Photographer Rafael Ortega Stylist Susan Kurtz
Photographer Rafael Ortega
Stylist Susan Kurtz

Summer often means one thing for academics — time to catch up on the zillion things they’ve been trying to finish all year, most often their own research and writing.  I wrote the post (below) in March about the “new Barbie body” — three, in fact — whose introduction was considered radical for each’s deviation in shape from traditional Barbie. This was huge news back in January, with press coverage spanning most major newspapers and magazines, plus enthusiastic blogging.  Months later, while I haven’t been able to access a report on sales figures, it seems the response is still largely positive.

More timely, however, is the recent introduction of “President and Vice-President Barbie” — only sold in a pair although consumers can choose from a small range of ethnicities — although not body types.  Their branding shows an image of a “First All Female Ticket” button with Barbie’s trademark high-ponytail silhouette visible. With days to go before the Democratic National Convention begins, the timing is ripe, and the duo(s) seem to be flying off of Mattel’s website.  The invention of the two is presented in partnership with the organization She Should Run.

Releasing these dolls within a fraught political climate almost seems like an editorial choice on Mattel’s part.  Part of their “You Can Be Anything” series, the “You can do it!” boosterism that Mattel counts on is at its peak with this set as they know that Barbie as “career girl” is one of her strongest selling points.  (Interesting to note, Barbie (of varying ethnicities) also ran for President in 2012, minus a running mate.)

It’s hard to argue with this line (of thinking), but good to remember that it’s but one line (of products) Mattel sells among many that still largely reinforce feminine stereotypes through play, and more insidiously, claiming power through this fulfillment.  The free downloads (available on Mattel’s home site) that accompany the candidates include a laudable list of words that girls can circle to describe their own leadership abilities. What’s missing is how these descriptors are often in direct conflict with other, oppositional, qualities promoted to young girls and how they clash when the two combine (footnote: see vitriol surrounding Hilary Clinton).  Girls who are following the campaign, at any level, will likely learn this soon enough.

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In more timely news, straight ahead is the release of the July 30th Barbie film, Starlight Adventure, a pink-tinged sci-fi movie whose teaser reveals a range of Barbie figures of traditional body type.  The snippet of song available, “I can be anything….” is an echo of what Mattel is serving up to young girls.  It is hard to dispute the inherent optimism of this message — yet, (particularly as this political campaign unfolds), it’s hard to not think about what happens when idealistic platitudes meet with actual reality.

On the new Barbie body types:

It’s been a few weeks since Barbie, a maverick of (at least clothes-changing) reinvention, has done it again. Or, another way to frame her latest transformation is that the design and marketing teams at Mattel, (perhaps in response to declining sales), are finally ready to act on the message that the world of dolls is diversifying. Mattel has tried (and failed in my opinion) to offer a more radical doll with the Monster High line, but the iconic Barbie, stands (or balances) forever in her own category. Any change for her has been one of increments, but this time Mattel has taken a leap.


Generations of women have played with Barbie and there has been no shortage of wonderfully inventive feminist “make-overs” and interventions with the doll. Yet, Barbie’s impossible proportions have remained the same throughout the years, although — more signs of progress — almost a year ago a “flat-footed” Barbie with articulated ankles was released. A quick cruise through the Target aisle reveals Barbies available in a variety of skin colors and hair lengths, although the traditional blonde-haired, pale-skinned icon still dominates the shelves.

Praise has always been (sometimes begrudgingly) given to Barbie’s “career girl” persona and as I cruised the aisles with my 4-year-old we admired the snappy uniforms Pilot Barbie and Chef Barbie donned. Yet, despite the “vet set” (complete with pink and purple-decked office equipment), the emphasis on Barbie as fashion doll who engages in stereotypically feminine activity is still abundantly clear. I tried to move my little person more swiftly past the boxes for Barbie’s walk-in closet (packed with accessories) and a “dinner date” set complete with café table and chairs where she looked très intime with Ken.

Mattel’s big reveal was a trio of Barbies with different body types (petite, curvy, and tall, with one doll sporting bright blue hair). In the world of feminist activism around dolls, parenting, and the fight for more gender equity with kids’ toys and clothing, reaction has been cautiously optimistic. One cynical, yet commonly heard, response is that the dolls’ different body shapes means their clothing isn’t interchangeable, garnering more sales for Mattel. Another level of response, much discussed in comments and blogs, is whether girls will digest these changes and how — and, frankly, if the “curvy” Barbie didn’t go far enough, with wide hips that still don’t truly mirror the body shape of the average American woman. Comment threads have questioned whether giving a “curvy” Barbie might be perceived as an insult — reflecting the thought, again, that a less-than-thin body is still less than desirable.

Mattel strategically brought onboard a small handful of activists to consult and it’s unclear how much input was taken seriously, or might have even served as a strategy to leverage their efforts as collaborative and thereby inoculate themselves from later attacks. I am cautious about seeing companies promote what I’ve called “fauxpowerment”: a move the plays off of the idea of “empowering girls” but, in reality, serves their own interests.

Companies walk a fine line when using “body confidence” to espouse “feel good” boosts — at best it can be a step forward towards redefinition, at worst, it’s exploitation of the most undermining sort. This magazine pictorial (“Women Proving That Their Own Skin is This Season’s Hottest Accessory”) even references the new Barbies as a way of proving that there now is more body shape and color representation — but with the helping hand of a makeup product. Yet, general consensus seems to be that Mattel’s motives are well-intended — and given that Barbie is solidly in midlife an evolving body shape (and midlife rebranding) seems like a timely development.

Just as Disney has made strides towards reforming the Princess zeitgeist (although I’m sure would never dream of eliminating it), I think Mattel is ceding to some external pressure and sincerely trying to have Barbie evolve, although they are probably motivated more by the chance to pitch new merchandise as progressive to increase sales rather than any kind of deep corporate altruism.

The relationship between girls and Barbie, and women and Barbie isn’t one that shows any sign of ending, even decades past the years she was an active presence within a girl’s life — which is exactly why her influence and continuing development is so important.

Note: The video above is from 2009.  Barbie was created in 1959. Now 57, she’s ready to run again for political office.

For months I’ve been keeping an eye on (and meaning to write about) various campaigns that address or try to rectify gender stereotyping in children’s clothing.  I was cheering on Michele Yulo of Princess Free Zone  and her campaign to create a new line of suits specifically for girls, (Suit Her), which looks like it will need another round of funding.  Yet more independent online shops seem to be popping up to offer lines of slogan-free, neutral clothing for (mostly) girls and tracking how these shops re-envision engendering their wares could be the basis for a great study.  Asking the owners if they’re yet making any kind of significant profit or gaining traction using clothing to enact social change could well be another.

