually happened.) Who did these feminists hate the most? The correct CRAP answer is "stay-at-home moms" followed closely by "children." (Now, don't go saying things like "Wait -- I remember Gloria Steinem insisting that housewives were getting ripped off because they did so much invaluable work that was unpaid," because that does not fit into the official CRAP story.) This is the World According to CRAP, a view and a history that CRAP has sought -- with considerable success, we might note -- to super-glue to what passes for our national "common sense." CRAP put forth two versions

of the antifamily feminist man-hater. The first -- Limbaugh's feminazi -- is the never-married, child-loathing battle-ax in steel-toed boots. The second is the overly ambitious careerist who may, indeed, have kids, but neglects them in favor of her work. At the core of both versions is their alleged hatred of kids and of "real" mothers.

Let's just briefly sample a typical CRAP offering. In 1999, CRAP sent forth one of its high ministers, Danielle Crittenden, queen bee of the notoriously antifeminist Independent Women's Forum, with her very own CRAP history, What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, to much media fanfare. (Danielle should never be confused with the fabulous Ann Crittenden, whose 2001 book The Price of Motherhood is must reading for every parent, male or female, in the country, and for anyone who has a say in policies affecting parents and children.) The book is a primer on the importance of the new momism. The "us" in Danielle's title refers to twenty- and thirty-something women, and "our mothers" refers to women who in the 1960s and 1970s got "taken in" by feminism. Even though these fem-bots excoriated motherhood, they decided to have children anyway. ("Why?" remains one of the innumerable mysteries of the book.)

According to Crittenden, young women today are deeply unhappy and confused because they ignored the siren song of the new momism and instead followed the really bad advice of their feminist mothers, who allegedly told their girls to forget marriage and motherhood. Instead, feminist mothers supposedly insisted that happiness only comes to those who climb the corporate ladder by impaling men's balls on their Ferragamo heels. (We are both card-carrying members of the feminist axis of evil, and we know of no mothers of twenty- and thirty-something daughters who have said, "Honey, I definitely do not want grandchildren. I want you to get that promotion and work seventy hours a week instead of sixty.") Having heeded their feminist mothers' advice, these loser young women have "postponed marriage and childbirth to pursue their careers only to find themselves at thirty-five still single and baby-crazy, with no husband in sight." (No mention of the fact that once you remove the 10 percent of guys who are gay, and the other 30 percent who are snorting wasabi till they puke because they saw it on Jackass, the pickings can be slim.)

How did Crittenden determine that most women in America are miserable because they have failed to embrace the new momism? Instead of talking to actual, real women, she scanned the previous thirty years of women's magazines like Cosmo and Glamour, and concluded that " contemporaries are even more miserable and insecure, more thwarted and obsessed with men, than the most depressed, Valium-popping, suburban reader of the 1950s." Not only that, but "the unhappiness expressed in the magazines' pages [is] the inevitable outcome of certain feminist beliefs." If she checked out a less glitzy source, Statistical Abstract of the United States, she would have to confront the fact that 80 percent of women between the ages of thirty and thirty-four in the 1990s had married at least once, and that the figure rises to 86.5 percent for women aged thirty-five to thirty-nine. True, some of these women divorce and don't remarry immediately, but the specter of an entire generation of women with "no husband in sight" is not borne out by what scholars refer to as "numbers." (This is hardly statistically valid, but none of the college women we meet in our classes ever want to go back to 1957. It, like, scares them.)

So let's get back to the actual feminists, not those of the CRAP imagination, and remind ourselves why they might have, for example, handed out leaflets at the New York City Marriage License Bureau that asked, "Do You Know That, According to the United Nations, Marriage is a 'Slavery-Like Practice'"? To review briefly, in the late 1960s, men got paid more than women (usually double) for doing the exact same job. Women could get credit cards in their husband's names but not their own, and many divorced, single, and separated women could not get cards at all. Women could not get mortgages on their own and if a couple applied for a mortgage, only the husband's income was considered. Women faced widespread and consistent discrimination in education, scholarship awards, and on the job. In most states the collective property of a marriage was legally the husband's, since the wife had allegedly not contributed to acquiring it. Women were largely kept out of a whole host of jobs -- doctor, college professor, bus driver, business manager -- that women today take for granted. They were knocked out in the delivery room, birth control options were limited, and abortion was illegal. Once women got pregnant they were either fired from their jobs or expected to quit. If they were women of color, it was worse on all fronts -- work, education, health care. (And talk about slim pickings. African American men were being sent to prison and cut out of jobs by the millions.)

Most women today, having seen reruns of The Brady Bunch and Father Knows Best, and also having heard of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the bestseller that attacked women's confinement to the home, are all too familiar with the idealized yet suffocating media images of happy, devoted housewives. In fact, most of us have learned to laugh at them, vacuuming in their stockings and heels, clueless about balancing a checkbook, asking dogs directions to the neighbor's. But we should not permit our ability to distance ourselves from these images to erase the fact that all women -- and we mean all women -- were, in the 1950s and '60s, supposed to internalize this ideal, to live it and believe it.

Friedan's pathbreaking book identified one of the most important things feminists would denounce in the 1970s: the subject position of the happy housewife. Today we acknowledge that women inhabit many identities throughout the day, and they can be in conflict with each other, so we are constantly negotiating among them. But what the feminine mystique exposed was that all women, each and every one of them, were supposed to inhabit one and only one seamless subject position: that of the selfless, never complaining, always happy wife and mother who cheerfully eradicated whatever other identities she might have had and instead put her husband, her children, and the cleanliness of her house first. Once you grew up, you were supposed to encase yourself in this subject position as if it were a wetsuit, and never take it off. This asphyxiating and disciplining subject position might best be called Moms "R" Us, or MRS, the wife/mother, made familiar to all of us in the tele-person of June Cleaver and Donna Reed. It is important that we remind ourselves of the tyranny of the role of the MRS, because it was what feminists attacked as utterly oppressive, and because, under the guise of the new momism, it has risen, phoenixlike, and burrowed its way once again into the media and into the hearts and minds of millions of mothers.

