Feminism doesn’t mean tying women to their careers

// 9 July 2009

Last week Sarah Palin, the previously-unknown governor of Alaska who burst onto the scene as John McCain’s running mate in the US 2008 election season, claiming to be an example of how to break through glass ceilings, unexpectedly decided to quit her position with 18 months to go.

Palin has given various reasons for stepping down: primarily her home life and her family. However, the pundits and commentators are not satisfied with her explanation. In fact, female pundits are particularly upset about it.

Several prominent women have come out to lambast Palin, on the grounds that she has apparently broken some kind of feminist covenant. Apparently there is no way that Palin, or any woman for that matter, could possibly ever want to put her family before her career. God forbid. She’s now being called a ‘quitter’.

To be honest, I don’t care much for Sarah Palin. I found her to be disingenuous, a race-baiter and not someone that I could relate with or aspire to. Her political views on issues like abortion did little to advance the progress of women’s rights and as a minority female, she is the antithesis of much that I believe in. However, I take umbrage with this idea that there is any one, fixed way in which a woman – including Sarah Palin – should behave when it comes to making choices about her life. Isn’t the whole point of feminism to enable women to have the power and right to choose?

Asserting that a woman should be concerned primarily with her career is no different to me than asserting that a woman needs necessarily only concern herself with cooking and cleaning. A woman shouldn’t have to be concerned about any particular thing – she should have the option to decide for herself what is a priority, without other people condemning her for that.

Perhaps Sarah Palin’s family is more important to her than her career. Perhaps being there for her children and raising them to be healthy and well-balanced individuals is not worth sacrificing. When did being a mother – and being there fully – become such a taboo? Surely her ability to choose should be celebrated by feminists?

Interestingly enough, similar disdain has been cast upon First Lady Michelle Obama in the past for choosing to become the self-titled ‘Mom-In-Chief’. Some seem to feel that you can only truly be a powerful woman if you are a superwoman; that somehow admitting that you are human and perhaps unwilling or even unable to cope with the demands of both a high pressured career and the needs of a family is a sign of weakness and is antithetical to feminism.

As a 28-year-old woman approaching the age when getting married and having babies seems to be the most popular pastime among my friends, I have been interested to note how many of my girlfriends – all well educated, successful women – can’t wait to become mothers and look after their children. There are a number who are willing to give up their careers to do so. And it’s not because, like Sarah Palin, they have to, it’s because they can.

The women’s rights movement gave women choices. Let’s celebrate, not criticise, them for exercising those choices.

Comments From You

Noble Savage // Posted 9 July 2009 at 5:08 pm

God, do I agree. I can’t believe that so many feminists don’t see the extreme hypocrisy in championing choice for all women in all aspects of their lives…unless their choices involve raising children, keeping house or any other historically female function. News flash: denigrating these things as unfeminist is just as misogynistic as those who would like to see us banished from the boardrooms and back in the kitchen.

Aimee // Posted 9 July 2009 at 6:20 pm

I agree with you that a woman should be able to choose any mixture of career and homelife she chooses. My only problem with Palin’s resignation is that first of all, abandoning her constituancy with 18 months to go does NOT look good, especially since she seems to want to make a presidential bid in a couple of years! I woulderate a male politician in exactly the same way. secondly, she’s used and abused her family, especially Bristol, throughout her governorship. To say she wants to ‘spend more time with them’ now, just seems like another way to use

them. Also, having spoken about ‘breaking glass ceilings’ etc, she has connected herself to the feminist movement. Bowing out now makes ALL women look bad. That shouldn’t be the case, but it DOES give the repiblicans more fuel. I’m not saying it’s right, i’m saying that’s how it is.

But actually, it’s quite good that she’s stepped down ‘cos she really shouldn’t have been within 100 miles of politics in the first place. I hope the women of america can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that she’s gone, and just hope she DOESN’T make a bid for president in a few years.

Bene // Posted 9 July 2009 at 6:35 pm

Could you perhaps cite some of these people who’ve criticized Palin’s choice on feminist grounds? All of the ‘quitter’ criticism that I’ve seen from any sphere (I predominantly follow US feminist and progressive commentary) has been in relation to Palin’s hypocrisy and breaking of promises made to the people of Alaska, as well as her refusal to provide *any* answers, even vague ones, regarding her reasons for stepping down.

Ruth Moss // Posted 9 July 2009 at 8:16 pm

*Stands up and applauds you*

Thanks for saying this. :)

Legible Susan // Posted 9 July 2009 at 10:37 pm

Hear, hear! There are plenty of real things to criticise Sarah Palin about.

