Last night during her Oscar acceptance speech, Patricia Arquette stepped away from the usual list of gratitude and joined the list of winners who take the opportunity on a global stage to make a political statement. Her plea for mothers to rise up and fight for equality is one as old as feminism itself. For the most part, feminist Twitter exploded with cheers! 2014 Celeb Feminist of the Year, Emma Watson tweeted a hooray! And then Patty went back stage and dismantled her good will with this: “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” So before we toss her out with the bath water, let me have a moment of your time.
In Abigail Adams’ “Remember the Ladies” letter, she exhorts future President John Adams to ensure that women have rights in the soon-to-be-established United States of America for many reasons. Abigail Adams wraps the rights of women around the fact that “all Men would be tyrants if they could,” thus setting up the fight for women’s rights in relation and contingent on our relationships with others. This was elevated to high art during the suffrage movement when Republican Motherhood became one of the main messages. Republican Motherhood is the notion that women deserve education and rights because we birth, raise, educate and create future citizens and leaders. Exactly what Arquette was talking about in her speech.
While many feminists will take offense at yet another moment when women ask for rights because we are a mother, daughter or sister to a man, it is sadly the truth of the matter. In my 11 years as a mother, I have far too often seen women with children prioritize their children’s well-being over their own. This is the phenomenon Betty Friedan tapped into with “The Feminine Mystique.” Despite it being 2015, women are still told that being a mother is not only the most important job in the world, but so important that it supersedes your own needs as a human being. This is why friends of mine are brought to tears when they go back to work after having a baby, and are asked why they don’t have pangs of guilt. It’s OK; I didn’t carry guilt either, and I am fairly certain that I love my daughter as much as my friends who did cry all the way from daycare to the office. But society wants us to think differently.
A Twitter friend was discussing online how when her mom died, she needed her own time to mourn, so she sent her son to stay with extended family for a few weeks. She needed that time to heal and mourn. Yet her parenting skills were questioned. This woman’s real need to be alone, to mourn was not celebrated in a movie, a la Cheryl Strayed, but used against her in relationship to her son.
This mentality is why women will rise up and fight against issues like drunk driving, unhealthy school lunches, gun violence, and pollution all in the name of their children and not in their own right. Too many women with children have placed their kids as a priority to the degree that fighting for their own human rights as autonomous entities is deemed selfish. So I totally understand what Arquette was trying to cram into her speech last night and why Meryl seconded it with a “You go!” point.
Furthermore, the fear of looking selfish is another reason why I believe that some women, especially white women, have an easier time fighting for the rights of women and girls outside our borders. Arquette stepped in a pile of poo when she said, “It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t.” I want to believe that she was asking women to stop and consider, why are you willing to stand up for Malala but not for yourself? Yes, there is a hint of white savior complex in fighting for global women’s rights and not our own, but it is also safer. We can set up a bake sale to buy girls in Guatemala shoes, but set up an inequality bake sale to bring attention to our own pay gaps? Forget about it!
Where Arquette loses me is when she pleads for “all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” Within these groups are mothers! This is just no. No. No. No…she should not have gone there. All I will say is that statements like that are the result of the media pitting the many movements against each other, especially asking why feminism flounders while equal marriage is catching on faster than the measles. (By contrast, Common’s acceptance speech completely avoided that pitfall by emphasizing the inclusiveness for which he stood.)
Mothers need to stop saying that they aren’t political when everything in our lives is. From what our children are taught in schools to where their parks are located, life is political. It does not mean you need to run for office and attend every protest, but it does mean valuing yourself as much as you value your child. White feminists need to remember that intersectionalism is a requirement, it is not optional. Well-meaning statements are a good first step, but let’s move past Women’s Studies 101 and into deeper dialogue. And since I try to find the good in these sort of missteps, perhaps this conversation will inspire a mother to step up for herself, a white woman to pick up a book on Latina feminism and for us to all stop and ask why we are working so hard for democracy abroad when we allow voting rights to be eroded here. Hint we can do both, but only if we want to. Let’s want to.
Veronica Arreola writes the blog Viva la Feminista, where she tries to navigate and understand the intersection between feminism, motherhood and her Latinadad. You can follow her on Twitter @veronicaeye.