According to the feminine mystique, an MRS didn't work outside the home, she loved caring for all children because she had a wired-in maternal instinct, she was confused by and thus uninterested in current events, she loved to polish chair legs and darn socks, she didn't understand the difference between drive and reverse, and she lived to serve men because they were superior. The MRS also had to appreciate the importance of Buying and Having Things; so the MRS didn't just think about her kids and husband, she was to think about them in relation to consumer goods. Inside the brain of the MRS, according to this gender ideology, you would not find any thoughts about the meaning of life, world peace, finding a cure for polio, let alone feelings of resentment, anxiety, depression, boredom, envy, frustration, or anger at a husband who might, on occasion, spend half his salary on beer for the guys and a "friend" named Lola. This enforced masquerade of the MRS was meant to be so consuming that, just like Yul Brynner in The King and I, you could never get out of character, not till you died.

That was the ideology, anyway. In "real life," by 1955, there were more women with jobs than at any point in the nation's previous history, and an increasing number of these were women with young children. By 1960, 40 percent of women were in the work force. Many of these were white middle-class women, and almost half were mothers of school-age children. One out of five had children under the age of six.7 The ranks of professional women grew by more than 40 percent during the 1950s, faster than any other category except clerical work. The figures were even higher for African American women. Yet everywhere these women looked in the media, the only self they were meant to inhabit, the only one even acknowledged, was the white MRS. By naming the "problem that has no name," Friedan opened the floodgates to what would soon become a tsunami of increasingly focused resentment and anger, namely, the women's movement that began in earnest in the late 1960s. Women didn't just attack the practices and results of discrimination. Until they also named the subject position of the MRS, and the expectations around it, as despotic, women themselves would not be able to see what else might be possible. Women didn't just need more equitable treatment. They needed the scales to fall off their eyes. Enter consciousness raising, one of the most important innovations of the women's movement.

Recently a student of ours, not known for his historical acuity, began his term paper with the following claim: "Sometime around 1968, a lot of things were happening." The kid did have a gift for understatement. Lyndon Johnson's announcement that he would not seek reelection, Martin Luther King Jr., killed, Robert Kennedy killed, police riots at the Chicago convention, escalation of the Vietnam War, feminist demonstrations at the Miss America pageant, indeed added up to "a lot of things...happening." Few were more revolutionary than feminism. Previously forbidden questions now proliferated with a vengeance. Why were men automatically the "head" of the household, on everything from credit applications to the forms used by the U.S. Census? Why should housework and child-care be women's exclusive responsibility? Did having a uterus really mean you loved scrubbing toilet bowls, and having a scrotum meant you couldn't even see dirt? Why should women have to take their husband's names when they got married, thereby symbolically eradicating their previous identity? Why should men be the only wage-earners in a family, with the women utterly dependent on him for everything, having no money of her own? Since housewives put in something like ninety-hour work weeks, shouldn't they get some kind of compensation? Feminists offered answers that today seem, by turns, fantastical, utopian, defiant, and right on.

The mass media's condescending treatment of the women's movement has been well documented, so no need to replay all the moronic commentary by Frank Reynolds on ABC and even Uncle Walter on CBS. Howard K. Smith on ABC news -- just to pull one edifying example out of the archive -- denounced feminism on the air because it might bring an end to the miniskirt, "the biggest advance in urban beautification since Central Park was created in Manhattan." Time complained -- erroneously -- that the movement "has not produced much humor" and noted that Kate Millet didn't wash her hair enough. You get the idea. And despite the fact that a host of feminist activists, including Betty Friedan, were wives and mothers, the media singled out as "leaders" those -- Kate Millet, Germaine Greer, and especially the telegenic Gloria Steinem -- who were either unmarried, childless, or both. So even with the movement's emphasis on a host of issues affecting mothers and housewives, the dominant image of the liberated woman was "independent, unmarried and...childless."

Having said that, what is remarkable is how much of the feminist critique of traditional family and marriage arrangements quickly migrated from the smokin' mimeograph machines of women's groups to the pages of Time, Glamour, Redbook, and even The Saturday Evening Post, albeit often in watered-down form. Feminist attacks on Dr. Spock, on the enforced primacy of children in women's lives, and on the inequities of housework (why did Mr. Clean only accost mom when that was dad's egg yolk annealed to the stove?) were, at the time, close to scandalous; thus they were newsworthy. And millions of women -- and even some men -- formed a ready, eager audience. Because the women's movement did not occur in a vacuum, but in fact drew oxygen from the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the counterculture, when challenging the "accepted" way of doing things was everywhere, many people, and even the media -- especially women's magazines -- were receptive to quite revolutionary challenges to an institution even as "sacred" as the family. And while studies show that, in the early twenty-first century, men are not, indeed, doing half the housework or half the childcare, there has been a revolution in fatherhood, launched by feminism.

To look at the documents generated during the height of the women's movement is, especially if you were alive back then, like waking up from a coma and remembering what made the women's movement so exhilarating and made so many women feel, well, so alive. Given the sexist dreck in the mainstream media, feminists felt they needed to produce their own alternative media to express their common outrage and, in fact, to help women see that they were part of a slightly different, but quite large, imagined community: that of fuming, livid women who had simply had enough. Highly recommended bedtime reading, for example, is Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement. Curl up with it after your child has told you at 9:00 P.M. that he volunteered to bring four dozen blueberry muffins to school the next morning and you have, for the seventeen billionth time, washed your husband's stubble-studded shaving cream drips out of the sink because, well, he just doesn't see them. Behold, for example, a "Mother's Day Incantation" offered by WITCH.

Your family wants to thank you

For your martyrdom.

After all, without you

real work would get done.

While Hubby challenges the world

His wonders to perform

You cook his meals, clean his home

And keep his bedside warm.

Your children are your challenge,

In them your dreams are sown.

You've given up your own life

And live for them alone.

Now look upon your daughter

Will she too be enslaved

To a man, a home, a family

Or can she still be saved?

This is your real challenge --

Renounce your martyrdom!

Become a
liberated mother

A woman, not a "mom."