Not too long ago I saw a great think piece which asked why refashioning girls’ clothing always means refusing skirts and dresses (i.e. rejecting the trope of femininity) and not offering boys a range of skirts, dresses, or pink garments and mixing all of this up.  It’s a point well taken and the lack of variety in boys clothing, nevermind fewer choices overall, hits close to home as I continue to try to dress my three-year-old in ways that eschew slogans and stereotypes.

While independent visionaries will keep pushing boundaries (so I hope) when a mainstream clothier makes a move it’s significant.  I was deeply intrigued (and initially suspicious) by the new line Ellen Degeneres launched with The Gap about two months ago, but am slowly coming around.  The videos shot for the line (and the “unstaged” behind the scenes ones) are deliberately black and white, with no pink anywhere.  The girls are making faces, getting muddy, catching frogs, creating with robotics, and pounding the drums — what girls do — or, the opposite of what girls are supposed to do?

The blue/gray/black palette of the actual clothes reminds me of how frustrated I often feel not being able to buy lighter colors for my son — again, is this just a simple inversion so that the GAP can catch the wave of easy empowerment that so many corporations want to claim, all under the guise of generously helping girls?

I was intrigued to learn that some of the nonprofessional models are part of the Pink Helmet Posse — skateboarders who all started young and are frank with Degeneres about the prejudice they have experienced.

I was also cheered to learn that $250,000 from sales “will be donated to Girls Inc.”  Even if that’s a tiny fraction of their profit and a simple PR move, it’s something for a nonprofit I respect.  Glancing at the #heyworld Twitter hashtag they’ve coined, (meant to foster discussion about supporting girls), didn’t yield much and seems an easy vehicle through which the GAP can keep promoting its campaign — i.e.  both sales and a message of social change.  But it is a step in a different direction for a major retailer whose children’s departments are fundamentally bifurcated. I assume that this line “GapKids x ED Collection” will be solidly planted on the girls’ side, at least breaking up the color scheme a little, and changing through less static models, (literally, with the girls in their advertising), the message beyond the ad.

In parallel with measuring change within the kids’ clothing world, I was curious how Halloween would fare this year.  The yearly lament about the oversexualization of costumes for both girls and women has been well underway, and this recent article comments on how often “man” v. “girl” is used to describe parallel costumes. With Target’s recent desegregation of the toy aisle, I wondered what they would do with Halloween. Visiting two local stores revealed costumes identified by ages v. gender, although the costumes themselves (not unlike the toys) definitely skew towards gender stereotypes.

More cheering, in parallel with the work independent retailers are doing, there has been an amazing wealth of feminist Halloween ideas out on the Internet.  A quick roundup shows real pushback against sexualized, reductive costumes that define what girls can be through the limitation of their offerings, although these are all “home made” v. mass marketed costumes. Some play on a facile definition of feminism, some gleefully use the holiday to publicly make a social statement with pointed humor.  Some good ideas from Girls Leadership here. Thanks to Bitch Media for this great collection. And some good ideas are also listed here.  
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The recent article in the New York Times, “Where Have All the Tomboys Gone?” (which highlights Degeneres’s new GAP line) refers to the term “tomboy” as “retro” and outdated, unnecessary when (of the people interviewed) there’s casual acceptance of girls who don’t want to dress in stereotypically feminine ways and surprise that it would be otherwise (at least in their families). The trend of women adapting “men’s wear” is traced with emphasis that this is a one-way street in the mainstream, i.e. there is never a public trend of men wearing styles designated for women.

“Tomboy” as a phrase might be leaving the American lexicon, but keeping an eye on Halloween costume options is one way to watch levels of crossing and acceptance.  With the awareness that girls adapting into male-designated clothing is always far less objectionable than the reverse, glad as I was to see lists of feminist costume ideas proliferate on the web, I regret that there wasn’t a list for boys or men. While one girl at my son’s preschool chose a male superhero costume (complete with rippling plastic chest), the winks at how “cute” this was, I’m certain, wouldn’t have gone to a boy dressing up as Elsa. Moving beyond just gender, this article, “What Color is Your Princess?” astutely highlights the assumption of whiteness within the princess universe, which is of greater concern to the author than that her son wants to dress up as one at all.

I didn’t know the Onion ventured into video and stumbled on this one from a few years back.  Entitled, “How To Find A Masculine Halloween Costume for Your Effeminate Son” it’s a parody that’s painful to watch as boys who don’t want masculinized costumes are “rehabilitated” into stereotypically “boy costumes” to disguise their features or habits labeled as feminine.  It’s stunning in its spot-on precision about anxiety about boys breaking with male code.

As a yearly barometer, Halloween can offer a quick read of current trends, pop culture, and what gender stereotypes are readily available and which are still transgressive to cross. Yet, studying what commercial retailers and independent outlets do the rest of the year is a far more steady signifier of what change has occurred, and what trend is edging over into expectation.   In a year’s time it will be interesting to see what is (still) considered humorous, provocative, or casually acceptable.  Happy feminist Halloween!



Now that the one day of celebrating motherhood is behind us, many women will go back to silently doing the unrecognized, steady work that keeps the wheels turning forward that make a family work.  With this in mind, it was a pleasure to attend last week’s screening, “Breaking the Silence: A Celebration of Healing Through Our Mothers’ Narratives” — a series of short films made by teenage girls between the ages of 14 and 18 who live in the Eastern Coachella Valley in California, a rural desert community which is 99% Latino, with a high rate of poverty and a low rate of education.

It was powerful to witness the sense of release many of the adult women expressed on film by having the chance to tell their stories, and having them recognized as important, as well as the obvious desire to connect with a daughter, often across cultural and generational boundaries, and to convey how each woman’s opportunities, choices, and constrictions formed who she was at her daughter’s age.  In some of the films the mothers reveal wrenching stories of abuse, hidden first marriages, and the difficulties of escape during emigration.  The revelations of the past are like long-held ghosts released and highlight a hard-won resilience.

The project is facilitated by Global Girl Media, an organization helmed by filmmaker and visionary Amie Williams and doing amazing cross-cultural work in the US and overseas, with the aim of expanding into even more countries.  By giving girls the tools to take charge of media production, GGM aspires to promote girls’ voices by giving them access to technology and cultivating leadership.  This project seems thoroughly in the spirit of their mission to recognize the voice of “the invisible majority, particularly young women,” who would otherwise pass “silently under the radar.”

After the screening there was an excellent panel which reiterated the need to encourage women to believe they matter — such a familiar refrain, yet so poignantly evergreen. Lian Cheun, the Executive Director of Khmer Girls in Action, based in Long Beach, CA spoke impressively of working with girls whose families might still be suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, the challenges of assimilation, and how to unearth family stories when there is a cultural onus against speaking out. She revealed how she began to connect with her own mother through cues or clues such as deciphering a grunt, or interpreting the food served, or vegetables chosen to grow in a garden. Cheun also spoke about her organization’s calculated decision to admit boys into their programming to further recognize and affirm the experiences of girls and women as part of their mission to fight for “race, class and gender justice.”

