When Did Feminism Throw June Cleaver Under the Bus?

feminism, June Cleaver, motherhood

And when will we notice that it backfired?

When I was a girl, growing up in the 1970s with a feminist mother and feminist aunts, a consistent message of the women’s movement was correcting the term “just a housewife.” The point was that women who raise children and tackle the unending tasks of tending a home are doing skilled, meaningful, hard work and should not refer to themselves, or allow themselves to be referred to, as “just a housewife.” The feminist message was that these women are not frivolous and stupid and will no longer tolerate being dismissed. There was a bumper sticker that was all over the place in my radical West Coast hometown: “All Mothers Are Working Mothers.” This was a defiant response to the question, “Do you work, or are you just a housewife?”

As a child, I knew mothers who worked outside the home, mothers who were homemakers, and mothers who combined both. The at-home mothers I knew growing up were certainly not shallow, nor were they focused on dusting and fashion magazines. Some baked a good cookie; some had cleaner houses than others; some were married to men, one to a woman, and some were single; some were fierce and some were sweet; but none were deferential or submissive. Some were well-educated and some were less so, but I came across no air-headed housewives in my entire childhood. These mothers of my ‘70s childhood are the women who refused to say, “I’m just a housewife,” who came up with the term “homemaker” to claim their identity in relation to meaningful work rather than in relation to a husband.

At some point, though, as I wandered into adulthood, the feminist movement proceeded to move full force in the direction of supporting women’s outside-the-home careers…and now the movement itself seems to largely dismiss the meaningfulness and skill involved in raising children and running a household. Feminism became about dissolving the glass ceiling and unequal pay structure, about not letting motherhood hold women back in the corporate or political sphere. Feminist support of mothers became predominantly about affordable childcare, family friendly workplaces, maternity and paternity leave, and hardly at all about recognizing the depth and breadth of work involved in raising children, keeping a household running, doing volunteer work, caring for the elderly and the needy in the community.

I unapologetically identify myself as a feminist. A radical feminist even. I support a woman’s right to equal opportunities, to equal pay, to equal protection, and to reproductive choice. I am fundamentally opposed to patriarchy. I am also the mother of three children, and nothing I ever do will be more important to me than raising them. Just as I reject the notion that I cannot be a professional or a leader because I need to stay home and raise my children, I reject the notion that dedicating the majority of my time and energy to raising my children is oppressive or betrays feminism.

What I think went awry in the women’s movement is that feminists continued insisting on being let into the traditionally male power structures (business, politics, athletics) while neglecting to equally insist on recognition for traditionally female areas of strength (raising children, caring for those in need, sustaining life.) Before anyone gets their feminist knickers in a bunch, I do not mean that mostly what women are good at is raising children, nor that a woman is — or should be — defined by motherhood. I am a proponent of creating equal opportunities for fathers to be home with their kids, to take time off to care for ailing or aging family, and to volunteer at schools and such, and I’m profoundly in support of women who do not want children at all. What I do mean is that mothers are powerful, and I think it is a huge mistake for women to deny or minimize this fact.

There is no way around the impact that mothers have on their children and on the world. Mothers are a driving force. Unfortunately, there is a lot of room for oppression in that reality—it’s not a far stretch to “Women should stay home barefoot and pregnant.” I think the job of feminists is to stand in opposition to the voices—institutional and individual—who use the power of motherhood against women. It’s as if defenders of patriarchy are using one of those martial arts moves where the opponent’s own force is redirected back at her/him. Male Dominance has redirected the power of motherhood to trap women. If women insist on acknowledgement of the importance of motherhood, Male Dominance uses that as a reason we should stay at home and leave politics and business to the men. The importance of motherhood is used as a means of making women dependent on either individual men (husband, boyfriend, partner) or male dominated institutions in the form of government programs. On the other hand, if we insist that women are far more than mothers and homemakers, if we strive for power in business and politics, we are often forced to abdicate much of the power of motherhood.

It’s the structure of patriarchy that creates this trap, not the condition of motherhood.

I want feminism to be about recognizing the importance of mothers, not negating the importance of mothers. It’s time that feminists become truly pro-choice. That means supporting all women’s rights to choose whether to have children, and when, and with whom. It means supporting the importance of equal opportunity for mothers who choose to work “outside the home” and those who choose to be “at-home” mothers, and those who do some of both. It means fighting for family friendly workplaces, maternity/paternity leave, as well as medical benefits and stipends for stay-at-home parents. It means valuing women’s (and men’s) contributions and productiveness that cannot be monetized yet are deeply important to a healthy society.

Mothers have an intractable impact on the future because there is no escaping the reality that people’s lives are influenced profoundly by that first relationship. That is nature. I have heard women say it’s unfair…but I think it’s actually more unfair to men. Mothers have a depth of power and influence that is unique. I suspect that patriarchy is in large part driven by fear of this power and a desire to control it. Patriarchy wants to dictate the form that motherhood should take, rather than respect the ability of individual women to forge paths that best balance their personalities and their particular family dynamic or life circumstances. I would expect feminism to subvert and disrupt the former, and loudly advocate for the latter.

Just as it was time for women to stop cooperating with those who painted the June Cleaver icon as an ideal mother in order to keep women in their place, it is time that women stop going along with those who paint the June Cleaver icon as an oppressed shell of a woman in order to validate their different choices.

To women who dedicate themselves to success in business or politics or construction or celebrity chef-dom, I say, “Yay!” Women deserve power in those areas and the world will be better off the more that men and women share in economic and political power, and in the work of innovating and envisioning. But also, the more fiercely and unapologetically that we advocate for respect and support for at-home mothers and at-home fathers, the better off all women, and the world, will be. I yearn for a feminist movement that is all about having real choices, without economic or social punishments.

As an end note, June Cleaver didn’t deserve to be thrown under the feminist bus; June was not quite the passive ball of fluff and pearls everyone assumes. She was college educated; a high school basketball star; married “down” for love, against her family’s wishes; and promptly reprimanded her son for his narrow-minded comments about girls:

“Well, Beaver, today girls can be doctors and lawyers too, you know. They’re just as ambitious as boys are.” -June Cleaver

I’m not suggesting that June was a paragon of feminism. But I do believe there should be plenty of room in the feminist movement for a woman who has made the choice to apply her impressive competence, intelligence, and poise to the work of raising children.

And who knows…maybe June became an entrepreneur or a senator or a successful writer after Wally and the Beav were off to college.

Zina Jayne is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and mother. Find more from her on Medium, medium.com/@zinajayne.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/in the public domain

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