In "Women of the World Unite -- We Have Nothing to Lose But Our Men!," the feminists Carol Hanish and Elizabeth Sutherland admitted, "Yeah, flirting is fun." Then they added, "A man opens a door for me, I thank him, he smiles -- and electricity ripples through us both. A year later I'm flushing out a diaper and he's opening other doors." Many women back then hooted in delight over stuff like this. CRAP would like women today to think that the women's movement was some dreary, humorless, forced march of angry women with hairy legs and cold hearts. What they don't want women to remember, and want younger women in particular not to know, was that exposing patriarchy was, while certainly dangerous, also -- let's face it -- a blast.

So what did women start to propose as alternatives to the MRS that altered the existing common sense about marriage and motherhood? There were two broad challenges to motherhood that swirled through the culture in the 1970s. The first was that parenthood and marriage had to be reformed and made much more equal, for the good of everyone. These ideas blew into the mainstream media with the ease of dandelion fluffs. The second was that motherhood had become such a prison for women that they had to break out and never go back to business as usual. These ideas were more radical, and while they were not, in the end, widely embraced, they did prompt millions of women to postpone having children until they felt they had at least begun to crawl out of the hole of inequality.

As underground critiques, position papers, poems, and broadsides circulated around the country, the Manhattan-based Women's Liberation Movement decided to strike at the heart of the media machine that gained its profits from the subject position of the MRS, Ladies' Home Journal. In what became one of the most famous actions of the early movement, several hundred feminists walked into the offices of the Journal on March 18, 1970, to make some suggestions for changes in it and all women's magazines. During what ended up being an eleven-hour sit-in, the women asserted that since LHJ was a magazine for wives and mothers, the magazine should actually take motherhood seriously and establish an on-site childcare center for its employees with preschool children. They suggested to the magazine's less-than-amused editor, John Mack Carter, that the magazine, since it was supposedly for women, be run entirely by women, and that "the magazine seek out nonwhite women for its staff in proportion to the population." In response to these and other demands (like a minimum wage and more worker participation in editorial decisions), Carter, who had been bristling under his necktie for pretty much the entire eleven hours, said he'd give the women an eight-page insert in the August issue of the magazine.

In between articles titled "How Good Is Your Marriage?," "The Midi -- And How to Wear It," and "The Beauty Guide to Eyeglasses," and printed on crappier, less glossy paper, came ideas and sentiments no doubt quite new to many Journal readers. One sidebar was titled "Housewives' Bill of Rights" and demanded (on behalf of the housewives feminists supposedly hated) paid maternity leave, paid vacations, free twenty-four-hour childcare centers, social security benefits for housewives' years of labor, and health insurance (none of which we yet have). One reason these feminists issued such demands was that they themselves actually were housewives and mothers, another point we're not supposed to remember. In "Help Wanted: Female. 99.6 Hours a Week. No Pay. Bed and Bored. Must be Good with Children," they wrote "We have no respite. Our only vacation comes when we're totally incapacitated, when we're in the hospital for an operation or having a baby." They made women consider the perpetuation of such inequities in the future. "Our sons could be businessmen, welders or astronauts, but our daughters will be housewives, the only workers who labor merely for bed and board." Adding insult to injury, "we are not only not paid for our work, but are considered less than human because we perform it....We are granted the title of 'just housewife' and, if we try to dignify it a little bit by calling ourselves 'homemakers,' we sense that we are on shaky ground." They noted how all too many husbands came home and smirked, "What have you done all day?" They then added, in language that was a tad jarring next to "Clairol Brings You Happiness!," "We are domestic slaves. It's a fate that awaits us when we are born female."

They were slaves when they gave birth, too. In another Journal submission, "Babies Are Born, Not Delivered," a new mother documented the humiliations of going to a maternity ward in 1970. Remember, this was before women and their partners went to birthing classes, before partners were allowed anywhere near the delivery room. The woman described having her pubic hair shaved off (a common procedure back then that was utterly unnecessary for birth), being wheeled into a room all by herself, and being told by a resident exactly when she would actually have the baby. When she felt the baby coming, she was told she was mistaken and that she would have to wait for when the doctor could tend to her. Just when she was about to deliver, an anesthesiologist appeared and gave her a spinal, even though she protested, and the doctor then pulled the baby out with forceps. "Women are, as a group, capable of effecting change that would make the system responsive to us rather than continuing as victims of the system. But until the time comes when we do gain control over our bodies, remember this, my sister: they really couldn't do it without you." At the end of the insert was a guide on how to start a consciousness-raising group, with the addresses of women's groups from around the country.

Throughout all of these pieces, one thing is especially striking: the mode of address to the reader. Unlike the accusatory tone of some of the ads ("There's a good chance our douche cleanses and deodorizes better than yours") or the condescending you-don't-know-anything tone of the advice columns ("How to Say No to a Child Without Guilt"), all of which involved an I-you or us-you division between authority figure and dumb supplicant, this mode of address suggested power, collective power. The mode of address, beginning with "Hello to Our Sisters," rested on a collective "we," we who are unappreciated, we who are underpaid, we who have babies and raise them, we who will resist and fight together, we who will smash the MRS, we who will speak truth to power. The constant use of the imperial and empowering "we" throughout the essays made you feel strong as you read them, made you feel other women rising up and that if you wanted to, you could rise up with them. This collective "we" was active, it was fed up, and it exposed gender roles as social constructions that were not "natural" but had been made. This "we" was angry and wasn't gonna take it anymore. This "we" took the ideological straight-jacket of the MRS and simply tore it to shreds. And as even this brief review shows, it was a "we" centrally concerned about the economic and cultural discrimination against housewives and mothers.

By 1972, a group of determined feminists had decided that mimeographed position papers, books, and one guest appearance in Ladies' Home Journal were not adequate to give expression to women's experiences in a male-dominated world: They needed a monthly magazine. If a young woman today, who had not been alive in 1972 and had simply taken at face value CRAP's version of women's history, discovered an old pile of Ms. magazines, she would be taken aback -- shocked, probably -- at how dedicated the magazine was to improving the lot of housewives, mothers, and children. We both remember turning first to the letters to the editor, where women of all ages and situations flooded the magazine with letters recounting their personal encounters with the daily grind of sexism. The magazine virtually exploded with passion. They described what Jane O'Reilly famously called, in her instant classic "The Housewife's Moment of Truth," their "click" moments, the precise occasion in which a woman comes to see that her private anxieties, anger, and despair are not personal failings but are understandable responses to the off-the-wall expectations of patriarchy. A "click moment" was that instant when a woman realizes she's being treated like a doormat.

