Women’s History Month: Does Being a Mother Count?

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I should have written this post at the beginning of the month instead of at the end, but somehow the fact that March was Women’s History Month got pushed into the background of my mind. And isn’t that what usually happens to women’s history? It’s always getting pushed into the background. It’s always been that way and I fear that it always will be.

Sure, more women are being recognized for their accomplishments these days. But will they be considered noteworthy in the future? Will Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin receive as much attention among biographers and historians as Barack Obama, for instance? (How many women know that Geraldine Ferraro—who just died the other day—was actually the first woman vice-presidential candidate?)

And even though women’s studies has become a staple of almost every university’s curriculum, how many people really know anything about women’s history? Or even care?

What I find amazing is how little women know about their own history. Naturally, feminists and women’s studies majors know a lot. But what about the average woman? Does she know how many women we have in Congress? Or who was the first female candidate for president? (Hint: it wasn’t Hillary Clinton.) Or what role women have played in war and peace?

What about this little tidbit?

On November 11, 1865, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded a Medal of Honor for her service as a surgeon during the Civil War. She was the only woman to receive such an honor, the country’s highest military award. Unfortunately, in 1917, Dr. Walker’s medal was taken away, along with 910 others, when Congress changed the rules of the award to include only “actual combat with an enemy.” Dr. Walker, however, refused to give back the medal and wore it every day until her death in 1919. After her death, she was re-awarded the Medal of Honor in 1977.

Too many people reduce women’s roles in life to that of wives and mothers. For example, Susannah Wesley is known as the “Mother of Methodism” not because she was a preacher or minister, but because two of her 19 children went on to found Methodism.

Probably the most revered woman in the world is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is known for her faithfulness and obedience to God in her role  as a mother.

These examples aren’t meant to diminish women who are mothers. I happen to believe that being a mother is an incredibly difficult job and that women who are mothers deserve even more credit than they are given. (Ironically, though we put mothers on a pedestal, we do little to support them. America in particular is notorious for not being mother-friendly. )

Ever since  Louise Story’s article appeared in The New York Times about college-educated women choosing to stay home with their children, feminists have raised the question of whether or not being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) is the best use of a woman’s talents and education.  And recently, when Natalie Portman announced at the Academy Awards that being a mother will be the greatest role of her life, she was castigated by some feminists for implying that all of her personal accomplishments paled in comparison with being a mother.

I think some feminists look down on SAHMs because they think of motherhood as something that just happens to you, not something you had to work at to accomplish. Perhaps that’s true of the pregnancy, but there’s nothing passive about being a mother. Perhaps Portman was thinking of the awesomeness of motherhood when she called it the greatest role, but she will soon find out that it is possibly the hardest role to execute satisfactorily.

Feminists who put down motherhood are wrong on two counts:

First of all, being a mother does not mean that you can’t still accomplish things other than motherhood. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had seven children and she is known as one of the most important First Wave feminists.

Although she enjoyed motherhood and assumed primary responsibility for rearing the children, Stanton found herself unsatisfied and even depressed by the lack of intellectual companionship and stimulation in Seneca Falls. As an antidote to the boredom and loneliness, Stanton became increasingly involved in the community and, by 1848, had established ties to similarly-minded women in the area. By this time, she was firmly committed to the nascent women’s rights movement and was ready to engage in organized activism.

Secondly, a woman can be extremely influential as a mother. Not only can she shape the values of her children, she can also leave her mark on their world by working for causes that impact her children. Most of the women in the book The Maternal is Political write that they became politically motivated precisely because they are mothers.

Wouldn’t it be revolutionary if women went down in history as being as influential as men, not in spite of the fact that they were mothers, but because of it? Cindy Sheehan is a good example. When her son was killed in Iraq, she found her mission in life and became an extremely vocal anti-war activist. However, the fact that she is a woman and mother has diminished her influence in some people’s eyes: they’ve pegged her as some kind of crackpot. Will she be remembered in history as a famous mother? Only time will tell.

 

 

 

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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