Fighting with Feminism: What Would Gloria Say?

I have had a strained relationship with feminism over the years. Unexpectedly, we reconciled this spring.

Gloria Steinem turned 87-years old on March 25, and on her birthday I had the privilege of discussing the feminist icon with a panel of journalists gathered by the Bedford Playhouse

I joined a powerhouse collection of women: Elle Duncan of ESPN, Lynn Smith of HLN/CNN, and moderator Courtney Davis Walker, Bedford Playhouse’s Marketing Director. (Courtney and I were NBC Pages together 20 years ago… forever bonded by blue uniforms and touring skills.)

Bedford Playhouse graciously shared the documentary “Gloria: In Her Own Words” and it forced me to revisit some of my insecurities. Prodded by some brilliant insight from the other panelists, shared here, I got some clarity.

I had been grappling with the idea of feminism because it let me down.

I used to think feminism was about equality. Equal respect, equal pay, equal say. But I also equated feminism with self-determination.

If I got to decide what I wanted to do, regardless of the box in which the patriarchy put me, I would have succeeded at feminism.

The problem was, when motherhood became my choice, it wasn’t good enough.

When I was chasing a career, sacrificing time with family and relationships with friends, moving around and constantly starting over, I seemed to earn respect from the women around me.

But something was missing. Lots was missing actually. So I conscientiously made my personal life the priority. I finally created the family I had always craved and took a hiatus from my television news career.

I was thrilled! Feminism, apparently, was not.

Why? Because I quickly noticed in my 30’s that there were two categories of mothers: working moms and stay-at-home moms, and the abyss between them was irreconcilable.

It wasn’t just my imagination. Many fellow stay-at-home mothers agreed this chasm existed. Over time, my interaction with working mothers made me feel ashamed.  There were backhanded compliments about how lucky I was to stay home, or how selfless I was to “give up” my career to be just a mom.

These assumptions were quite hurtful, though. If I made motherhood my career, it must be irrelevant if I contribute financially to my family’s income, right? In reality, forgoing a second income was, indeed, a sacrifice. And if I made motherhood my career, any ambitious thread in me must have unravelled, no?  This perceived lack of professional drive had somehow rendered me less worthy of respect.

Admittedly, I didn’t understand these other women either. I had no foundation for empathizing with working mothers, furthering the disconnect. Simply put, I couldn’t find the common ground I so desperately wanted.

I was confused. Why, after fighting for so long for the freedom to choose our destiny, had women decided to judge the choice a woman made?

Wasn’t judgement what we tried so hard to shed? It seems that I didn’t need men to put me in a box; women did it for me. Gloria, isn’t this what you fought so hard to defeat?

I am not blameless. It was humbling to realize I had judgement of my own to exorcise. But I got there because I hated carrying the weight of resentment. I was done. Whatever choice a woman makes – whether to have children or not, whether to breastfeed or not, whether to work or not – I no longer care. Managing my own home is overwhelming enough; worrying about yours, too, would surely put me over the edge.

Today, I know that nobody can make me feel anything without my permission. It took time, but I re-wrote my narrative. I slowly pecked away at the chip on my shoulder.

What “they” say is irrelevant compared to what I think. I reclaimed my dignity and my self-respect, not by “working” but by proclaiming unapologetically that motherhood was – and is – my first priority in this life.

I know, I know… it’s not very “Gloria.” She may not have made the same choice in her life, but I believe she would respect mine.

Today, I fully accept all of the consequences that come with the big, demanding family I have. I even embrace the moments when – gasp!- I am limited by the responsibility that comes with mothering three people. I celebrate the limits because they let me off the hook. I am human. One human. I don’t delude myself into thinking I can do it all. And it’s ok!

But this is the ultimate feminist paradox: I chose the family that limits me and fulfills me, and that is the most feminist aspect of all. I revel in the self-determination.

Above all, I vow to own my ambition in the renaissance of my career. I don’t want success to prove something to my children. I am not working hard for them. I work hard for me. I want my sons and daughter to see I am happy because I juggle career and motherhood, not despite the juggle. I love my work and I’m phenomenal at it and for this I believe Gloria would rejoice.