The other panelists, Monique W. Morris, co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, among other impressive achievements, and Sara Haskie-Mendoza, who runs the program, Xinachtli Rites of Passage for the Los Angeles Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance, spoke meaningfully about the need for intergenerational healing, particularly in the communities they serve.

The program ended with the projection of questions to ask any mother about her past, her wishes, her left-behind dreams.  No matter the cultural background or hidden history, it became clear that silences or gaps transmit from generation to generation and, unless mended, become sewn into the fabric of a family.  Don’t wait a full year to recognize a mother’s legacy — as the program emphasized — now is the time to begin to heal.


* This post originally ran in the Ms. Magazine blog.  And I can’t help but post a link to father-of-two-girls President Barack Obama who made news recently for sorting toys outside of the expected gender box — literally!

If you’re still thinking about last-minute shopping, it’s not too late to stop and consider the No Gender December campaign from Australian organization Play Unlimited. While their tagline, “Stereotypes Have No Place Under My Christmas Tree,” presumes everyone is celebrating Christmas, their message is one that’s gone global as a quick look at their pledge page reveals, with more signatures still pouring in.

It’s heartening to see wider messaging about the limitations of gender stereotyping in children’s toys, as a flurry of recent articles reveals. More heartening would be harder evidence that toy companies are listening and are open to broader understandings of marketing to kids, not driven by a bifurcated blue-or-pink bottom dollar. Some stores, notably Harrod’s in London have stopped divvying up their aisles, and there is reason to hope that other retailers will followSociologist Elizabeth Sweet’s Atlantic article, “Toys Are More Divided by Gender Now Than They Were 50 Years Ago,” does a great job of revealing the history of marketing by toy companies and how entrenched gender stereotypes have become. Her comment about the subversive repackaging of toys geared to girls which “emphasizes freedom and choice,” is a great one. She comments, “The reformulated story does not fundamentally challenge gender stereotypes; it merely repackages them to make them more palatable in a ‘post-feminist’ era. Girls can be anything—as long as it’s passive and beauty-focused.”

This juncture is one that has been a sticking point for many who deeply desire change in toys marketed to girls but are left stymied by how to do it. Some of the brouhaha around GoldieBlox’s campaign turned on the point that serving up “sparkle science-type” projects to girls in a gateway-like attempt to lure them past masculine associations with STEM fields does nothing but backfire, nevermind is ultimately undermining. This seems to be the pivot point for those who support diversifying the colors, (and stereotypes that accompany them), in the toy aisles, with supporters of change often facing different directions in terms of approach, even as they stand on common ground.


More recently, a new set of princesses came onto the scene who are also stealthily undermining stereotypes. The Guardian Princesses, who made a splash with their debut last year, are back with newly released titles just this past week. The series is the brainchild of UC Riverside Professor of Media and Cultural Studies Setsu Shigematsu, who found herself at a loss when her daughter began to succumb to the ever-present influence of princess culture and denying access to it only seemed to make things worse. Not unlike Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and her suggestion to “Fight Fun with Fun” through alternatives to princess culture, Shigematsu wrote a different princess story and, after reading it to her daughter’s friends, a new legacy was born.

The Guardian Princesses are presented in a range of body styles and are of diverse ethnicities and there’s no fighting the long dresses, necklaces and flowing hair that’s considered part of the princess look. The approach of the Guardian Princess Alliance is firmly in the “ease in and then make a change” camp, something they are likely to be critiqued for by those who see capitulation in any form as not radical enough and even pandering. But, as their peppy video (below) reveals, despite their poufy dresses, the princesses are unhindered in their mobility and the rhetoric used about their mission is hardly passive.

The newest series released features Princess Ten Ten, who is the most gender-fluid in appearance of the lot (or “gender independent” as they term it) and who is bullied and faces rejection within her family.  In a wise move, all of the Guardian Princess books are compliant with Common Core standards, meaning they can be adopted for classroom use, and there is a distinctive environmental focus to their stories. One risk with this new series might be making the stories too didactic or pitting the princesses against the evils of corporate greed every time, but, overall, the shift in what these princesses do and what is valued is an exhilarating breath of fresh air. How well they sell, and how long the Guardian Princess Alliance can keep up with demand and generate new work, are perhaps the issues at hand. The desire by visionary small business ownersto put what are still alternative toys, books and gender messaging out to the public seems an uphill battle, one mitigated by energy, perseverance and available funds when up against so many cultural barriers, which is all the more reason to celebrate those that do.

Here’s hoping that the messages espoused by the No Gender December campaign extend beyond the shopping frenzy and, optimistically, become part of retailers, parents, teachers and even kids’ expectations of toys in the new year.

In the last 24 hours I’ve seen a range of responses break out in reaction to this video: “F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty-Mouted Princesses Use Bad Word for Good Cause.”

Some commenters fall immediately into the “cursing = bad” camp and are offended by the language, but for those not turned off, the other initial reaction seems to be glee.  There’s an “I can’t believe they’re saying that!” kind of catharsis that accompanies watching little girls drop f-bombs all over the place and show some righteous rage over the injustices they are bound to face due to gender inequity.  What seems less present in the general reaction, and concerns me the most, is how these girls — and these causes — are fundamentally being leveraged by a T-shirt company.

For years I’ve written about what I call “fauxpowerment” — the “rah-rah, you go girl,” feel-good phrases and gestures that are meant to pump girls up with confidence or a newly varnished sense of self-esteem (often enough through a makeover) but, in fact, undermine any real confidence building as these messages reinforce that girls’ looks are paramount or that a quick, pink band-aid slapped over a deep wound makes everything better.  For those in the Girls’ Studies community or who work at well-developed programs designed just for girls, these attempts are not only insultingly facile, they are understood to be downright harmful and counterproductive. Worst of all is seeing corporations leverage girls for commercial purposes, a tradition, maddeningly, that seems ongoing.  That’s the category in which I would put the “Potty-Mouthed Princesses” advertisement — what it fundamentally is.

FCKH8, the company behind the ad, initially responded positively to my queries about their intentions, what charities they are donating proceeds of each sale to, and if the girls in the video were tightly scripted or had any input into the video, but I have not heard back again.  I hope to update this post if I do.  On their home page they cite their mission as being a “for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as ‘mini-billboards’ for change.”

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Their T-shirt slogans are meant to be provocative, and in some cases, it seems, also plagiarized, as the Feminist Majority Foundation has had an ongoing “This is What A Feminist Looks Like” campaign since 2003, with President Obama in the shirt on their 2009 cover.  More recently, FCKH8 came under fire for allegedly exploiting the events in Ferguson to sell their antiracism gear.