I thought that most of my clicks were behind me, but tonight, as I cleared the table, I had a new one. I was complimenting myself (since no one else had) on a meal I'd gone to some trouble to prepare. I began to wonder why so many of us wait trembling for "the verdict" at every meal; why my mother and so many others risk antagonizing their families by asking outright if everything is okay.

I decided it's not just neurosis. We really know they're judging even when they don't say so. Housewifing is an occupation in which every single waking act is judged by the persons who mean the most to you in the world. Is the house clean? Is the food good? Are the children well-behaved?

A thousand times a day our contracts come up for renewal. No wonder our nerves are shot.

During its first several years of publication, Ms., that supposed bastion of mother-hating, antifamily propaganda, featured articles in almost every issue dedicated to helping mothers and their kids. Sample articles include "Job Advice for 'Just a Housewife'" (November 1973), "New Help for Mothers Alone" (February 1974), "How the Economy Uses Housewives" (May 1974), "Surviving Widowhood" and "Must We Be Childless to be Free?" (October 1974), a special section called "Kids in the Office, and What-Else-Is-New with Child Care" (March 1975), "How Hospitals Complicate Childbirth" (May 1975), and a special section on mothers and daughters (June 1975). In addition, Ms. published "Stories for Free Children" every month that mothers could read to their kids. The magazine devoted its entire May 1973 issue to the topic "Up with Motherhood." Feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, for example, while acknowledging (but not dismissing) that there were a few feminists who saw children as the bane of women's existence, pointed out that "The rest of us, scores of feminists of every age, race, marital status, and sexual persuasion are talking seriously, thoughtfully, and candidly about motherhood." She insisted that "We care deeply about children whether we have our own or not. We work to improve educational curricula, child-care facilities, health services, and the childbirth experience. We are saying that men are parents, too; that fatherhood need be no less important or time-consuming than motherhood....Truly, feminists are talking about choice: about making the decision to become pregnant and choosing a motherly role that is right for ourselves and our children."

Feminist proposals to make marriage and child rearing more equitable, whether first appearing in mimeo sheets or Ms., had a powerful impact on the 1950s and '60s versions of intensive mothering. In 1970, Alix Kates Shulman, a wife, mother, and writer who had joined the Women's Liberation Movement in New York, wrote a poignant account of how the initial equality and companionship of her marriage had deteriorated once she had children. "[N]ow I was restricted to the company of two demanding preschoolers and to the four walls of an apartment. It seemed unfair that while my husband's life had changed little when the children were born, domestic life had become the only life I had." His job became even more demanding, requiring late nights and travel out of town. Meanwhile, it was virtually impossible for her to work at home. "I had no time for myself; the children were always there."

Neither she nor her husband was happy with the situation, so they did something radical, which received considerable media coverage: They wrote up a marriage agreement, which was widely circulated in feminist circles. Read it and weep. In it they asserted that "each member of the family has an equal right to his/her own time, work, values, and choices....The ability to earn more money is already a privilege which must not be compounded by enabling the larger earner to buy out of his/her duties and put the burden on the one who earns less, or on someone hired from outside." The agreement insisted that domestic jobs be shared fifty-fifty and, get this girls, "If one party works overtime in any domestic job, she/he must be compensated by equal extra work by the other."

The agreement then listed a complete job breakdown, which included, "Waking children; getting their clothes out, making their lunches, seeing they have notes, homework, money, passes, books, etc.," and "Getting babysitters, which sometimes takes an hour of phoning," and even "Calling doctors, checking out symptoms, getting prescriptions filled, remembering to give medicine, taking days off to stay home with sick child; providing special activities." In other words, the agreement acknowledged the physical and the emotional/mental work involved in parenting, and valued both. At the end of the article, Shulman noted how much happier she and her husband were as a result of the agreement. In the two years after its inception, Shulman wrote three children's books, a biography, and a novel. But listen, too, to what it meant to her husband, who was now actually seeing his children every day. After the agreement had been in effect for four months, "our daughter said one day to my husband, 'You know, Daddy, I used to love Mommy more than you, but now I love you both the same.'"

To the delight of many wives (and the discomfiture of many husbands), the April 28, 1972, issue of Life (of all places!) featured a six-page cover story on the marriage agreement. Redbook published it under the editors' title "A Challenge to Every Marriage" and received more than two thousand letters in response, most of them supportive. U.S. News & World Report printed a sample contract in 1973. By 1975 Time reported that there were then at least fifteen hundred different versions of marriage contracts being used. "Husbands commonly waive their legal right to determine where the couple will live," noted the magazine without a hint of surprise and "agree to do half of the household chores." (There wasn't much coverage of what we assume came to be massive male breach-of-contract violations in that department.) Nonetheless, newsmagazines described fathers learning to cook and doing most of the "routine cleaning, washing and shopping." By 1978, Glamour -- yes, Glamour -- featured an article on how to write your own contract. The sociologist Marvin Sussman, who studied the proliferation of marriage contracts in the mid-1970s, predicted that "in the next ten years" they would become so widespread that they would become "the form of marriage law." (Ah, the seventies.) The marriage contract may seem quaint today, but imagine if most men actually signed them -- and abided by the fifty-fifty childcare and housework provisions!

Also newsworthy, and presented as an outcome of feminism, was the rise of the househusband. He stayed home, watched the kids, and mopped the floors while his wife worked or went to school. Often these stories served to corroborate feminist critiques of the housewife's situation. "I can't wait to get out of the house and get back to work," one such husband told Time in 1974. "I love my son Adam, but I can see how taking care of a kid can drive a woman up the wall." This article also noted that such role reversals often strengthened marriages and a father's ties to his kids. In "When Dad Becomes a 'House-Husband,'" we learned that "This father stayed home to take care of the kids, and the whole family flourished."

