That’s just one phrase from the final paragraph of a book review that I urge you to read, and it leapt out at me as a revelation: explaining why it’s so easy to cast the different choices made by different women as part of the mummy-wars, or the waves-of-feminism wars, or some other “war” that “feminists” are purported to be waging on women who disagree with “them” (you know, that hivemind we’ve got going).
Mann writes about her daughter’s complaint that today, not working outside the home and enjoying motherhood is looked upon with scorn. What I see is the wider issue that most of our choices, as women, are looked upon with scorn. To work, or stay at home. Have a “career”, or a “job”. Have children when we’re 20, or when we’re 30. Send them to nursery while we work, or spend all our time with them. Pursue personal interests, or have none. Be open about enjoying sex, or be open about having issues with it. Society sets us up to judge the choices of others, creating “wars” and “catfights” rather than encouraging us to press for change. And it is this that often prevents us from seeing the bigger picture, so keen are we to assert the validity of whatever choices we’ve made.
No matter what women do, there will be some segment of society casting that behaviour as some combination of being too selfish, too submissive, too lazy, too bossy, too weak, too shrill, too self-sacrificing, too emotional, too cold, too unrealistic etc; very often these judgements are fundamentally contradictory and applied inconsistently, but the one thing they do have in common as a trope is that Women Are Doing It Wrong. In particular, a behaviour that might have been very much encouraged and expected and approved of when a woman is at one particular stage of life will be held up at a later stage in life as the exact reason why women who complied with that expectation cannot now expect to have access to certain opportunities offered to men at an equivalent stage of life. (The women who decided against complying with such expectations will have their non-compliance used as the reason why they don’t get the same range of opportunities as men either, of course.)
The message that Most Women Do Life Wrong is one that girls learn early – that others don’t expect women to do anything worth individual public acclaim (unless it’s for “beauty”) – and girls react to this message in different ways to salvage some form of validation from others: some try be Perfect Princesses, or Bookish Swots, or Sporty Tomboys, or One Of The Fellas, or Daddy’s Girls or Mother’s Little Helpers, some model themselves on less mainstream archetypes. The thing is that these various ways of navigating and negotiating our paths as women in the world are set up largely in opposition to each other, as a competition for the One True Way of Womanhood, something I expect ties into the still horribly common view that women aren’t really full persons (see all the ways women are represented as essentially interchangeable social assets rather than as fundamental individuals).