45 Years After Rossi, Mommies Propagate Prejudice



It’s been a very long time since I sat in the Frieze Building on the University of Michigan campus taking notes in a women’s studies course. While I registered mainly for administrative reasons (the session fulfilled a requirement for my English Literature major), the class had the added benefit of being thought-provoking. One of the assigned books, Strong-Minded Women, remains on my bookshelf today.

I trust my prof would have been pleased to see an essay I wrote today — prompted by an obituary on sociologist and feminist scholar, Alice S. Rossi (pictured here) — made the cut as an “editor’s pick” on Open Salon. You can read the piece, “45 Years After Rossi, Mommies Propagate Prejudice,” here. While I don’t take any formal classes today, I remain a student of sorts, observing how women’s attitudes and behaviors impact society.


Full essay below


Alice S. Rossi passed away this past week. An unwitting beneficiary of her life’s work, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I didn’t know her name or what she’d accomplished. It was the descriptor in a New York Times obituary headline that encouraged me to dive into the piece, curious to know more about this “sociologist and feminist scholar.”

“In her scholarship, Professor Rossi explored the status of women in work, family and sexual life…her writings are widely credited with helping build the platform on which the women’s movement of the 1960s and afterward was erected.”

I was born in the 1960s and grew up in a time remarkably different in many ways from today. There were no women Supreme Court justices, astronauts, or combat-zone soldiers. The year I was born young women were basically left with aspirations that fell into four categories: teacher/librarian, nurse, secretary or mother. Occasionally a woman would break out of those traditional roles, but she was the outlier and was usually held up as a curiosity; something “unfeminine.”

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After reading more about Rossi’s work, I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to get her opinion on a societal shift that has puzzled and at times confounded me.

The obituary noted that in one of Rossi’s most influential articles, “Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal,” she argued, “for most women motherhood had become a full-time occupation, a state of affairs that hurt not only women but also the larger society in which they lived. For the well-being of both the women and the culture, parity of the sexes is essential.”

Familiar today, Professor Rossi’s argument, the obit points out, “was considered subversive at the time. As a result, she was called a monster, an unnatural woman…”

The daughters and granddaughters of the same women that Professor Rossi wanted to liberate have gone the other way, embracing motherhood with a single-mindedness and ferocity that would be comical if it weren’t a bit troubling. Given the unfettered opportunity to express their full potential and talents, the role and identity they hold up with the most reverence and value today is that of “mommy.”

From Women to ‘Mommies’

While it was largely men who held women back in the 1960s, creating an awkward or hostile environment for women who aspired to round out their life’s work, a large segment of today’s mothers have become oppressive in their own right.

If you’re not a mother you don’t rate. If you don’t parent your life has no meaning. If you’re not a mother, you’re (to use the label applied to Rossi – herself a mother of three) an “unnatural women.” How else could so much self-importance and implied legitimacy be injected into any statement begun with, “As a Mom …”?

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Mommy blogs around the ‘sphere have all but taken the Helen Reddy song and made it their own, “I am Mommy, Hear Me Roar…” They patronize and question those who either choose not to or could not have children, insinuating a level of selfishness or blame.  One gem in particular stands out. The post from an Orlando Sentinel mommy blogger on Moms at Work, provides her list of “what the so-called ‘child-free’  ”(as if that were exclusively some hedonistic lifestyle choice) “are missing in full” to support her position that “life would be a lot less full and happy and complete without my children.” She goes on to encourage fellow moms to add to her list of what non-moms are missing.

Echoing a similar philosophy, Mika Brezezinski in her piece, Don’t Forget to Have Children, writes:

“For me, having it all doesn’t mean having the corner office at work and a penthouse at home if there aren’t kids running around as I’m trying to cook my husband something special…

“Women face enough pressures and challenges in a workplace that is still depressingly biased against a female’s success. Add to that, the fact that the very thing many women I know find most rewarding (having kids) is now frowned upon.”

Having kids is now frowned upon? Mika, you must be seriously distracted to have missed out of the larger mommy movement. Just check out Mom’s Rising or Mom 2.0 Summit or the Motherhood Project or Maria Shriver’s latest report, A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.  As Melanie Notkin points out in her editor’s note on the website Savvy Auntie, the report weirdly overlooked the fact that not all women are mothers:

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“The study, meant to change the way government policy and businesses modernize with the new standing of women in the economy – a change I completely support – interchanges the word “woman” with “mother” so often it’s as if all women are mothers.”

Bella DePaulo, a single woman with no children, takes the point further in a piece in Psychology Today:

“It is the year 2009. It is past time to accord single women and women who do not have children a place of recognition and respect in our society, our universities, our policies, our politics, our workplaces, our marketplaces, our media…”

Lori Bradley at BellaOnline shares another perspective after being called out a social event by a mother for not having children in her post Living Childfree and Community Connected:

“Do I know less about being human and living fully in our mysterious  universe because I don’t have kids? No! I have less experience in some areas but more in others!”

So, that brings me to the questions I wish I had discussed with Rossi. Did she ever anticipate that, by tearing down walls once erected by men, subsequent generations of women would resurrect them? Or demonstrate a new form of own-sex defeating prejudice?

