Can't We Have A Ceasefire in the Mommy Wars?

We go behind enemy lines for the real story

Photograph: Photo by Istock

It’s back-to-school time, which is exciting for the kids except for, oh yeah, all their anxiety over schedules, books, classes and clothing.  Yet those pale in comparison to what moms face coming back this week—another year on the PTA battlefield.
I’m a PTA mom in transition. I spent 19 years working on Wall Street. Three years ago, I left to raise my kids and became more involved with the PTA. Wall Street was easier. Hands down.
Having been behind enemy lines on both sides, I can say with assurance that both working mothers and their stay-at-home counterparts experience a heavy dose of fear and misunderstanding. The women with jobs feel deliberately excluded and looked down upon by what they see as an at-home clique that’s running everything. The PTA coffees are scheduled during office working hours, the important PTA jobs are already taken, the teachers prefer having fulltime moms as class parents.  On the other side, some on the stay-at-home side feel as if working moms dismiss them for having given up their careers, and don’t appreciate all the time they put in year after year to better the schools—work for which they receive no pay or material reward.
As my friend Cynthia from Ohio puts it: Women spent the sixties and seventies fighting for the right to work.  Now that we have it, we use it as wedge issue to make enemies. Why can’t we value and celebrate the choices we make for ourselves?  Why do we allow ourselves to see women who’ve made different choices as the enemy?
Yet to form the battle lines strictly on the basis of who goes to an office and who stays home is too simplistic—there’s something bigger at play. Are we as women simply raised to be mean to one another? Have we allowed this to become acceptable behavior? And there’s something else to consider: All of our daughters are watching! We’ve all read books like Odd Girl Out which detail the hideous ways our girls treat one another. Is this what we really want for the next generation?
This story can have a happy ending. We can start to become aware of the way we treat and judge other women. We can re-engineer our behavior. We can break the cycle.
One year ago, I co-founded a national organization called The New Agenda, which is part of what many believe is a re-emerging movement towards gender equality. There are many impediments to achieving that equality: the pay gap; women’s very slow movement into top management ranks; the escalating rate of violence against women; and of course teen dating violence.  One obstacle that is seldom discussed is what we’re talking about here: women’s treatment of other women.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Women are 52 percent of the population and if we could work together on the issues that unite us, the impediments listed above would be on their way to disappearing. If women weren’t so hard on other women, we could mentor each other into management (which we seldom do now) and collectively choose female leaders who could work on issues affecting women. We wouldn’t find ourselves with women so underrepresented in government—right now they constitute only 17 percent of elected officials in the U.S. (In this respect, by the way, our country ranks an embarrassing 71st in the world.) And women who identify as feminists have their problems too. If you read histories of the women’s rights movement, you’ll find that infighting among women often stopped progress.
Discouraging, yes. But as women we can change that, whenever we choose to. So as our kids go back to school, let’s go back to work on this issue. It is at the same time melancholy and empowering that the keys to equality are in our very own hands.

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