Books In Review
Michelle Lansberg's WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST. Toronto. Macmillan of Canada Publishing Company, 1982. 239 pages.
by Renate Krakauer
In recent years there has been a common misconception that feminism is opposed to motherhood. I cannot presume to provide the final word on the feminist stance on motherhood since the women's movement is not a monolithic organization with a party line on each issue. However, the fact that so many people make this assumption about feminists, including Michele Landsberg in the introduction to her book WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, indicates a fuzziness of thinking that needs to be clarified.
In the 60's, when women awakened to what has been called the Second Wave of Feminism, we reacted strongly and vehemently to all the restrictions and injustices placed on us in a sexist society. The nuclear family (including marriage and motherhood) was seen as one of the most oppressive of institutions, keeping women in economic bondage to men, laying full responsibility for child-bearing and child-rearing on us, and preventing full participation and equality in the world. In reaction to this realization, some women refused to marry or have children.
In rejecting the institution of motherhood, women were not repudiating the act of mothering. As a matter of fact, feminists are currently reclaiming motherhood, i.e. rejecting the male-defined motherhood role and finding a new joy and fulfillment in the close bond with babies and children. This is seen in the growing number of women in their 30's choosing freely to have babies (not because it is expected), the increasing number of men being encouraged to a full sharing of parenthood, and the spate of books and articles on motherhood written by feminists.
For that matter, we are also reaffirming the importance of intimate relationships in our lives, which may include marriage or any other form of "togetherness" that individuals prefer. At the same time, the feminist critique of marriage as an institution continues, as it should, so long as it is oppressive to women in economic and legal terms.
WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST is a collection of articles from Michelle Landsberg's regular column in The Toronto Star, with some commentary and updating added. The articles deal with three main categories: women's issues, children's issues, and miscellaneous pieces about home, family, diets, etc. Landsberg's ambivalence about feminism emerges early in the book. Being a "monogamous wife and devoted mother" as well as feminist seems to her a contradiction in terms. This arises from a confusion about the difference between the institutions of marriage and motherhood (which she roundly criticizes further in the book for their destructive impact on women) with the experience of intimacy and love which she shares with her husband and children.
Another weakness in Landsberg's book is her lack of vision of new models of families and relationships. Deeply ingrained assumptions about women's roles are not sufficiently challenged. Where are the fathers in her world of mothers and children? Why don't they ever worry about dirty socks, emotionally disturbed youngsters, prevention of child abuse, cooking a nutritious meal? Are we to assume that only women really care about children? And if this is so, then shouldn't we be encouraging men to be fully involved in parenting, to share in the rewards as well as the responsibilities, so that both sexes can become fully human? Although Landsberg is perceptive and clear in pointing out problems, she stops short of proposing creative, new alternatives.
Aside from these relatively minor shortcomings, Landsberg's strength is her ability to provide the general public with a human interest angle to most issues of social justice. Her interviews with and descriptions of assaulted women, mothers welfare, children with problems, give the reader a more vivid picture of society's casualties than any statistical report. She is at her best when her anger at injustice pours out in an eloquence of heroic proportions. For example, she throws some interesting light on affirmative action in Canada today, " a spectacular, massive affirmative action program, a juggernaut of privilege for one sex only." You guessed it - the male sex. She doesn't waffle on such issues as paid maternity leave, equal pay for work of equal value, women's rights to control our own bodies, and sexual violence. In fact, reading her clear, assertive prose, one wonders how anyone can fail to be convinced by her arguments. No apologetic rationalizing for Landsberg. She is a popular journalist who regularly speaks out on feminist issues, who does not put herself on a pedestal above her public, and whose justification for her position is that justice must prevail. With the forces of reaction attempting to stifle dissent and economic hard times affecting women so painfully, we are truly fortunate to have Michele Landsberg on our side.