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Mother Superior

Mother Superior

Book review

By: Pamela Paul

Date: April 16, 2006

Source: Paul, Pamela. "Mother Superior." The New York Times, (April 16, 2006).

About the Author: Pamela Paul is an author and journalist. Her most recent book, Pornified: How the Culture of Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families (2005), was named one of the Best Books of the Year by The San Francisco Chronicle. She is also the author of The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, (2002); her next book, on the parenting business, is expected to be published in 2008.


Most three and four year olds are convinced that their parents are super-human. Fathers are often seen as exceptionally strong, with professional sports potential, while mothers are viewed as the source of the world's very best cookies and medical care, the latter often provided in the form of a kiss. As they grow, children normally come to recognize their parents' limitations and weaknesses, sometimes short-changing their parents for the work they did. And once they become parents themselves many children find a new respect for their own parents and the tremendous effort required to raise children and keep a home functioning.

While toddlers mistakenly see their mommies as able to accomplish anything and everything, a raging debate continues over whether women are actually capable of doing everything; more specifically the question asks whether one woman can simultaneously fill the often competing roles of mother, wife, home-maker and professional. A related debate continues over which of these roles is even appropriate for women.

The feminist agenda of the 1960s and 1970s was based on a fairly straightforward contention: Women had been relegated to a single career path (homemaking) and that had to change. To these feminist crusaders, women were owed the same set of career choices which men had always enjoyed, and in the feminist framework the choice facing women should be a simple one: homemaking or career. Convinced that most women would immediately flee the chores of domestic oversight if given the chance, feminists focused their efforts on giving women that option.

The reality of this effort has turned out quite differently than expected. Women today enjoy more opportunities in the workplace than ever before; women have served at the highest levels of state and federal government and political commentators now discuss the possibility of a female president without a second thought. For the strongly career-minded women, the feminist revolution has opened up numerous new opportunities.

But not all women have benefited equally. In one sense feminism achieved its goal: The percentage of America women in the labor force doubled in the last half century, rising from thirty percent in 1950 to sixty percent in 2002. Women now make up almost half the paid workforce, and though some pay disparities remain, women's progress has been rapid.

In 1989, Arlie Hochschild published an extensive survey of male and female roles in the home. She concluded that women, despite taking jobs outside the home, remained largely responsible for domestic tasks as well. Her book, entitled The Second Shift, made the case that women, despite their economic contributions and employment freedom, were still expected to shoulder the lion's share of work in the home. From her perspective, women had gained new jobs, but had been forced to continue doing the old as well, making their new situation actually more difficult than many women of previous generations.

As to the question of whether women are able to be both mothers and professionals, the statistics remain relatively constant for women with small children. Depending on the age of the children involved, from fifty-eight percent to seventy-two percent of mothers work outside the home, suggesting that due to necessity or desire, many women are choosing to do it all.


The subjects of matrimony, housewifery, child rearing and Martha may seem mundane, but for many women, they arouse fierce emotions—bitterness, contempt, envy, nostalgia, desire—depending on one's domestic arrangements and level of dissatisfaction. We are still waging war and wagging fingers over diapers and bed sheets. Caitlin Flanagan, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is right out there on the front line—and feeling the fire. Among a certain clique of mothers-in-the-know (media feminists, mommy bloggers, Urban Baby posters), Flanagan isn't just disliked—she's reviled.

The Internet bristles with animosity toward Flanagan's written opinions and personal choices. Familiar charges of elitism hound the well-heeled, former stay-at-home mom for judging others' household decisions. Holes in her arguments are pried open to ridicule. She is called an amateur, a know-it-all and a nobody unjustly handed perches at both The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker.

But here's what I think really bothers Flanagan's critics: No matter how vociferously they disagree with her on some things, they find themselves agreeing with much of what she writes. One suspects that were such readers to open Flanagan's essay collection, "To Hell With All That," without knowing its provenance, they would page through it eagerly, nodding and sighing and chuckling to themselves. Flanagan writes with intelligence, wit and brio. She's likable.

It turns out Flanagan is an equal-opportunity satirist, neither the feminist turncoat nor nouveau Phyllis Schlafly that her detractors presume her to be. (Flanagan calls herself a liberal who is "not entirely incapable of good old-fashioned feminist rage.") Her résumé—former teacher and failed novelist—is hardly that of an ideological crusader. So while she mocks the radical feminist Alix Kates Shulman, author of a 1970 marriage contract that called for absolute equality at home, as someone who has "earned herself a spot on almost any short list of very silly people," she goes on to explain: "I am reluctant to make too much sport of her document…. I am a wife and mother of young children in a very different time from Shulman's, a time that is in many respects more brutal and more brutalizing … a time that has made hypocrites of many contemporary feminists in ways that Shulman and her sisters in arms were not hypocrites." What's more: "You have to give those old libbers their due: they spent a lot of time thinking about the unpleasantness of housework and the unfairness of its age-old tendency to fall upon women."

Flanagan's major points—that most women hate housework but want to be good at it anyway, that women say they want men to contribute an equal share in the domestic arena but don't want to sleep with the kind of men who do, that married people should have sex—are hardly revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary, for that matter). What makes Flanagan's book original and vital is that she is a realist, willing to acknowledge the essential gray areas in too often polarized positions. As it stands, sensitivities are so attuned to the slightest insult of any one of women's myriad work-life choices that Flanagan's simplest observations—for example, when a woman works something is lost—are taken as an indictment of working women. Yet any working mother can see the truth in such a statement: time spent working = less time with children = something lost. What's appalling is that pointing this out raises such ire.