A quick look on the FCKH8 website reveals they barely sell T-shirts in children’s sizes.  So, why use child-models in what is essentially an ad? The answer seems painfully obvious.  Anxiety about girls is pervasive in American society, if manifested through various channels.  The value of seeing girls, in princess costumes no less, letting loose about the gendered inequities they face, never mind parade across the screen asking which one of them will inevitably be raped in her lifetime, is designed to shock.  FCKH8 is tapping into a cultural zeitgeist by putting girls in princess costumes and then breaking with stereotype by having them swear up a storm and shout out their fury, complete with very adult-like, fed-up gestures and the waved middle finger.

The reaction FCKH8 has carefully cultivated is the drama that results from presenting such high contrasts — furious princesses calling out the system in which they are entrapped, flipping off the patriarchy, and angrily speaking out.  The power of seeing this dramatized speaks to how coded and closed these systems are — “little girls” under most circumstances would hardly be allowed to swear with such abandon, if they even wanted to.

Is there something cathartic about hearing these injustices called out and denounced with anger? There is.  For those furious about gender inequality it can be gratifying hearing these issues called out — when the adult women in the ad step forward. This isn’t how most girls under 10 would speak and the girls used, albeit likely paid models or actresses taking on a role, are props.  While many commenters reported that their (usually teenage) daughters expressed delight at seeing girls let loose with things they cannot say — again a moment that reveals how girls are stifled — there is hardly any empowerment when the girls didn’t write these scripts themselves and are, fundamentally, co-opted into a purportedly radical company’s for-profit campaign through their “walking billboards” which work to questionable effect.

I‘ve always loved Peggy Orenstein’s coined phrase “empowertainment” — a moment when companies use a generic sense of “sisterhood” or a cheery pro-girl message to essentially sell products. The criticism of this practice is (necessarily) ongoing and FCKH8, a company that I’m certain will defend its practices as radical and empowering, is doing exactly this.  In Andi Zeisler’s excellent round-up of the history of “femapowerment” or, as she coins it, “empowertising,” she calls out the companies that, beyond girls, are co-opting feminism — or their brand of it — to essentially sell products.  

Criticism of the company has been swift, and wide, but the click-bait appeal of this video will probably outnumber its detractors.  A few years back the video “Riley on Marketing” went viral as the outraged Riley decried the limitations imposed upon her by gendered marketing.  There was nary an f-bomb in the mix.  This was a real girl, speaking out unscripted about the injustices she knows.  The authenticity in her voice and in her message garnered almost 5 million YouTube views and carries far more power than FCKH8’s gimmicky, egregious act.


A few years ago, before I had even begun to contemplate having a child, I regularly read Ayelet Waldman’s blog, Bad Mother, now repurposed in book form.  What most appealed was the sense that someone was pulling back the curtain on what was always made to seem (with a ring of beatific sacrifice) easy, naturalized, and rewarding. Waldman’s commitment to honesty about the work, boredom, and at times ugliness (in all senses) of mothering her four children felt transgressive and, with its escape-valve honesty, like a relief.Bad-Mother-220 Soon enough, it seemed like the label “bad mother” began to proliferate — as angsty confessionals began to turn up everywhere.  What has remained fixed, however, is the polarized use of the terms “good” and “bad” although their definitions almost interchange as Elissa Strauss astutely writes: “In the beginning, bad mommy was gritty and sometimes off-putting, but overall she offered a more realistic parenting model than the good mommy, and so she took off on mommy blogs and in the hearts of conflicted mothers across the nation.”

As Strauss recapitulates, then “bad mothers” started getting “a little judgey themselves” as terms such as “mom-policing” and “sanctimommy” proliferated in a culture of “reverse bullying,” as she puts it, that still bifurcates how mothering is classified, often enough with political implications.  The recent brouhaha that emerged when New York City first lady Chirlane McCray dared to admit her ambivalence about about giving up work was quickly translated into a meant-to-be-shocking “I Was a Bad Mom” headline. Jennifer Senior’s astute retort blames the media-generated need to distort ambivalence into mom-shaming. A video produced for American Greetings’ online greeting-card shop went viral this spring, playing upon the impossible-hardship-of-motherhood theme, with its problematic categorization, once more, of motherhood as a job which is endlessly demanding but eternally worthy.  a_3x-verticalBetween the tropes of “good mother” and “bad mother” rests the realities of most women.

Thankfully, a body of literature has sprung up by writers committed to investigating the nuances of an experience that is perpetually shifting, even moment to moment.  Speaking out honestly about mothering can still be fraught, but as feminist blogger Andie Fox writes: “By sharing private and difficult moments as mothers we create a more complete picture of the reality of motherhood — it ultimately frees us all…. But the fear in us in disclosing is palpable — that we might be frauds and that our secret moments exclude us from being good mothers.”

The wealth of essays found within The Good Mother Myth, edited by Avital Norman Nathman is a treasure. With chapters by Girl w/Pen’s own Deborah Siegel and Heather Hewett the thread that weaves throughout is exploration of what “good” and “bad” even means when it comes to parenting. If being “bad” means eschewing cultural constrictions, these writers are glad to take on that mantle, often while still feeling the need to explain how this deviation is for the best. The tropes often found within literature about parenting are all here: “I’m too young,” “I’m not ready,” “But my partner’s left the picture,” “I’m not sure about the sacrifice,” and “I haven’t overcome my own childhood enough,” alongside heavier issues such as mental illness, postpartum depression, and anxiety.

More unusual are contributions from parents positioned outside the mainstream of what is often represented. Erika Lust, an independent filmmaker who currently lives in Spain, writes straightforwardly about prioritizing time without children for the sake of her career and for her partnership as she hopes that motherhood, rather than challenging sexuality, can be a source of its inspiration. In the essay, “Confessions of a Born-Bad Mother,” author Joy Ladin writes astutely about transitioning from male to female: “I might be recognized by mothers (the ultimate judges) as a ‘great dad,’ but the top of the fatherhood scale fell well short of the lowest rung of true motherhood.” Ladin’s perspective, after inhabiting both gender roles, is intriguing as the “namelessness” she experiences as a transgender parent opens up a new space for negotiation, albeit, as she writes, one often filled with tears and confusion. 21-200x300

Food is a common theme. In “The Macaroni and Cheese Dilemma” Liz Henry comments on her guilt in reaching for the ubiquitous boxed product in the context of writing about parenting and poverty alongside decisions around abortion. “It may not be a roasted chicken with asparagus and couscous, but that doesn’t mean it’s not Good Mothering,” says Carla Naumburg in “Mama Don’t Cook.” Naumburg takes on the onus of “nourishing souls” at the family kitchen table, with “good family meals,” an obligation she refuses. In Heather Hewett’s touching essay, “Parenting Without a Rope,” she navigates caution and overprotection in regards to her daughter’s life-threatening allergies, and the delicate positioning the child-with-allergies and the parent-of-a-child-with-allergies must take within the classroom and social situations.  Competition, self-perception, and the spiraling thoughts that ensue, are hilariously captured by Amber Dusick as she writes about a trip to Target in which she spots another Mom who looks perfectly put together and whose kids look “calm and clean and happy.” After which, she writes, “my heart sank — pretty much all the way down to my vagina, and then easily fell out on to the seat of the car.” The new pressures of selective exhibitionism, mediated through social media, is Sarah Emily Tuttle-Singer‘s theme in “No More Fakebook.”