Letty Cottin Pogrebin profiled five househusbands, one of whom was, believe it or not, Ted Koppel. He and his wife had four kids, she had moved nearly a dozen times because of his job, and now she wanted to return to law school. So Ted took nine months off and took care of the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and the kids, and reported how it made him reassess the housewife's work. "[O]ne day after I'd finished mopping the kitchen floor, [my wife] came home from school and walked all over it. I started yelling, 'Take off your shoes, you're tracking up my floor!' -- a sentence I'd heard her yell a hundred times. A light went off in both our heads....I realized how unfair it is to put the total burden of a house and kids on one person." What often happened was not that the husband suddenly said, "Okay, dear, I'll wash the floor too" (although some did), but that both spousal units agreed that housework was a drag and that they'd both do as little as possible. (These were the notorious "dark years" for Mr. Clean.)

Childcare experts also took it in the chops. Jo Ann Hoit, in her stinging critique of Dr. Spock, noted how he might speak of the concerns of "parents," but when there was a problem it was always the mother's fault, and always her responsibility to fix. Spock's gesture toward suggesting that fathers might have some responsibilities too in raising their kids was this: "I don't mean that the father has to give just as many bottles or change just as many diapers as the mother. But it's fine for him to do these things occasionally. He might make the formula on Sunday." Hot damn! So, noted Hoit sarcastically, while Dad's duty was to hold down an eight-hour-a-day job, "motherhood remains a twenty-four-hour job with no nights or weekends off."

The feminist pronouncement that often shook up men -- and many women -- the most was the assertion that the labor of housewives was worth a lot of money and they were getting screwed because they were paid nothing and thus building up no credit in Social Security. Gloria Steinem, in her lectures around the country, insisted that despite media stereotypes and misreporting, the movement was not just for working women, "as if that excluded housewives," she chided. She then added with emphasis, "In fact, housewives work harder than anyone." Steinem asserted that the housewife should be paid, and then cited Department of Labor statistics that put the value of her work somewhere between $8000 to $9000 a year, because that's what it would cost her husband to pay for her services, "not including on and off prostitution," a famous quip that invariably produced nervous titters in the audience. These remarks weren't restricted to college students or women's groups -- ABC aired them in January of 1972 on the nightly news, and she repeated them on late-night talk shows where, yes, feminists used to be invited to chat.

Within two years, even the readers of McCall's saw a similar analysis. One article suggested that the next time you were at a party, you ask the wives what they thought they were worth "in dollars and cents" to their husbands. Then, ask the husbands the same thing. Despite how "offensive" such a question might be to "middle class sensibilities," the article reminded readers, "Marriage is a bargain in which a woman gives her domestic services in exchange for support by a man" and the entire economic base of marriage was "lopsided and wobbly." Citing a study actually done by economists at the Chase Manhattan Bank, McCall's noted that by the time you totted up what it would cost a man to hire a cook, laundress, nursemaid, chauffer, and gardener, he'd be shelling out about ten grand a year (or about $38,000 in 2003). The article then indignantly noted that a wife who devotes seventeen years to cooking, cleaning, and child rearing was not entitled to any Social Security but that nuns were. Even The Saturday Evening Post, which was by 1977 a vestigial media organ, a throwback to maybe 1952 (if not 1932), featured an article by Clare Booth Luce, "Equality Begins at Home." Luce, prominent wife of publishing magnate Henry Luce, also argued that marriage was unequal, that in many states women legally had the status of "unpaid servant," that the work of housewives and mothers was now worth about $20,000 a year. But since they weren't getting paid what they were worth -- or anything, for that matter -- many were now entering the workforce. When a feminist critique of marriage entered the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, it was safe to say that a new sensibility was afoot.

Ms. insisted that mothers and their children were political constituents who had the right and the duty to make feminist demands upon their government. "The American Child-Care Disgrace" (May 1973) suggested that there was something quite perverse about a country that poured billions of dollars into nuclear submarines but not a penny into a life raft for children of working mothers. Maureen Orth lambasted Richard Nixon for a nearly overnight abandonment of his commitment, announced in 1969, to "provide all American children an opportunity for healthy and stimulating development during the first five years of life." By 1971, Nixon claimed that there was no demonstrated need for a national child-development program, and worse yet, that such a program was antifamily. It was no wonder then that working mothers were, as Ms. put it, "...reluctant to admit that they need help and reluctant to demand that some of their tax dollars go toward childcare. As long as the American mother has feelings of guilt and is unable to see childcare as more than a personal problem, the politicians will continue to ignore her and the basic rights of her children." But Nixon aside, this thing called "childcare," unheard of to most women in the mid-1960s, also began to circulate as a crucially important innovation.

Not surprisingly, many women's liberation organizations around the country began fighting for day-care centers in their communities, which included establishing cooperative nurseries, pressuring employers to found on-site centers for working mothers, and lobbying city, state, and federal governments to provide more funding for day care. Some women staged "child-ins:" Together they brought their kids to work to dramatize their need for day care. Day care was not only about helping working mothers. Feminists wanted to help housewives, too, to give them a break from the 24/7 of motherhood. Many feminists also believed, especially given the already proven success of the Head Start program, that quality day care, with its schedule of activities, curriculum, and exposure to preschool teachers and other children, would be for many children a welcome supplement to staying home with mom all the time. They attacked the notion that day care was somehow a "necessary evil," needed for those women who "had to work," instead of a great opportunity for early childhood education.

As Louise Gross and Phyllis Taube Greenleaf put it in "Why Day Care?" (1970), "We would like to assert that day-care centers in which children are raised in groups by men and women could be as important for the liberation of children as it would be for the liberation of women." They envisioned (sigh) centers with sexually integrated staffs who were paid decent salaries and who encouraged boys to play with stuffed animals and dolls if they wanted and girls to play with toy saws and trucks.