Not that Flanagan doesn't deserve some censure. Though she is less feisty in the book than in her magazine articles (here she dismisses a controversial creed she wrote for The Atlantic on working women and nannies as "convoluted and slightly insane" and herself at the time as "a fanatic with a nut cause"), she commits some of the same mistakes. She surrounds kernels of truth with cavalier half-truths; calls assumptions into question, but doesn't always provide convincing answers. Take dinnertime. In order to resurrect that font of nostalgia, the postwar family dinner, she writes, "we would need to revive the cultural traditions that created it: the one-income family, the middle-class tendency toward frugality, and the understanding that one's children's prospects won't include elite private colleges and stratospheric professional success, both of which may hinge on tremendous achievements in the world of extracurricular activities." It's not so much what Flanagan says, but what she fails to mention. No faulting an economy that demands overwork and skimps on child-care benefits. No questioning that Mom's the one who cooks. No challenging the idea that kids must be scheduled to the max in order to make the Ivies.

To all this, Flanagan might say, "I was being ironic!" But she's also trying to make important points. These are undermined by a feckless urge to poke fun. It's easy to seize on one of her throwaway lines, however amusing, as evidence of insensitivity or ignorance. She can come across as a self-satisfied classroom prankster, grinning at her own impolitic gibes and daring her targets to cry.

Even as Flanagan's detractors can take her too seriously, Flanagan doesn't always take herself seriously enough. The book is somewhat repetitive, as if she assumes readers won't bother to read straight through, surprising because the previously published material has been substantially reworked. More distressing are Flanagan's contradictions, which make it easy to dismiss her. Like many contrarians, she spends too much time arguing against everyone else and not enough time considering her own opinions. She rails against doctrinaire feminists, yuppie parents, stay-at-home moms, political correctites and wives who won't put out. But she's often as guilty as her targets. She mocks boomers who pal around with their kids, then takes vacations at family-friendly resorts where she splashes about with her children. She laments her generation's failures at household maintenance, then admits she's "far too educated and uppity to have knuckled down and learned anything about stain removal" herself. Self-deprecating, yes. But also hypocritical.

Yet even dyed-in-the-wool Flanagan haters might enjoy reading her make fun of herself. Mocking her own stint as a listless stay-at-home mom with nanny, she writes: "I would switch on MSNBC, feed and change the babies, and put on the teakettle. At last, the 'Today' show would begin. I would watch straight through and with an intensity of which the producers could only have dreamed." When she leaves her "oppressive apartment," she is frantic, lurching around with pent-up frustration. Loathing the inner housewife, indeed.

The love in the book's subtitle seems to refer to Flanagan's mother. At heart, "To Hell With All That" is an attempt to understand, commemorate and legitimize her mother's life as a housewife and nurse, two underappreciated female vocations. She opens her book in the emptiness of her recently dead and dearly loved mother's home and closes with the difficulty she has facing cancer without the comfort of a mother's presence. If it seems as if Flanagan wants to turn back the clock to an era of capable and solicitous homemakers, you can understand why.


Hochschild's book, which portrayed women as overworked household servants putting in far more hours each week than their husbands, helped revive the feminist arguments of the 1970s. Once again women appeared to be carrying the load for men who were unwilling to do their fair share.

Astute observers correctly noted several flaws in Hochschild's reasoning, including the fact that she chose to count only certain tasks as housework, largely ignoring household tasks usually done by men. They also critiqued her assumption that men and women each work 40 hours per week outside the home, despite the fact that studies show the average full-time employed man working eight hours more per week than his female counterpart.

In 2006, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) released a study addressing the shortcomings of Hochschilds work. This new study found that when the noted differences are factored into the comparison, men actually contribute slightly more hours each week to supporting the family. The ISR study concluded that men have actually been doing their fair share of work at home, when adjusted for hours worked outside the home, for the past four decades.

Women today face a tyranny of choice. While their grandmothers were generally content to limit their education, marry, and start a family, today's women must make numerous decisions about education, home, and career. These choices are further complicated by the mixed messages women receive, some praising them for their career success and others commending them for their child raising efforts. Whereas women of the past faced no options, today's women frequently find themselves struggling with too many options, unsure how to accomplish them all and unwilling to give any of them up.

Despite extensive academic research on the topic, the question of whether men do their fair share of housework or not remains a subject of intense disagreement in many homes.



Edelman, Hope. Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Hoff, Christina. Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York: Touchstone, 1994.

Lukas, Carrie. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex and Feminism. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2006.


De Pasquale, Lisa. "Exploding the Antiquated Feminist Agenda." Human Events 15 (2006): 96-98.

Pollitt, Katha. "Mommy Wars, Round 587." Nation 283 (3) (2006): 10.

Ruderman, Ellen G. "Discussion of "Nuturance and Self-Sabotage: Psychoanalytic Serspectives on Women's Fear of Success." International Forum of Psychoanalysis 15 (2006): 96-98.

Web sites

University of California, Santa Barbara. "Black American Feminism." April 6, 2006 〈〉 (accessed July 10, 2006).

University of Michigan News Service. "U.S. Husbands are Doing More Housework While Wives are Doing Less." 〈〉 (accessed July 10, 2006).

Virginia Tech University: Center for Digital Discourse and Culture. "Feminist Theory." 1999 〈〉 (accessed July 10, 2006).

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