Feminism, Child Development, and the Legacy of Shulamith Firestone

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 9.28.13 AMLike a lot of other people, I was riveted by Susan Faludi's New Yorker report on the work, life, and death of Shulamith Firestone, a Second Wave feminist theoretician and organizer whose name I knew, but whose legacy I was barely cognisant of. Faludi deals beautifully with Firestone's repressive Orthodox Jewish upbringing, her struggle with schizophrenia and social isolation, and the unfinished business of her particular brand of radical feminism, which declared that "pregnancy is barbaric" and childbirth is like "shitting a pumpkin." Those notions are shocking and perhaps ridiculous, but I nevertheless found insight in Firestone's observation — decades before Judith Warner's Perfect Madness and Elisabeth Badinter's The Conflict – that the increasing fetishization of childhood in the developed world has brought with it an unrealistic set of burdens on mothers, just as women finally earned the right to full lives beyond the domestic sphere. Describing Firestone's classic, The Dialectic of Sex, Faludi writes:

The book’s longest chapter, “Down with Childhood,” chronicled the ways that children’s lives had become constrained and regulated in modern society. “With the increase and exaggeration of children’s dependence, woman’s bondage to motherhood was also extended to its limits,” Firestone wrote. “Women and children were now in the same lousy boat.” The argument drew the appreciation of one notable feminist, which must have pleased Firestone. Simone de Beauvoir told Ms. that only Firestone “has suggested something new,” noting how the book “associates Women’s Liberation with children’s liberation.”

In an unforgiving economy with increasing social stratification, affluent Americans, unlike many European parents, obsess about providing their kids with the sorts of intellectually stimulating, resume-building experiences that supposedly prepare one for the rigors of meritocracy. The hours spent signing children up for activities, taking them there, and providing them with educational play and conversation at home are borne disproportionately by women, since mothers still do over twice as much childcare as fathers. And the burden of mothering expectations has gotten heavier since Firestone was writing: While both men and women now work more hours outside the home and do more childcare than they did at mid-century, mothers still spend far more time on domestic responsibilities than fathers do.

Yet today, one ought to balance this critique with evidence from contemporary child development research, which suggests that some of the practices of preening parents, such as constant "conversation" with even the smallest babies, really do yield cognitive and academic gains that last a lifetime. At the Times, Tina Rosenberg has a fascinating report on Talk Providence, a new program that aims to teach low-income mothers about the benefits of early vocabulary building through regular parental speaking to babies, and conversing back and forth with toddlers and older kids. It's important, however, to balance these expectations for mothers with continued support for childcare and school programs that serve the neediest kids — hence, President Obama's new pre-K proposalI'm skeptical of the claim, made by some vocabulary researchers, that changing parental conversational practices can alone erase socioeconomic achievement gaps. Vocabularly can't make up for the lack of social capital that prevents many poor children from enrolling in the most effective schools and extracurricular activities, or from eating a nutritional diet or living in adequate housing. 

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