What’s clear is that mothers are caught between more than just the polarizations of “good” and “bad.” There’s joy and hardship, fury and sweetness, days of spiraling despair and moments of unbridled amazement. Judgment lurks behind every corner, and some days it’s the self in the mirror who seems to be casting the sharpest glance. As the phrase “good mother” is turned over and over, its meaning becomes more porous and latticed by nuance. Kristin Oganowski writes, “I challenged the idea that the ‘good’ pregnant woman keeps quiet when she loses a pregnancy, and that the Good Mother hides the loss from her other children and carries on with work and family obligations as if nothing happened.”  In “The Impossibility of the Good Black Mother” T.F. Charlton takes on issues of race when she writes, “Still, the images projected on me as I walk my neighborhood streets are not of the Good Mother. No, they are of the Black welfare queen, the baby mama, of women maligned and demonized as everything a mother should not be, foil and shadow to the Good (White) Mother.” MothersDay

Blogger Andie Fox, while on an annual holiday with female friends and their kids, sans husbands, is frank about the joy they feel when unleashed from the imposition of societal expectation. Hearkening back to a line by foremother Adrienne Rich, Fox writes, “Her discovery back in the seventies that being a ‘bad mother’ could actually make you a ‘happy mother,’ and that happy mothers are good for their children, should not have been news to me when I started my own journey into motherhood in 2005.”  Commenting that Rich’s thoughts are “as revolutionary today as they were then, more than forty years ago,” so the cycle spins.

As a poet, I have to give a shoutout to two other books that have joined The Good Mother Myth on my night table’s stack.  Rachel Zucker, whose work I have reviewed previously, teaches literature and creative writing and also works as a doula.  Motherhood has always been central within her work, but never as explicitly. In Mothers, Zucker writes primarily about her relationship with her own, Diane Wolkstein, a professional storyteller. Zucker’s prose rotates around an axis of trying to understand their relationship, foremost as a daughter, but also as a mother of three sons, as a writer in search of literary foremothers, and as an adult woman who still craves mothering from other maternal figures.

I appreciate Zucker’s celebration of the literary mothers she has had, particularly Alice Notley, whom she quotes and corresponds with throughout the writing of this book. Yet, much reads like a series of journal entries about coming to terms — literally — about what motherhood means as Zucker gathers fragments from her past and holds them up against her present moment.  I can’t help but wish she offered more synthesis of what she’s connecting, or, at the least, more nuance and less worry.  Instead, the lines feel collaged onto the page with the reader left to associatively connect the gaps.  While her diary-like entries intrigue, there seems a deliberate turn from the satisfaction of a narrative arc. I suspect this is, conscious or not, part of Zucker’s refusal to participate in her mother’s art, storytelling, and to break her writing in parallel to her subject(s) — how mothering shatters continuous time and divides the mind. MothersFrontCover-240x300

The book’s epilogue is its most surprising part — and the most powerful. The inclusion of a letter Zucker’s mother writes to her, eschewing this very book’s publication and urging Zucker not to tell these stories — takes on a poignant resonance by the time the reader gets to it.   Clearly, her own urge to write is both heritage and embattlement.  She ends with the central tone of ambiguity mothering represents for Zucker: “There are mothers. I found and lost them and was born to one and she is hardly mine. What I make of her. Neither real nor wrong nor ever really mine.”

 bring-down-the-little-birdsAfter meeting Carmen Gimenez Smith at the 2014 AWP conference, and then hearing her speak at this truly innovative colloquium on feminist poetics, I was eager to read her contribution, published at the vanguard of these other two.  Like Zucker, Gimenez Smith has to untangle her mother’s story in order to understand her own. In Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else she catalogues parts of her life as a mother of a toddler, as a professor, as a poet, as a spouse, as a daughter, as someone who is preparing to have a second child.  Written in single lines or short bursts of prose, her writing is lyrical, thoughtful, and shot through with honest anger and frustration as well as the amazement that comes in sudden, saving bursts.  The narrative of more fully inhabiting motherhood, as she goes from having one child to two, is freighted with the simultaneous worry about the demise of her mother’s memory and the complicated recognition of Gimenez Smith’s need, as a mother, to be mothered, while recognizing she may well soon be in the role of parent to her own mom.

Bring Down the Little Birds bristles with honest emotion as Gimenez Smith explores the conundrums mothering presents. She writes about the presence of her belly “like a bullet” in the room when she discusses intellectual matters at a student’s defense and the hiring of a housecleaner “to serve as a mediator between the house and me.” Her writing manages to be sharp even as she hones in on the liminal: how hard enduring a moment can be, how much anger is buried inside a dose of joy, the amazement glittering inside still dangerously sharp fragments.

“I want so much” she says frankly, and then later, “A long day at home, no work. Full of resentment.” All of which is tempered with lovely recognitions of other ways in which time can now pass, as she says of her firstborn child, “I’m telling him the world and he is telling it back.” Married to another writer, both know they must guard their time, yet, “My personal time comes at a larger price” Gimenez Smith writes, “I want to find a number value for it, but I don’t have the time. It seems like two and a half to my husband’s one.”

Hovering between poetry and prose, a strength is Giminez Smith’s ability to telescope forwards and backwards, as she remembers her life, pre-child, and looks into the future. Her meditations into her maternal legacy are rich, and allow Gimenez Smith to frame her own entry into motherhood: “I grow into my mother, I grow old with her.”  She is skilled at writing about the underweave, the backing that holds a garment together, and there we find this book’s lyrical gift, keen observations weighted down by reality, flying into unseen spaces.

“The good enough mother. The real mother. Other mothers,” Zucker meditates in the middle of her book.  These shifting variations are pertinent to all these writers.  Zucker simply continues: “I too seem to have gotten older. Am the mother.”

“I am like a car that does not go faster than second gear, so I can have moments of incredible frustration” explains Caren McCaleb, one of the four women featured in director Mary Trunk’s astounding documentary Lost in Living.  As she says this, she is sitting in the front seat of her car, constricted, as she works on an art project while her toddler daughter naps in the back.