Claire // Posted 10 July 2009 at 12:13 pm

Some interesting slants here and I don’t want to get involved in a debate about Sarah Palin. However, I do feel offended by the initial bloggers comment that feminists suggest “there is no way…any woman.. could want to put her family before her career”. I have a career BECAUSE I have a family. I am a divorced mother of three. I have no financial support from my ex husband since we always earned comparable amounts (good news for equality, I hope I hear you say). So I work because I have to. And I work after the children have gone to bed. I have forfeited career prospects to have the flexibility to be home in time to do homework with the children. But I pay my way because the alternative is poverty. I want my children to see equal opportunity and equal sharing of responsibility between the sexes. Sadly the world doesn’t always function to this ideal, but that’s what I’m hoping to role-model for them at least. My kids are proud of the fact that I work. They EXPECT women to work, but I have also encouraged them to realise there is such a thing as unpaid home-based work and community work, which ought to be respected. The initial blogger implies a number of things: (a) by using the word “want” that there is an element of choice about working or not working for women with families. I dispute this in many cases. There is an inference even that women still choose to work, whereas men must. hello! Equal rights means equal duties. I am not saying I would necessarily choose to do housework and school pick-ups if I didn’t have to work, but when did it become a choice to work and does that choice apply to men also, with the same social latitudes?

Then there is this sentence, “Perhaps being there for her children and raising them to be healthy and well-balanced individuals is not worth sacrificing”. Isn’t this another slight at working mothers? Working mothers can raise healthy and well-balanced children too. What sacrifices would I make if I decided to live on benefits so that I could stay at home? We make choices, we live with them, we do our best. Stay at home mother is not morally superior to the working mother model. Until all women get their heads round this and stop undermining each other, we won’t have true equality or responsibility.

Lola Adesioye // Posted 10 July 2009 at 12:47 pm

@Claire – there was no slight of working mothers here whatsoever. My own mother was a working mother and I intend to be one too. I also, however, feel that should I choose to stay at home with my kids I won’t be disdained by other women for doing so. The point is that if there is a choice for women (and you’re right that many women don’t necessarily want to work but have to) to stay at home or to work (or to do both should they choose to) they are free to exercise that choice without criticism.

There is a whole ‘nother conversation to be had about the role of dads and whether or not dad should stay at home or work etc, but that’s not the subject of this piece.

@Aimee – I don’t agree that Palin bowing out now makes all women look bad. She’s one woman. There are plenty of others in the political space who have families and are still working. Palin is somewhat of a complex character perhaps but most importantly I just feel like we should all have the freedom to exercise our choices as women, including that to focus on our family, without that being objectionable.

Lisa // Posted 10 July 2009 at 1:11 pm

There is tension and sensitivity amongst women over how a mother divides her time but it is more a reflection of modern capitalist emphasis on materialism than a true ideological split.

There are only 24 hours in a day but children require practical care, love and attention and ‘raising’/’rearing’ (a word used more in other countries than in the UK but basically covers Everything they Need to Know about Life !). The maths don’t add up. There are simply not enough hours in the day. Factor in the maths that some paid employment requires 60 hours a week and others only 15 and it is here that mothers really make their choices. The consequence though is that mothers and women intending to be mothers gravitate to part-time, flexible and predictable hours paid work in order to maintain some sort of balance in the 24/7 cycle.

Historically, in the 70s -90s, there were high expectations that women would effortlessly follow the ‘Thatcher path’ (4 hours sleep a night remember !) and the children would just float along in the wake of the mother’s career – a little like cats I suppose. Experience of trying to live up to these expectations led to large numbers of mothers feeling exhausted, inadequate and miserable – hardly what our feminist foremothers would have wanted – and they have voted with their feet to seek refuge in a more balanced lifestyle.

In reality it doesn’t need to be a divisive issue. What is needed is more practical support on the ground, in the street, in public spaces, in communities for mothers and children. We don’t have to live the way we are increasingly forced to and it is time we stood back and took stock of exactly who benefits from our current socio-economic system and who loses.

Lola Adesioye // Posted 10 July 2009 at 1:14 pm

Great point Lisa. Thanks for that.

Claire // Posted 10 July 2009 at 2:32 pm


I have to take issue with your assertion that you did not intedn any criticism of working mothers. You stated “Perhaps being there for her children and raising them to be healthy and well-balanced individuals is not worth sacrificing”. There is an obvious implication in this sentence that children of working mothers are less healthy and less well-balanced and that working mothers “sacrifice” their children.

Whatever model of parenting we choose, there will be compromises – financial, mental and physical health, time, other relationships, other ambitions. Some compromises are forced on us by biology and society and others are more willingly made. Motherhood is a compromise situation, whether the mother stays at home or works outside the home. We seem to be in agreement that choices (or lack of them in many cases) have to be respected but the sentence you write about sacrifice betrays what you really think about working mothers.

Lola Adesioye // Posted 10 July 2009 at 2:41 pm

Claire – you are free to take issue with it and to read into that sentence whatever you want but that was not what I meant.

