For those who are too young to have seen it, Janet Benton offers a sobering look at what it was like for children whose mothers got caught up in second-wave feminism in the early 1970s.
It’s a story of broken homes, of abandoned or neglected children, of women becoming manic for the cause. It’s a story of women who got caught up in a cult and who abrogated their most fundamental moral responsibilities.
Is there a more fundamental moral responsibility than to care for a minor child?
If you want to know why feminism has a bad reputation and why so many daughters of feminists despise their mothers, Benton’s article will open your eyes.
Once upon a time, I had a mother who inhabited the kitchen with care. The bliss of licking drippy, sweet things off the mixing spoon after she had stirred pudding or poured cake batter into a pan was often mine. I believed my mother loved those moments, and our entire home-based family life, as much as I did.
Yet by the time I turned 9, my brother and I lived in a post-divorce household, with Dad in a new home and Mom in full feminist revolt. Dinners of chicken cordon bleu and baked desserts gave way to oven-roasted meats that were deemed done whenever my mother could tear herself away from making art and selling it — or, when she wasn’t home, to no dinner at all, unless you counted the banana I nibbled while crouched in my closet, hoping any would-be attackers couldn’t see me through the window as darkness fell.
To second wave feminists homemaking was anathema. Women who got caught up in the movement decided that they needed to fulfill their creative potential through work, even if it meant not feeding their children.
When the women’s movement blossomed in the late 1960s, she was ready. She vanquished the spirit of homemaking the way Virginia Woolf had killed her “Angel in the House.”
And then a tidal wave of rage, disappointment and raw desire overtook her. I saw it in her vehemence toward my father and in the raucous consciousness-raising groups that met in our living room. I saw it in the changed contents of our dinner plates: a dried-out chicken leg, a potato collapsed inward from overbaking.
When my mother banged out work correspondence on an electric typewriter way past bedtime, my needs had no standing. On other nights I would lie awake for hours, unable to sleep until she came home at midnight.
My mother was an unstoppable force, powerful, beautiful and finally happy. As her days and nights expanded to include solo shows, romance and the founding of feminist organizations, I could see in her radiant face and laughter that she was fulfilling her potential. Her red hair grew ever upward, a hood of curls that shouted out her freedom.
She had suffered and struggled. She was talented. She deserved to thrive.
But my body spoke my devastation. I went from being well fed and popular in third grade to near skeletal and often mocked in fifth. I wasn’t anorexic; I just didn’t know how to cook. I turned sallow and hollow-eyed and suffered headaches, eczema and stomach pains. On the windy playground, other children would crow, “She’s so skinny, she’s going to blow away.”
But back then, on many afternoons, I would return to my bedroom, sit on my pink shag rug and cry. It seemed I mattered to no one anymore. My heart shrank into a knob of hurt and yearning.
How can a woman suppress her nurturing instinct for a cause? Doubtless, she has been told that nurturing is a social construct, unjustly given to women.
I believe that psychiatrists would call what Benton's mother underwent an extended manic episode, one that produces a complete loss of one’s moral sense. Normally, Benton’s mother would have been severely taken to task for child abandonment. Nowadays, we are not allowed to be judgmental.
Of course, Benton was not the only child who suffered for her mother’s maniacal feminism. And many of the activists who abandoned their children for the cause still fail to understand why their children reproach them their negligence.
When receiving an award for her mother in front of an audience of feminist activists, Benton put the best possible face on her mother’s dereliction:
But the pride she has brought me, and the self-respect and assertiveness she has worked so hard to teach me, have proved far more nutritive than hundreds of perfectly cooked meals.
The assembled feminists loved it:
I received a standing ovation. Activists lined up to thank me, with one confiding that her daughter remains furious at her for marching on Washington instead of baking brownies.
I suspect that she was telling them what they wanted to hear. If she hadn’t she would have been run out of the room. Besides, public meetings are not the place to settle scores.
When the time came to bring up her own daughter, Benton found her own moral sense, the one that her mother had thrown away for the cause:
I listened. I am a feminist, too, and I know there were and are innumerable good reasons for outrage and action. Yet children do not stop needing what they need, even when their parents are fighting for justice. And if you do not attend to them or find a loving substitute, they will suffer and may hold it against you. Even if you have never felt stronger and more truly yourself. Even if you love them.