Some feminists, of course, went much further than demanding twenty-four-hour day-care centers and compensation for housework. There were radical feminists who insisted that women's reproductive biology was a principal source of their enslavement to men. Here was the charge: It was precisely because women had to bear babies for nine months and then nurse them that they could never ultimately enjoy equality with men. Only when everything -- including childbirth -- was equal, would women stand a chance. Their attacks on pregnancy, in the context of today's insistence that waddling around for over half a year encased in the equivalent of seven Michelin extra-wides is "sexy" and "energizing," will seem loony, even anti-woman to some. "Does anyone wish to try to hold that the blood-curdling screams that can be heard from delivery rooms are really cries of joy?" asked Ti-Grace Atkinson with typical wryness. "Pregnancy is barbaric," asserted Shulamith Firestone. (She actually got to say that on national television.)

It turns out that there were women who did not think Firestone was off the wall. In 1970 thousands of women found themselves reading Firestone's book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, in which she argued very persuasively that the inferior economic and social condition of women would persist unless they were freed "from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available." How would this be achieved? Firestone proposed that big research and development dollars be invested in the design of artificial wombs, the only way, she insisted, to truly liberate women. In the meantime, mothers should be compensated for their reproductive labor (which may sound nuts to Americans but actually happens in most European Union countries), and men should participate fully in the rearing of children. Firestone argued, audaciously, that children themselves would benefit by being cut loose from a notion of childhood that prolonged their own dependency, especially on parents who would very likely pass their own neuroses onto the vulnerable psyches of their kids. To top it all off, Firestone insisted that the nuclear family must be cast aside in favor of households that foster the liberation of women and children by de-emphasizing "blood ties" and having all the adults raise all the kids. You know, kind of like a kibbutz.

In other words, Firestone's work was filled with ideas that in the United States today would seem bizarre even on Star Trek. On the one hand, as we look back at this from the vantage point of the hypernatalist early twenty-first century, Firestone's vision of artificial wombs freeing all women from pregnancy seems really naïve and a denial of the importance of women's bodies. On the other hand, there is no doubt that she was right. If men could have babies too (and could nurse them!), or if all babies were gestated in artificial wombs, there would indeed be the basis for the still deferred revolution in gender roles and sexual equality in the country. Pregnancy is so romanticized in the early twenty-first century that many women may find the idea of an artificial womb chilling. But think about it -- the fetus goes in a perfectly nourishing, unstressed, temperature controlled environment and you get to continue jogging, drinking coffee, drinking wine, eating what you want and maintaining your same clothing size while avoiding sciatica, vomiting, varicose veins, bloating that makes your ankles vanish, heartburn, and hemorrhoids the size of Texas. Isn't this just a tad tempting?

To many, especially to young women who, above all, hoped to escape the fate of their own mothers, motherhood seemed to be the ultimate trap. Unable yet to imagine how the mother/child relationship could exist outside the confines of man-dependent domesticity, the initial feminist resistance to motherhood was perfectly understandable. In the 1970s, many women began to defer having children until they were older, and many young feminists wondered whether they should have kids at all. As the writer Ellen Willis put it, many young feminists had decided not to have children, either ever or for the time being, "because we felt that motherhood, under the present conditions, was incompatible with our priorities." She added, "[O]ur system of child-rearing lays on mothers an enormous responsibility that by rights should be shared by fathers and the community at large. Just as many mothers resent this inequitable burden, I resent the fact that I can't have children unless I'm willing to assume it....For me, as for the rebellious mother, the answer is political change."

Not surprisingly, there were those who made the case, as Jeffner Allen put it in her quaintly titled essay, "Motherhood: the Annihilation of Women," that motherhood must be "evacuated" as one would evacuate a town in advance of an approaching army. Any concessions to motherhood, she argued, would inevitably put women right back under the thumbs of men. To be sure, arguments like these are not without their difficulties, but they insisted that motherhood -- valued in the text of Hallmark cards but no place else, exceedingly costly to women both financially and emotionally, while highly beneficial to men -- had to be rejected in its 1950s form. Thus, such arguments, however extreme they might seem today, really did prompt many women, especially young women, to ask whether the price of motherhood was worth it. And it is true that there were feminists who, as a result, felt that having children was tantamount to acknowledging that you had succumbed to the brainwashing of a male-dominated society.

But there were also feminists like Jane Alpert, an unlikely candidate for mother-of-the-year given that she was wanted by the FBI on charges of conspiracy to bomb federal offices. Alpert requested, from her underground hideout, that Ms. publish her 1973 article "Mother Right," which argued that the family should be reshaped "according to the perceptions of women." "Mother Right" was closely read and controversial -- it drew more reader reaction than any other piece the magazine had published to date. (The February 1974 issue devoted seven full pages to the letters that poured in.) In direct opposition to Firestone, Alpert insisted that motherhood was the source of female power and should be harnessed in service of women's liberation. "[A]s we begin to define ourselves as women, the qualities coming to the fore are the same ones a mother projects in the best kind of nurturing relationship to a child: empathy, intuitiveness, adaptability, awareness of growth as a process rather than as goal-ended, inventiveness, protective feelings toward others, and a capacity to respond emotionally as well as rationally," she argued. Because motherhood "cuts across economic, class, race and sexual preference, a society in which women were powerful by virtue of being mothers would not be divided along any of these lines."

The positive qualities associated with motherhood, then, should not be abandoned or dismissed; rather, they could change the world. Or to put it another way, Alpert argued that the very traits that have been essential to child rearing and housekeeping and that have kept women in their place are actually enormous strengths that give women the power (and the responsibility) to make society more caring and humane. So here was the central question she raised. Should women come to think of themselves as people, not all that dissimilar from men except in how they had been socialized, and thus reject their own socialization as passive, nurturing, and empathic and simply behave more like men and pursue male goals and occupations? Or, conversely, were women, precisely because they could and did bear children, naturally more inclined to be nurturing, pacifistic, empathic, and cooperative and thus should claim these traits as distinctly female and use them to try to change a male world that was too competitive, individualistic, and destructive? (This latter position would come to be called "essentialist.") This debate has hardly been resolved -- it still surrounds us and informs debates about gender equity today.