The necessity of making art in the margins — of the car, within the day, in the liminal edges of one’s mind — is portrayed in high contrast with the powerful ambitions of the four subjects profiled within this film.  The title phrase comes from Merrill Joan Gerber, one of the featured artists, as she takes the viewer on a tour of her overflowing study and speaks about reconciling the desire to make art, in her case, writing, with the other roles she inhabits as mother, spouse, and homemaker.  This could serve as the most simple distillation of this film’s premise, but its brilliance is that it keeps revealing, through unexpected intimacy and crystalline honesty, the dimensions of a paradigm almost never acknowledged, if even explored.

Watching this film reminded me of the childhood trick of using a microscope to burn a hole through a leaf.  The invisible power of light is suddenly revealed to have a concentrated, incendiary force.  So it is for these artists who recognize they are living within a culture that doesn’t reward either mothering or creativity and makes their pairing a particularly difficult embrace.  Large themes are illuminated within deeply telling moments, literally, as Trunk tracks these four women over seven years.  Trunk frames the blurry moments when each subject tries to reconcile opposing pressures — the need to maintain a sense of identity as a working artist paired with the keen sense of loss — of time, energy, and focus — that having a family also brings. Taboo-tinged discontent rises to the surface alongside other usually disallowed themes — resentment of interruption, fury at being discounted, despair to feel the prioritization of the self erode away. The need to be witnessed, (in all of these contexts), to have a true self be known, is another theme that most women, artist or not, are often not allowed to voice. This is remarkably explored, alongside the desire to be valued. Often portrayed in high contrast to the many mundane tasks each woman performs even as she questions what conveys value — broadly and personally — one of the film’s most gratifying aspects is the presentation of this as a hunger alongside any other basic human need.

The two younger subjects, Kristina Robbins, a filmmaker, and McCaleb, a visual artist, film editor, and vlogger, are friends from college who have their first children within months of each other.  Another often unexplored theme is the vital necessity and sustenance of female friendship.  Their conversation about how critical their connection has been to each other’s development is breathtakingly real.  Later, when a distance opens up between them, their reconciliation is shared on film as they hash out the largeness of that loss.  Each calls the other a “soulmate,” breaking with conventional definition of the term, as the nourishment of their bond is frankly juxtaposed against the demands of mothering. Their narratives begin while each is pregnant and ruminating on the changes to come. In one scene, McCaleb practices drawing in short, timed bursts as a way to train herself for what she envisions can be productive, post-baby sessions. When Robbins leaves her son for the first time to work on a film, her anguish and sense of sacrifice is openly measured against her desire to not lose a worthwhile professional opportunity.

The two other subjects in the film, Gerber, and visual artist Marjorie Schlossman, interviewed in midlife when their children are mostly grown, reflect on the secretiveness artmaking required within their generation, and particular to their class structure, when one was foremost a mother, and other commitments were often considered extraneous. They speak eloquently, and poignantly, about the frustration of having their art unsupported and unrecognized, although both are extremely accomplished.  The gutting force of loneliness is mentioned, alongside its never distant shadow — depression.

The film’s Facebook page is a fount of useful resources, and generous clips can be found on Ma and Pa Film’s YouTube channel.  Trunk offers a “house party” kit with a discussion guide which seems apropos since while the film focuses on individuals, their dilemmas reflect larger, systemic issues worthy of discussion (nevermind change) around honoring ambition, the value assigned to making art, universal childcare, compensation, and more. 

The screening I attended had all four artists present and there was a lively Q & A post-film. One theme discussed was how, despite generational progress, many things (dishes, laundry, assumed responsibilities that are gendered) have stayed the same. Applause broke out when Gerber recollected how her husband offered to quit his job and take care of their new baby full time when she was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Yet, after moving across the country to Palo Alto, they discover they are homeless since graduate housing is only assigned to men. Gerber is astute about the other forms of systemic sexism she encounters as a prolific writer in a time in which being “exceptional” was both lauded and cumbersome. Parallel to this is her keen understanding of the ways in which her fiction — largely about the domestic sphere — has been misunderstood or maligned within a canon that doesn’t necessarily value work centered around women’s lives.

Watching the arc of each woman’s career within the film’s span reveals the challenges of trying to achieve success within fields with no guarantee of remuneration, recognition, or even concrete gain at the end of a very productive day. “Making it” is another nuanced concept explored as the sacrifices of growing a career in the arts is measured against the collective affect on each’s family, knowing that, conversely, there is a deep, personal cost in not honoring this need.  

Interviews with the adult children of Gerber and Schlossman add more perspective, not always positively, on what it was like growing up with a mother who was preoccupied with more than just her family. In a poignant scene, Trunk asks Olive, McCaleb’s daughter, if her mother is an artist. “She used to be” is her straightforward, but wounding, perception. The subjects of this film ruminate on why making art is so necessary as they wash dishes, contemplate what is needed to sustain them as they fold laundry, and talk about the work they long to get back to as they make dinner. Their love for their children is clear. But each is equally ardent about keeping a burning passion within lit, however oppositional to conventional notions about mothering this may be, and how equally central this is for each, if not more so.



My thanks to colleague Deborah Siegel for starting off what has now become an even more complicated debate over the toy company GoldieBlox.  I’ve been amazed — and disappointed — at the turning tide during the past few days.  While GoldieBlox’s Twitter feed implies the product is selling well, it’s also clear they’re now spinning into damage control.


Despite controversy over the product itself, everyone seems to agree that GoldieBlox took a clear misstep in their reappropriation of the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls.” For one, the late Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch left specific instructions in his will that he never wanted his work used for advertising purposes.  GoldieBlox claims that the song is parody, hence “fair use,” rather than copyright infringement.  But, just to make their point, they have initiated a lawsuit against the The Beastie Boys, puzzling some by this preemptive strike and causing yet more rumors to swirl that they are simply after more publicity, no matter how negative. The Beastie Boys issued an “open letter” to GoldieBlox in support of their product, but also clearly stating that the reappropriation wasn’t to their liking.  GoldieBlox, so far, appears to have refused comment.  Last year, Jessica Valenti wrote about the group’s “feminist turnaround,” and I’ve wondered if founder Debbie Sterling thought for this reason the Beastie Boys might be sympathetic.  Whether she received bad legal advice, engaged in naïve business practices, or this move was deeply calculated is hard to tell, but there’s no doubt this development is further tarnishing the good will her company initially generated.

