you can’t keep a good woman down… but what about her kids?

If you look at the animal kingdom, it will become apparent that ferocity is a key ingredient of motherhood. This is why as a feminist I have always found it surprising that some feminists and many more anti-feminists have tried to set up some kind of conflict between motherhood and the strength and independence that feminism has encouraged in women.

Rebecca Walker’s account of her childhood as a “child of the feminist revolution” (she’s Alice Walker’s daughter) is very disheartening.

I’ve always been a big admirer of Alice Walker, as a storyteller rather than as an activist — but I liked that she was a vocal feminist, that she imagined for women achievements and possibilities that many in her generation didn’t dare.

It saddens me that all of it came at such a cost to her daughter. And while many — including, apparently, Rebecca Walker — lament the alleged damage that feminism has done to children and families I take a very different view. I think Alice Walker’s bad parenting, rather than feminism, damaged Rebecca Walker. The fact that she pressed her feminist world view into service to excuse this bad parenting (if in fact she did so) is not a sound basis for indicting feminism.

There is nothing about feminism that creates bad mothers. The role of motherhood foisted on someone who considers it “slavery” creates a bad mother. In fact, feminism is a proposition that I think leads to better mothers. Feminism proposed the idea that motherhood is a choice, rather than a duty and a destiny. And I am willing to bet that mothers who chose that role of their own volition — as did Rebecca Walker — are far better mothers than those who did it because it was expected of them.

I think the real tragedy is that many women — perhaps especially poor and minority women — of Alice Walker’s generation didn’t have the choices or the role models that allowed them to imagine both motherhood and full personhood as compatible. It didn’t allow those who did not care for motherhood the freedom to opt out and not be considered freaks.

Even worse, their daughters, having been given all the choices that their mother’s generation made available to them, have been so scarred by what some of them weren’t able to give, that they have taken to decrying women’s pursuit of “independence, at whatever cost to their families” as if independence and family really are mutually exclusive and as if there has been no feminist celebration of motherhood and as if our generation, in the very fact that we can make choices about our lives freely doesn’t owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the women who blazed those trails for us — however flawed some of them were as mothers.

I don’t mean to be too critical of Rebecca Walker. I can’t imagine how dreadful life must have been for a child whose mother considered motherhood the equivalent of slavery. I was brought up by two parents who considered their children their lives’ greatest blessing. But it would be a mistake to take Rebecca Walker’s personal grievances against her particular feminist mother as legitimate criticism of feminism vis a vis motherhood.

It also saddens me that Alice Walker, whose activism and literature has been so infused with a maternal spirit shunned that role in her personal life and was such a bad mother to her own child. I can’t help but wonder what Alice Walker’s own childhood must have been like. What burdens her own sharecropper mother must have borne as young Alice watched her own presumptive future. I wonder why she ever even had a child.

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