As I’ve said, my mother worked my entire life. In fact, my dad lived abroad for about 5 years of my life full time and then intermittently throughout my growing up. I also come from a very matriarchal family in which every woman – aunties, grandma etc – has worked while raising a family. Myself and my sister are both extremely well balanced and healthy individuals.

The point I was making was that if Palin or any other mother believes that her children would be adversely affected by her not being with them more – which Palin says she does – and she feels that they would be less balanced/healthy as a result of her pursuing her career then she may feel that’s not worth sacrificing if she doesn’t have to. It does not mean I believe that, per se, children of working mothers are worse off.

Aimee // Posted 10 July 2009 at 4:04 pm

“@Aimee – I don’t agree that Palin bowing out now makes all women look bad.”

I don’t think it’s RIGHT that one woman’s failure is perceived to be indicative of the capability of ALL women. I am saying that SOME people construe it like that, and because of these backwards attitudes, her actions MAY WELL hurt other women in the process. Especially in somewhere as repressive as Alaska.

Juliet // Posted 10 July 2009 at 6:23 pm

Another point, aside from the working or non-working mothers debate is simply that a politician announcing they’re quitting to spend more time with their family has more often than not come to actually mean, “I messed up and I’m getting out before I’m forced out!” It’s become the standard excuse. That’s why people are cynical about it.

And women can’t win anyway. If you put your family first, that’s wrong. And if you put your career first, that’s wrong as well. It’s a no-win every time.

Charlotte Revely // Posted 10 July 2009 at 11:30 pm

The fundamental problem seems to me that whatever women do is undervalued. I am eternally grateful for the opportunities to earn my living but I wish the work that my mother and my grandmothers did, raising children, running a home and providing good food had also been recognised. These are the building blocks of society but are still deemed to have no economic value at all. We need equality in the boardroom and politics but we need to recognise the value of work that is not just about pay or profits too.

Danielle Kemm // Posted 10 July 2009 at 11:51 pm

Umbrage is a fantastic word. I think I’ll have to use it more often.

I used to be like those critics you talk about; I used to disdain anything “girly” and look down on women who did anything feminine.

Now I wear dresses because I want to, I wear trousers when dresses are impractical, when I want a different look, or when my legs are really hairy. I have no desire to pursue a high-powered career because I personally think all that stress and struggle is a waste of a lifetime, but I would quite like to work somewhere like Amnesty International and do some good in the world.

I admire people (male and female, but especially women) who dedicate themselves to a career and succeed, I also admire people (again, male or female) who dedicate themselves to bringing up a family, which despite popular opinion is not an easy job.

In short, I respect people who know what they want in life and go for it, regardless of social opinions. Unless of course what they want in life is to be a serial killer or a member of the Conservative party. (That last bit was a joke. Just in case.)

Michelle // Posted 12 July 2009 at 11:15 am

The problem I have with this–or the resignation, mid-term, of any elected official–is that they put themselves forward for the candidacy for office, with the voters expecting that they intended to serve out the term if elected. So I think there’s an additional layer to the “want to step down and take time with my family” issue that is different for an elected official than for someone who just has a “normal” job.

Kate // Posted 13 July 2009 at 2:00 pm

Well I’m inclined to think that Palin can do less damage to women by stepping out of politics, so that’s feminist-grounds enough to welcome her resignation. Without being flippant, part of me thinks it is absurd to question whether Palin is a good feminist role model when she is emphatically not and everything she does is self-consciously designed to appeal to the “family values” wing of the Republican party. I can’t help but think she’s just building her Soccer Mum brand for 2012.

I also think that if I were Palin I would have been tempted to do the same. But then if I were Palin I probably wouldn’t have dragged my underage, pregnant teenage daughter onto the national stage in front of a woman-hating party and let her try and hide her bump with my own newborn baby.

I don’t buy into the argument that feminism is about defending women’s choices whatever they may be. The choice to return to work or return home does not take place on an equal footing. I’m not saying one is better than the other but the right for women to compete professionally with men is comparatively recent and hard won. The “choice” to return home is conveniently stepping right back into history and does not present the same challenges.

I would strongly argue that we need to value family life more highly and the idea of putting my own career first at all times profoundly depresses me. But, I would like to think the same would be true for all people, men or women. We should move away from the assumption that if a couple decides they need to put more energy into their children then it is the woman that gives up work. Any debate surrounding women’s “choice” to work or not to work relies heavily on the unseen presence of a male breadwinner and that does not represent progress, not to mention being a slap in the face to poorer or single mothers who realise this choice is an illusion. It would be impossible in Palin’s extraordinary circumstances I grant you, but wouldn’t it be great if she and her husband decided they’d both go part-time so they could both be at home more. That way neither is undermining their long-term financial security and both are recognising that raising a family can be fulfilling and worthwhile.

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