Criticism has also been leveled at the company for its practices during the making of the commercial’s famous Rube Goldberg machine.  One point is simply that its construction was unrealistic for the ages of the girls represented.  There has also been speculation that no women engineers were actually involved in its making and the “behind the scenes” videos which they released online hardly showcases the girls featured having any agency in its construction, despite the fact that none are models and are all supposedly initial testers of the product.  GoldieBlox has disputed that the Rube Goldberg machine was made chiefly by male engineers, but in each of the “behind the scenes” clips released women are conspicuously absent.  Here in L.A. where “industry talk” is thick, more unscrupulous scuttlebutt has emerged about the sources of the commercial’s filming which has hardly helped the product’s reputation.  The tide has turned from those who zealously cheered the company on to a general sense of disappointment.

Yet, what the whole product launch, from Kickstarter to present-day debacle has revealed is intriguing.  One point of interest to me is how GoldieBlox’s contention that they are taking originally misogynistic lyrics and ‘subverting’ them into a pro-girl message seems to parallel the larger critique of their toy, highlighting what some see as damaging short-sightedness purportedly used for greater gain.

As Deborah writes, and many of our Brave Girls Want colleagues have so articulately expressed is that GoldieBlox seems to have stepped backwards from what was first presented on their Kickstarter campaign, where a very sincere Sterling talked about giving girls options beyond “pinkifying” STEM-related toys for the girls’ aisle.  When I first saw the campaign, I was excited.  And I was hopeful, although there were things that concerned me.  For one, Sterling’s essentializing view that her strategy came down to “one simple thing: boys like building and girls like reading.”  Really?  This comment seemed like odd stereotyping from someone whose purpose is to break down a gendered divide.  In an article last year about the product, her remarks about how girls “care about nurturing” also seemed suspiciously stereotypical.

Sterling’s casual remark might be at the root of where many (but not all) think her product went astray.  She reiterates “every girl you know is so much more than a princess” and in the now famed YouTube commercial the three young girls look painfully bored while passively watching three tiara-wearing and scepter-waving pink doppelgangers.  This phrase “more than just a princess” also bedecks the T-shirts the girls wear when they storm Toys ‘R’ Us in this video.


Pivoting on the idea that all girls are told they are princesses, sold a “princess bill of goods” (and, of course, actual goods), yet can be turned another direction seems to be where Sterling has staked her foundation.  Her inclusion of princess-themed material within the toy, as Deborah writes, and so many others have usefully analyzed, is what has caused critics to speak out and withdraw support.  And this seems to be where Sterling seems most baffled and defensive, with the complicating thought that rejecting princess culture altogether is a way of denigrating girls and withdrawing an option that they might sincerely want.

Watching this saga unfold, what I found most insightful has been keeping a close eye at the comments churning out under each story, or comment thread, notably on the GoldieBlox YouTube page (with over 8 million views, a week ago).  The point of view presented by Sterling, most often, is what has been largely supported, with detractors in the minority.  It’s cheering to know how many people desperately want this type of product for their daughters.  There is a palpable sense of relief many expressed which I take as a positive sign of general fatigue with the limiting products marketed to girls.  There seems to be real joy in finally being able to offer girls something — GoldieBlox — considered innovative and cutting edge with lots of support for Sterling’s “good intentions.”  It also seems clear that many think that giving girls some princess-themed “hook” is just fine since this reels them in.  You’ll lure more girls in by pinkifying the product is their thinking (and Sterling’s it seems) and then surprise-attack the girl playing with it that there’s a new activity literally at hand, perhaps even a new world opening up.


Fairly prominent was still the “so what?” response, maintaining that it’s “just a princess” or just a bit pink and girls aren’t defined just by this.  So what if this is included, as a “naturalized” view of princesses and pink culture is seen as part of any product for a girl, with the flip argument that girls will summarily reject products if that don’t subscribe to this.  More reactionary is the worrying expression that eliminating princesses from girls’ toys is an unfair and even anti-feminist move, that bleaching pink from the palette available to girls is an ever worse form of reverse stereotyping.  Common enough was reactionary pushback to being told girls shouldn’t have pink or this product isn’t “progressive” enough, when, as many parents wrote, their girls did naturally gravitate to the color.

“Natural,” of course, is deeply vexed issue for those of us who think hard about these topics.  For many parents who responded, the line between what girls are being offered and what girls are being denied seemed confusingly thin.   I completely understand the point of view of those who are turned off by the product’s princess-themed story and see hypocrisy in Sterling’s mixed message, which, worse yet, is undermining.  I think the bait and switch is what is most maddening to me, as I wrote about with the Monster High line in the past.

Within my academic work in the past few years in Girls’ Studies I’ve studied what I’ve come to call “fauxpowerment” — products or programs that purport to serve girls (often for economic gain or free publicity) while, in fact, deploying undermining and essentializing messages in the most disheartening ways.  I’m disappointed that GoldieBlox has taken the path it has, although this feedback seems useful as a gauge of the set beliefs that are largely shared about what girls want and, simultaneously, what they are denied.  It’s crucial to remember that while these toys will shape girls’ attitudes about gender, it’s the parents who purchase them, hence responding to their own limitations is critical.

Perhaps new to the world business, (and giving her the benefit of the doubt), Sterling’s work now seems to be causing more negative talk than good, although there’s no doubt it’s got people talking.  Despite a steep rise in clubs and advocacy groups to increase girls going into STEM fields there is a lot of work to doThis ridiculous and insulting video, produced under the guise of “speak their language to lure them in” received such negative feedback it was finally (thankfully) pulled.  I want to be hopeful that, in the hands of girls who might receive GoldieBlox over the holidays, there is some net gain in having them even begin to associate the words “girl” and “engineer.” Like last year’s intervention with Lego’s LadyFigs line, I want to believe Sterling will get this message as well.  

I’m glad to see the conversation this controversy has stirred, particularly from parents who are trying to parse princess world and what this means for their daughters.  Many seem bewildered by which choice to make and fear their daughters will reject or be ostracized if she chooses, or if they offer, outside of the “pink box.” The sense of longing in many women’s comments about how much they wish something like this been around in their girlhoods has also been striking.  


This past week an advertisement for Mercy Academy, a small Catholic private girls’ school in Kentucky also went viral with their slogan “You’re Not a Princess.”  Mercy also uses the trope of the princess in its campaign, but only to offer it as a traditional narrative that is better off rejected in favor of girls taking charge of their own stories.  Its reception was been roundly cheered.

I was struck by the boldness of this slogan which isn’t trying to spin or hedge or translate the cultural message that being a princess is okay for a girl, or even that she can be “more than a princess.”  “Prepare for Real Life” seems to be the school motto as their message flat out refuses the princess stereotype.  If only GoldieBlox could have been so bold.

For the past few years I’ve been tracking organizations that genuinely support girls — as opposed to those who purport to support girls — while actually leveraging cultural concern about girlhood to advance other values.  Only recently I learned the term “astroturfing” to describe a faux grassroots organization that covers its tracks, and I can see, often enough, where it applies.  So nothing could have thrilled me more than learning about the newly formed alliance Brave Girls Want, which harnesses the energy of multiple organizations and individuals all working to change the expectations girls are both subject to and sold on material and deeper levels.