The main point about all these articles, books, and broadsides is this: Far from dismissing motherhood as dull and old-fashioned, something to be cast aside on the road to self-fulfillment, the women's movement engaged the subject of motherhood with both passion and rigor. Feminists simultaneously embraced motherhood and condemned it, and motherhood itself surfaced as an object of real and legitimate ambivalence. Feminists insisted that motherhood actually be given its due, as the work of a fully formed, though highly constrained, individual human. They debated, in all sorts of forums, about the extent to which motherhood gave women a particular moral authority that they should use to assert more political and economic power, or whether motherhood, as currently institutionalized, always kept mothers disempowered, voiceless, oppressed.

Perhaps the most moving and inflammatory analysis of motherhood to appear during this period was Adrienne Rich's enormously influential Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), which won the National Book Award. When we were young women, we and everyone we knew read the book, and some of us gave it to our mothers, a gesture not always greeted with the same delight that flowers or bath oil evoked. "When we think of motherhood, we are supposed to think of Renoir's blooming women with rosy children at their knees, Raphael's ecstatic madonnas," Rich wrote. "We are not supposed to think of a woman lying in a Brooklyn hospital with ice packs on her aching breasts because she has been convinced she could not nurse a child...of a girl in her teens, pregnant by her father...of two women who love each other struggling to keep custody of their children against the hostility of ex-husbands and courts. We are not supposed to think of a woman trying to conceal her pregnancy so she can go on working as long as possible, because when her condition is discovered she will be fired without disability insurance....Men have spoken, often, in abstractions, of our 'joys and pains.' We have, in our long history, accepted the stresses of the institution as if they were a law of nature." But she saw motherhood as a patriarchal institution imposed on women "which aims at ensuring that...all women -- shall remain under male control."

Rich, who had been recognized as an important "woman poet" (for whatever that was worth at the time), recounted her own experience as the mother of three young boys. Instead of proposing, somewhat optimistically, that motherhood would be so much better if there were just marriage contracts and day-care centers, Rich cut to the everyday experiences of raising kids and said, simply, motherhood can be hell. The first chapter of the book begins:

My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance....I love them. But it's in the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie.

By exposing her own ambivalence -- and the book was a brave and powerful act of exposure -- Rich launched a scathing critique, not of mothers or of motherhood itself, but of the institution that it had become. Rich demanded that we acknowledge not only the hard labor that mothering required, but also its emotional, cognitive, and psychic demands as well. Instead of taking women's willingness to mother for granted by seeing it as nothing more than a hormonal inevitability, Rich made clear how utterly remarkable women are for persevering under oppressive conditions. "Motherhood has been penal servitude," she announced. "It need not be." Having begun the book with a wrenching confession, Rich ended with a utopian exhortation:

We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console and alter human existence -- a new relationship to the universe....This is where we have to begin.

Feminists didn't just take on motherhood; they took on child rearing, too, and sought to write stories and songs for kids, and develop new advice and guidelines for nonsexist parenting that would produce a whole new generation of liberated boys and girls. Today, with Barbie selling as briskly as ever and the World Wrestling Federation Smackdowns some of the most popular programming for adolescent boys, it seems impossible that anyone would be so wet behind the ears as to try to develop a project dedicated to eliminating sexism from child rearing. Imagine, for example, that Julia Roberts had a brainstorm and gathered together Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Jordan, Pink, JayZ, the Dave Matthews Band, and Raffi to produce a kids' album and TV show that celebrated gender equality and racial harmony. This seems so naïve today (and unnecessary, according to postfeminism). But their 1970s counterparts did just that.

In 1972, Marlo Thomas, star of the hit sitcom That Girl, put together Free to Be You and Me, a kids' collection of songs, stories, and poems designed to undermine what was popularly known as "sex-role stereotyping." The album sold five hundred thousand copies and was nominated for a "best album of the year" Grammy. (In 1972 Helen Reddy won a Grammy for her song "I Am Woman" in which she proclaimed, "I am strong, I am invincible." Three decades later we got Britney Spears singing, "Hit Me Baby, One More Time." But we digress.) The album featured performances by a range of stars, including Diana Ross, actor Alan Alda, Broadway star Carol Channing, comedian Mel Brooks, singer Harry Belafonte, and football star Rosey Grier, a three-hundred-pound defensive tackle for the New York Giants, who weighed in with "It's All Right to Cry," a song licensing boys to let the tears flow. The record became the basis for an ABC-TV special, and in 1974, McGraw-Hill published a book by the same name. All profits from sales of Free to Be went to the Ms. Foundation (and later to an off-shoot, the Free to Be Foundation) to fund projects that "help children grow up free." As an antidote to pop culture's girls-wear-pink, boys-shoot-bazookas address to the country's pint-sized consumer, the songs and stories invited kids and their parents to imagine a world in which the co-liberation of children and women opened doors, stirred the air, and freed the soul from insidious social constraints. The title song (in true American spirit) celebrated the convergence of individuality and togetherness. It urged children to come together and invited them to a place "Where the children are free...And you and me are free to be you and me."

The songs' messages were unambiguous: Inside each and every one of us, there is a person chomping at the bit to throw off the shackles of gender and become, well, a person. In "William Wants a Doll," a boy is teased mercilessly by his peers for wanting a "doll to have and hold" so that he can grow up to be a good father. Though his own parents try to rid him of his perversity (his father gives him a bat and ball), his grandmother comes to the rescue. And it turns out that a kid can be good at baseball and have a doll at the same time. The poem "Housework" ridiculed advertisers' insistence that women increased their self-esteem by scrubbing toilets, and suggested that everyone (including Dad and Junior!) should pitch in at cleaning time. Perhaps even more subversive, it revealed that the happy housewife in the commercial was smiling because "she's an actress. And she's earning money for learning those speeches that mention those wonderful soaps and detergents." In the song "Parents Are People," kids could sing along with "some mommies are ranchers or poetry makers or doctors or teachers or cleaners or bakers....Yes, mommies can be almost anything they want to be."

