Mere Mothers

Not quite posted in time for Mother’s Day, unfortunately, due to a slow internet connection.  However, I still want to post this to celebrate all you mothers out there and the hard work you do every day in service to the next generation . . .

When I was a 21-year-old undergraduate, I had the opportunity to research women’s lives in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia with one of my professors, Dr. Debra O’Neal.  Dr. O’Neal and I traveled to Philadelphia and spent a week poring over primary source materials such as journals and letters, all written by women who had been dead for at least 200, sometimes 300 years.  It was an amazing experience to capture hints of personalities, longings, thoughts, and feelings of lives long since lived and seemingly buried by the accumulation of many years, only to be unearthed briefly by me.

However, the most important lesson I learned from this experience didn’t happen in Philadelphia but weeks later, when Dr. O’Neal gave me her critique of the first draft of my research paper.  The subject of my paper was women’s changing attitudes toward housework over the course of the Enlightenment, and I had a sentence in the first draft that started with something like “Wanting to be more than mere wives and mothers, women in the past . . .”  In her quiet, kind way, Dr. O’Neal patiently explained the word “mere” was an insult to all the work women put into being wives and especially being mothers.  Talk about someone feeling small!  I couldn’t believe I had put such a sentence in my paper and immediately deleted it.

I’ve thought about that conversation quite a bit over the years.  The word “mere” had been an unconscious error on my part, the kind of thing writers do all the time when they get on a roll.  Unconscious, however, doesn’t make the error any less telling.  Perhaps more telling, in fact, like a Freudian slip.

See, I had cleaned and cooked all through my adolescence–my parents were self-employed artists, and so my household contributions helped free up their time to make pottery and sculptures to sell, go to art shows, and manage all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into owning your own business.  Also, Dad generally held a full-time job as a finish carpenter while all of this was going on.  We were an incredibly busy family, and my parents and I valued the work that I did to support this, even if it was only “housework.”  However much my family valued my contributions, though, the outside culture did not/does not.  Such work is not honored in the larger culture–it’s not part of our nine-to-five schema, not part of being an ambitious go-getter, not part of being a good feminist widget in the grind of our corporate machinery.  Neither is parenthood.

Much like many corporations have short-sighted goals, always focused on this quarter’s bottom line rather than looking ahead five years, our society seems to have become thoughtless of the long-term impact of our decisions, addicted to the quick fix, addicted to the fleeting pleasures of the here and now.  So many are mesmerized by the soon-forgotten 30-second adrenaline rush of a city blowing up in a movie while bored by the hour and a half of thoughtful story development that came before.   The catchy soundbite has enthralled us with its siren call, and we’re drowning in a shallow sea.

Such as the catchy soundbite of the “kick-ass strong female character.”  If I read one more review mentioning “kick-ass” to describe the heroine of a film or novel, I think I might just poke my eyes out with a spork.  What I believe “kick-ass” means in these reviews is that a woman is able to fight just like or better than her male counterparts.  Now I have no problem with women who are also warriors.  I come from a long line of tough women.  When there was a fire in the flue and everyone else in the family was running and screaming, my ornery Norwegian great-grandmother said serenely, “Just let it burn–it’s the best way to clean the chimney.”  One of my favorite characters in Lord of the Rings is Eowyn.  I like it when women fight.  I like it in stories when women do permanent damage to child abusers and other bad sorts.  I’m a bit Old Testament that way.  I like tough-minded people, whether they be women or men.

However, the phrases “kick-ass” and “strong female character” are tiresome.  As author Sophia McDougall states in her excellent article , these phrases are used to put female characters in a box while other characters are allowed all the agency to bound about and do as they please.  Strength meaning someone who never sheds tears, strength meaning someone who employs physical violence more effectively than everyone else around her, strength meaning someone who has no heart, strength meaning someone who never makes decisions based on emotion because she’s secretly a robot, strength meaning someone who never makes mistakes because she’s not human.  That’s not strength to me.  And such a character isn’t someone I’d want to be friends with, certainly not someone I’d want to spend a whole book reading about or a whole movie watching.

Because of the context of many of these reviews, the phrase “strong female character” implies to me that women aren’t tough enough on their own merits.  That they have to be just like men, ideally men with big boobs in brass brassieres, in order to be considered worthy.  Not only is it ridiculous, but it’s an insult to our mothers, just like I insulted all those mothers in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia by calling them “mere.”  At some point, every single one of us was borne by a woman.  Our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers . . . all risked death so we could be here today, arguing on the internet.  If that’s not real strength, I don’t know what is.

I bet if there were some way to calculate it, just as many women died in childbirth in the Middle Ages as men died in battle during the same time period. Although I’m no longer Catholic, one thing I always appreciated (and still appreciate) about the Catholic Church is its veneration of Mary, the most famous unwed mother on the planet.  On average, women are just as strong in body as men are–we have to be, to give birth. The uterus is a muscle.

Instead of more battle scenes, I want more birth scenes in books. Giving birth is a battle, just of a different sort than what people are used to reading about nowadays, the sort of battle that has the potential to bring life into the world, rather than take it out.

 

Copyright 2016

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1 Comment

  1. Karen

    July 21st, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    I saw a comment on-line today that made me think of this blog post–an author wrote that the only way he knows to make his female characters interesting is to put swords in their hands. He may have been joking, but even if he was, the comment seemed out of line to me, especially if he wants any women reading his books (maybe he doesn’t). Yet, according to many, we don’t have a problem with misogyny in the entertainment industry. Fighting misogyny is about more than numbers. What does it matter if 50% of the characters in a film or novel are women, if the writers of said film or novel have this guy’s attitude?



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