Brave Girls Want came together quickly as Executive Directors Melissa Wardy and Ines Almeida rounded up a coalition of allies (including our own Deborah Siegel) who are all passionate about refusing gender stereotypes and reframing childhood.  Recent triumphs include tapping into consumer outrage over a t-shirt marketed to girls and sold at The Children’s Place which left “math” unchecked among a list of “My Best Subjects” (with “shopping,” somehow, part of the intended curriculum).  Through the power of their numbers, the campaign went viral and the shirt was pulled from back-to-school shelves.  Many of the members included were active in the pushback against LEGO’s Friends line, released to “appeal to girls” but in ways that were shockingly unprogressive.  Through the power of petition, (over 60,000 signatures), social media, and persistence, a team of SPARK girls and their allies met with LEGO representatives and they have closely been tracking their progress ever since.

United, the power behind the Brave Girls Want alliance feels electric, fueled by collective passion and commitment.  Their current undertaking is to go straight into the media heartland and rent a billboard in New York City’s Times Square which will flash messages counter to the current gender expectations now set, and advance ideas that impel real progress. Importantly, girls will be actively involved in the campaign. Their goal is to raise $25,000 in time to have the billboard light up on October 11th, the second International Day of The Girl.

There is so much work still ahead to advocate for gender equity and steer change from deeply embedded stereotypes, but I’m excited to share their passion and hope for what yet can be.  “The hashtag that makes your heart smile” is part of their slogan; advocating for real revolution within media feels to me more like a full-body jolt that hopefully will wake up the world.

Among the many things I had planned to do before the birth of my first child, one was post a review of Lisa Catherine Harper’s first book, A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood.  Now over the initial shock of transitioning into motherhood, I realize all the more how valuable this book was and still is to me, as Harper precisely chronicles a life divided by “before” and “after”— in this case, having a child.

Harper presents the idea that the deep divisions that women experience — specifically around pregnancy, gestation, childbirth, and then the encounter of a child —sunder women physically and emotionally in ways they are left to existentially and practically reconcile.  Her book is categorized into three states of being: “Inside,” which begins with the conception of her daughter and follows her pregnancy; “Inside/Out” which chronicles her labor and birth; and “Outside” which tracks her entry into motherhood as closely as it does her daughter’s new experiences in the world.

Harper holds a PhD in English with an emphasis in feminist theory and research and her book includes meticulous research as she alternates exploring the science behind what is happening to her (with information about how pregnancy alters virtually every system in a woman’s body) and the emotional resonances she feels on a deeply internal level. She also chronicles her reactions to others’ responses to her physically changing state.  At times the tacking back and forth between the more didactic writing to the lyrical can seem abrupt, but the model reflects her commitment to knit understanding of the logical and mysterious, of fact and emotion, the science and the poetry of her experiences. Although I enjoyed Harper’s sensitivity to the physical processes of pregnancy and childbirth so much I gave a copy of her book to my Ob/Gyn, what I later appreciated more was Harper’s willingness to connoiter her new role as part-time professor with fulltime mother.  In this current moment of Lean In rhetoric and new iterations of the perennial “have it all” debates, Harper is disarmingly clear about her own situation, asking, after her daughter is born: “Why didn’t motherhood matter?  Why was the home still a separate, unequal sphere? Why were mothers and children still so isolated from those things that really mattered to the childless, to the world outside the home?  Why did we talk endlessly about stupid things like Cheerios and diapers?”  And to the crux of her book: “Why did I feel so fractured?”

Searching to locate meaning in the time she spends caring for her daughter, beyond a circle of other mothers, is the axis on which identity, cultural value, and priority all spin for Harper.  Scholar that she is, she turns to the volume The American Woman’s Home, written by Catherine Beecher (sister to Harriet) who called for “a revolution in domestic arrangements” and Harper says is the “precursor to all the contemporary lifestyle magazines, TV talk shows, blogs and Websites that have reinvented the domestic arts for the post-millennial home…” Harper recognizes that for Beecher “the created home is a political act” and she wants it to be for her as well, not by redecorating it, literally or otherwise, but by having it hold broad, and real, cultural value, something I think is happening.

Harper writes, “the life of the home had to be remade… it had to matter in real and consequential ways.”  She is critical of the “modern feminist movement,” as she broadly labels it, as one that has decided to “map power where it already existed” i.e. outside the domestic sphere, while neglecting to elevate the work women (largely) do inside the home and keeping this devalued.  In order to support women’s work outside the home, Harper argues, the domestic and childrearing work so many women do needs to be legitimized and legalized, in part to help support women working outside the home.

It’s an argument whose point I see, but I think oversimplifies. While it’s clear Harper’s goal isn’t to go into detail or depth, the idea that the feminist movement, broadly painted, has roundly devalued domestic work to the elevation of work outside the home seems too one-note to me. While not necessarily her point, Harper doesn’t raise the issue of shifting the expectations of gender roles or equal parenting.

Her daughter teaches her how much “to work inside the home is a worthwhile occupation,” Harper writes, although this realization leaves her at odds with her education and expectations of the professional working world. She writes, “I belonged in neither world: much of my energy was invested in raising Ella so I couldn’t fully claim my professional identity, but neither could I identify what seemed to me the petty concerns of motherhood. I loved my daughter and I loved my home.  I did not love the stay-at-home culture of mothering.” Harper concludes that there has to be a future shift where the bifurcation into being a “work outside the home” mother doesn’t square off with “work inside the home” woman either — a “mommy war” reduction that I question as still legitimate.

Fundamentally, Harper wants the halves of her life to join, primarily by feeling each sphere is validated — the life-changing experience of motherhood co-existing with the intellectual and professional ambition she realizes, for her, has been more valorized. She concludes that insisting on motherhood and the home as generative space is an almost radical throwback to Beecher’s nineteenth-century insistence on the importance of these activities and demand for their recognition. It’s an interesting argument, in some ways provocative for its potential to twine conservative strands of thought with progressive ideals. Figuring out how child-rearing and the domestic life matters to her personally, and how to reinvent its meanings within a larger context, politically, is another parsing that Harper negotiates well in the last chapter of her book.

While driving through Los Angeles a few months ago (what else does one do here?) I listened to a new release of a song by a band called The Head and the Heart.  The tune was catchy, but what lingered in my mind was the band’s name — calling out the division of the body and the symbolic resonances each part holds.  The central tenet of Harper’s explorations remains joining what has been sundered into separate spheres: mother/scholar, domestic/public, former self/present self and the million ways identity is fractured, constantly, daily, even moment-to-moment, and the intentional work it takes to keep rearranging these pieces to make a whole.