For the blink of an eye, we were permitted, even encouraged to think that the gendered rigidity of childhood was a thing of the past, that the current generation of children would initiate a new world order. Wearing their striped Oshkosh overalls, bowl cuts and Afros, girls and boys would march together into a land where dads changed diapers, moms changed tires, and nobody made bombs. The Emmy-winning TV special cemented Free to Be's reputation as the holy grail of liberation. How could anyone have resisted the ingenue Michael Jackson, in his trademark Jackson Five outfit, singing that he didn't care what you looked like and, more to the point, he liked his looks just fine. It didn't matter if you were pretty or if you were tall. He reassured kids "We don't have to change at all." Ah Michael, see what happens to you when you drift away from feminism?

In a nutshell then, the women's movement in all its forms succeeded in shattering the assumption that all women had to, as it were, assume the position of the MRS. Consciousness-raising worked. But whatever constitutes a culture's common sense is never permanent: It is fought over, it evolves, re-forms, and, yes, it regresses. This is why the CRAP assault is so important to watch: Maybe if you tell another story, or try to get people to forget that certain things happened in the first place, people will think that those "other" people in the past -- in this case feminists -- were crazy, stupid, mean, selfish, or all of the above and that what they tried to achieve in the end makes zero sense at all. So think where we would be today if feminists had had some real policy victories -- if the day care bill Nixon vetoed had instead been passed, if paid maternity and paternity leave became the national standard, if men accepted, as a given, that they were equally responsible (and we mean equally) for the raising of kids, if homemakers got some compensation for raising kids and keeping house. (Where you would be, probably, is Denmark.)

Feminism was -- and remains -- a revolutionary movement. Once feminists disrupted the common sense about motherhood and the family, the mainstream media had to respond. The feminine mystique was out -- but what was in? From One Day at a Time to Dr. Spock, the media would struggle with this question. Meanwhile, intensive mothering, with a stake in its heart, lay dormant, waiting patiently for new soil and for the night to come.

Copyright © 2004 by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels

Reading Group Guide

The Mommy Myth
The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women
Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels


1. How would you describe the state of motherhood in America today? Do you agree with the authors’ premise of the “new momism”—that women are being conditioned to believe they can find true fulfillment only through the perfection of motherhood? How well do they support the arguments and ideas they present in The Mommy Myth?

2. What are the tenets of feminism, and how have they been distorted through the years? Do you agree with the authors that “the new momism is the result of the combustible intermixing of right-wing attacks on feminism and women” (24)?

3. The authors cite numerous instances where newscasters reported a story as fact but did not offer evidence or statistics to back it up. Why do you think the American public is so willing to believe what is reported in the media, particularly when no supporting data is offered? Does it surprise you that government officials are the major source of news for the networks?

4. What role has politics played in the rise of the new momism over the last several decades? How have conservative mores in particular shaped the American culture’s representation of motherhood?

5. What ignited the enormous popularity of the celebrity mom profile, “probably the most influential form to sell the new momism” (113)? Why do women continue to be drawn in by the onslaught of celebrity mom profiles?

6. Discuss the ways in which television shows and movies—including The Cosby Show, thirtysomething, The Simpsons, women-in-jep films, and Kramer vs. Kramer—have impacted our society’s attitude toward motherhood in both positive and negative ways. How have the images of motherhood in television shows and movies evolved since the 1950s?

7. The “mommy wars” divided mothers into two camps—the working mother versus the stay-at-home mom. What escalated the mommy wars? Is there still a divide today between the working mother and the stay-at-home mom? What about women who work out of necessity to support their children? How has the “Martha Stewartization of America” further contributed to the debate about motherhood and added fuel to the mommy wars?

8. In what ways did media coverage of “threats from without” in the 1980s, including dangerous daycare and kidnappings, impact the new momism? In the late 1980s, this gave way to “the threat to children from mom herself” (140) with sensationalized stories about Susan Smith, Baby M, and crack babies. What caused this shift in emphasis and what effect has it had?

9. Trace the evolution of the welfare mother in the news media. How was the issue of welfare and, specifically, the welfare mother, used as a cornerstone of the Reagan administration?

10. How has the media’s need for heroes and villains enforced the stereotype of the black woman as a bad mother? Have women themselves aided in perpetuating this stereotype?

11. A central point in the book is the failure of the government to institute a national day care program despite legislation having been introduced to Congress on multiple occasions. How did the media’s coverage of the McMartin daycare scandal reinforce the government’s position against national daycare? 

12. To what degree are advertisers responsible for the new momism, including companies like GE and Johnson & Johnson as well as toy manufacturers and retailers? Have they knowingly or unknowingly added to the cementing of the new momism in our culture?

13. The authors use Dr. Laura Schlesinger—a working mother whose platform is telling other women to quit their jobs and stay home with their children—to exemplify their point that the new momism is “not about subservience to men. It is about subservience to children” (299). What do you think of Dr. Laura’s message? Does the fact that she herself is a working mother alter your opinion?

14. Has reading The Mommy Myth changed your views about motherhood, the media, or women’s roles in society? Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels view The Mommy Myth as a “call to arms” and ask women “to just say no to the new momism” (26). How can women do this? Where do you see the state of motherhood in America ten years from now?


About The Authors

Susan J. Douglas is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, and Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Her journalistic articles have appeared in The Nation, Ms., In These Times, TV Guide, and The Progressive.

Meredith W. Michaels is a writer who doubles as a philosophy professor at Smith College. Her research and writing focus on the way that cultural changes affect our understanding of reproduction, parenthood, and childhood.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (February 8, 2005)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743260466

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Raves and Reviews

"An absolutely fascinating exposé...this eye-opening report contains a wealth of valuable insight into the never-ending, and ultimately self-defeating, quest for the maternal perfection glorified by contemporary American society."
-- Booklist

"In a book crackling with humor and sarcasm, the authors comb through the past thirty years' worth of nightly news reports, women's magazines, celebrity journalism, newspapers, and ads, and point out a growing obsession with this idealized, and guilt-inducing, version of motherhood that women can't achieve."
-- Chicago Tribune

"This is a book for mothers who can admit that they yell sometimes, feed their children processed food, and occasionally get bored playing Barbie camp-out under the dining room table....It's a book for mothers who would be okay with being imperfect, if only the rest of the world would stop pointing out their shortcomings."
-- The Washington Post

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