Over the summer, my favorite college professor was passing through Seattle and so I got to have a visit with her. She is a women’s studies professor, which means she is ridiculously underpaid and will never have tenure. It’s not that she’s not brilliant and extremely well respected in her field–she is one of the smartest people I know and gets flown to conferences around the world and invited to the White House because of her expertise. She doesn’t get tenure because she’s in a field that academia does not reward with tenure and high pay. Women’s Studies is often one of the first programs cut when a college has to make cutbacks–it’s seen as expendible in a way that, say, biology is not. So, unless they are also teaching in another department as well, women’s studies professors don’t tend to be eligible for tenure, which means they don’t tend to make much money. And so my favorite professor, who has published books that were literally best sellers, crashes on futons at her former students’ houses when she takes the few vacations she can afford.

We had a lovely brunch while she was here, during which we had a great conversation about careers. And she said that she has noticed that her east coast friends tend to say things like “What a pity you never got tenure” as if her life is not complete and her career is not a success because she didn’t get that label. But that her west coast friends don’t seem to care much about titles like that, so they tend not to think much of her non-tenured status.

That cultural difference between easterners and westerners resonated with me too. Professionally, I am doing work that I find interesting that I think is important, but I will never be rich or famous doing this work. And honestly, I am OK with that. I am proud of the work I do, even if I do it quietly and without big monetary rewards. Living on the west coast, it feels easy to stay in a job that I am comfortable with, and that gives me the flexibility I need as a parent of small children, without feeling pressure to climb a ladder. I think if I lived back east, I might feel more pressure to move up than I do living in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve had parents of my east coast friends ask me how much money I make and say point blank that they think I should take a more high-pressure, prestigious job. As in “You want to do public interest work? No no no, you should get a job at a big firm and just donate your money to legal clinics or do a little pro bono work on the side.” (That one actually came from my ex-boyfriend’s dad. Thank god he dumped me, because that would have been one awful father-in-law.) I have never had that experience on the West Coast.

So, I was thinking of that conversation the other day as I was thinking about people who see momming as a competition. Like, they brag about how much better their kids are turning out than their friends’ kids, or they look down their nose at other moms who aren’t putting their kids in piano lessons and all that at an early age, or whatever. And I realized that one of the reasons I find people who talk that way so grating is that there aren’t as many of them out here as in, say, Manhattan. We worry about our kids and we want the best for them, but we just don’t seem to put the same value on external measures of success that Easterners do. I joke about The Girl curing cancer and The Boy founding the next Microsoft and taking care of me financially in my old age, but it’s a joke, and it’s funny because I don’t really care if my kids are big shots someday. What I care about is that they are happy. If curing cancer and being a billionaire entrepreneur make them happy, then great, but if they find their joy in a quieter field, and if they aren’t rock stars, that’s great too.

I think if I lived back east, I would find more parents who do see prestigious careers and status labels as the pathway to happiness, and I would probably feel a lot of pressure to pour all my resources into producing the next Bill Gates and Marie Curie. I would worry about choosing the right daycare that will get them into the right school that will get them into the right college that will get them access to the right people, so they can climb into a prestigious career that I believe will bring them happiness. When I talk to many of my east coast friends, the accepted wisdom among most of them is that this is how you create a good life for your kids.

In the end, I don’t necessarily think either parenting style is right or better. I think it’s just a cultural difference. The Cult of Perfect Motherhood tries to tell us that if we’re not parenting perfectly, then we are horrible people and our children’s futures are doomed. But, if different cultures place different value on things like financial success and status and prestige, then clearly there isn’t one perfect way to parent, and we are not failures for parenting differently. And that’s why competing with each other to see who’s the best parent because of how their kids turned out is futile. Because, some of us aren’t trying to produce rock stars. Our goals are different.

The Cult of True Womanhood

Where did I come up with this phrase, “Cult of Perfect Motherhood”? Well, that is a story that takes me back to my college days. I was a history major in college and I minored in women’s studies. Had there been a major in women’s studies at my university at the time (there is now), I almost certainly would have double-majored in history and women’s studies. I know, you’re SHOCKED! SHOCKED! to learn that there is a feminist writing this blog. And not only a feminist, but a university-trained one, which means I know my shit. I learned my women’s history from the best, including Bonnie Morris (whose books are amazing because she is brilliant) and some other amazing professors. Because of what they taught me, now when I look at how the women around me are living their lives, I see all sorts of parallels between the shit that happened to women in the past, and the shit that happens to them now.

And one of those parallels that jumps out to me all the time is between how mothers experience parenthood now, and what feminist historians call the Cult of True Womanhood, AKA the Cult of Domesticity. Shout out right here to Barbara Welter’s classic text on the subject. What feminist historians mean by that phrase is this: during the Victorian era, middle and upper class women were expected by society to meet an ideal of womanhood that included being docile to one’s husband, being pure and chaste, being super pious (Christian was preferable), and of course, being the ultimate homemaker. I’m really abbreviating the historical discussion here, but just think of poor long-suffering Melanie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind, and there’s your example of the ideal woman during the Cult of True Womanhood era. (You haven’t read the book OR seen the movie?!?! Stop reading right now and go fix that. No, seriously, go right now. I’ll wait.)

How was that ideal enforced? Well, women who didn’t live up to the ideals of the Cult of True Womanhood got shit on. God forbid a woman did something untoward or worse, unchaste. Throw that woman out of “decent” society, shunning is the solution! Poverty in 19th century America was even shittier than it is today. Nobody wanted to be disowned by their parents and end up living in a tenement in 1870. Seriously.

Now, you may be saying at this point, “Gee, that sounds shitty, but hello, it’s 2013.” Yes, in the words of Ani DiFranco (see, feminist!), “Chicks got it good now–they can almost be president.” See, the thing is, progress doesn’t mean the end of the need for change. You don’t stop potty training your kid after the first time they pee on the potty and say “That’s progress, no need to actually get you to stop using diapers entirely.” Nor do you say, “We tried teaching you to use the potty, but you had an accident, so we give up, you’re wearing diapers for the rest of your life.” No, you keep at it until you no longer have to keep cleaning their shit off their asses for them. And, feminism doesn’t stop just because women are going to college and playing sports, because women are still living with crazy unrealistic expectations placed on them. The expectations have a slightly different flavor than they did in the 19th century, but we have to keep pushing back against those expectations. Because they are crazy and nobody can meet them. Hell, even Melanie Hamilton took that money from Belle Watling.

So, I started calling the flavor of today’s idealized womanhood The Cult of Perfect Motherhood. Start with the Cult of True Womanhood, and replace being docile with being constantly vigilant about your child’s safety, and replace being pious with being completely dedicated to following the teachings of the latest parenting “experts.” Being the perfect homemaker remains part of the picture (Martha Stewart, Pinterest). Chastity is no longer the standard exactly, but it’s been replaced by an extremely complicated relationship with our sexuality–must be attractive, can’t be slutty. See? Same cult, different flavor.

What’s so fantastic about studying women’s history is that we can learn from the women who fought the last cult, and maybe they can teach us how to fight back against the cult. There were some seriously badass women who took a big bite out of the patriarchy back then. Did they eat it all and poop it out and now we live in some utopian paradise? Of course not, but they made progress, and maybe if we learn from them, SO CAN WE.