I would solicit her opinion on the long-term implications of this “neo-momminess” on their daughters and sons. Will they know how to survive and thrive without an omnipresent mom hovering about? I’d muse with Rossi the irony that by making childrearing the highest mission in their lives, there will no doubt be new types of identity crises when micro-managed, overindulged kids move out of the house.

Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos is the author of Silent Sorority: A (Barren) Woman Gets Busy, Angry, Lost and Found.


8 Responses

  1. Me

    November 9, 2009 12:45 pm

    Love your article. I know a few women who could use reading it but I’m not sure if I’ll send it to them or not…

  2. Sharon

    November 9, 2009 3:38 pm

    Loved the article Pam.I also liked this comment:
    “As many have said (e.g., Daniel Gilbert) people often need to validate their choices by saying that those choices make them happy – whereas research shows that it’s not necessarily so.” and have to say I agree with it wholeheartedly. I’ve often thought that the reason these Momzilla’s are that ways is because they secretly envy what they assume are the benefits to being childfree.

  3. Renee

    November 9, 2009 6:00 pm

    I have to be brutally honest here and run the risk of offending some, I fear. But… I find that those mommy-women who condescend to (at worst) or misunderstand (at best) other women who are childless, either by choice or not, are usually less educated and by extension, less liberated themselves. I have run across this over and over again in professional and social circles.

    It’s just a personal observation, but all of my girl friends are professionals, with a minimum of an undergrad education. Most have advanced degrees and none of us have ever questioned negatively the choices we’ve made to have or not have children. And believe me you, the childless ones are fiercely feminine, contributing much to the cause of the women’s movement in the workplace.

    By contrast, I have noticed that less educated women and women that do not work outside the home tend to be the smug ones about being mommies. I will reserve comments about that particular observation, since they may be on the judgmental side. Women who have kids and work outside the home, I have observed, balance quite a lot and are usually just looking to keep things running smoothly.

  4. loribeth

    November 9, 2009 6:37 pm

    I don’t think I’d ever heard of Alice Rossi either, until I read her obituary in the paper. How many other unknown pioneers like her do we owe debts to?? I just picked up Gail Collins’s new book, “When Everything Changed” (approximate title?), & am looking forward to diving into that over Christmas vacation, if not before. I’m not sure younger women today who shy away from the “F” word are aware of just how far we really have come, & how huge a debt we owe to women like Alice Rossi.

    Congratulations on having this post (the Open Salon one, I mean) being named an Editor’s Pick!!

  5. tiffany lee brown

    November 9, 2009 10:06 pm

    i agree that mommies can be smug and that a pro-natal, family-centric society can be socially, culturally, and politically discriminatory to the childless/childfree.

    but generalizations about Momzillas aren’t going to help all of us get beyond this. we all need meaning in our lives. if you work at an office 60 hours a week, shouldn’t you find meaning in your work? if you spend 200 hours a week taking care of children, shouldn’t you find meaning in that?

    propagating the Childless/Childfree vs. Stay-at-Home Mommies vs. Working Mothers construct, especially with Attitude, accusations, or meanness is just another way to set feminism back. of course everybody’s defensive in this environment…

    i’m childless/childfree and i advocate for equality of the childless/childfree. however, if we don’t take mothers and other parents into consideration, WE WILL LOSE. Daphne DeMarneffe’s book “Maternal Desire” is a pretty good, startling insight into this issue.

    • Pamela Tsigdinos

      November 10, 2009 3:19 pm

      The overwhelmingly disproportionate share of voice of self-described “mommies” is hard to miss in today’s society — not to mention the “bump watches” and mainstream media fascination with pregnancy and parenting stories. My own mother agreed that today’s mom-centricity is off the charts and not something she recalls ever seeing before — and she’s been around 70 years. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. In fact, holding up a mirror may be one way to encourage a return to a more balanced view.

      One of the Open Salon comments summed up it up well: “it’s not psychologically healthy for any adult to be primarily
      identifying and defining his or herself by his or her relationship to
      someone else.” 

  6. Christina

    November 10, 2009 5:56 am

    What an interesting chain of comments you spawned on Salon! I was actually kind of interested in what the man had to say — because as a childless woman, I often feel completely left out of the feminist agenda.

  7. magdalen23

    November 17, 2009 2:33 am

    Pamela ~ just to clarify, nowhere in my post (your reply post is nested under mine in this thread) did i suggest that the mommy voice wasn’t loud as hell. it is. i’m sick to death of bump watches and Brangelina and all that stuff.

    and i had the misfortune to live in NYC during the extremely obvious rise of Mommy Trendiness in the late 1990s.

    i don’t advocate ignoring it. magazines publish my writing on this subject, i bother to do a blog about it, etc., so i’m hardly ignoring it myself.

    but check it out: if i want to identify myself and define myself by my relationships to my friends, my artistic community, etc., why should anyone get on my case about it? by the same token, if a mother wants to go on and on about how her children are her source of meaning, well… who am i to say they shouldn’t be? (i happen to agree with you and the Salon poster, because i’ve seen and experienced the damage of mothers over-identifying with their children… but it’s not my business to intervene in that relationship with someone else.)

    what i’m worried about is that the divisiveness will really mess all of us up: moms, notmoms, kids, everybody. and it all boils down to looking down on women for daring to make their own life choices.

    not sure how we can make the parents understand what it’s like not to be a parent, and how we’re socially and politically disenfranchised…

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