Here are two facts that are true about the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. Which one seems more important?
1) She is expecting twins with her actor husband, George Clooney.
2) She recently addressed the United Nations to urge world leaders to speak out against acts of genocide committed by ISIS.
If you are to judge by the way the media covered it, the first is the most important accomplishment. Clooney may have spent years studying and dedicating herself to her profession as a human rights lawyer, but that didn’t stop writers from exclaiming that she was “showing a small baby bump in a clinging black suit.” One fashion writer even wondered: “Wearing 4 and a half inch heels while pregnant…is that wise, Amal?”
This is like asking Superman if a full-length cape is practical while he’s rescuing kids from a burning building. The answer is, “that is not particularly relevant right now.”
Except, for women, their mothering skills are becoming an increasingly relevant topic of discussion. In the past year, women have been told either implicitly or explicitly that traditional roles are the ones they should be most focused on fulfilling. We’re dealing with a President who has said “putting a wife to work is a dangerous thing,” because, “a softness disappeared.” He also said that “when I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof.”
Little wonder then that women in the administration like Kellyanne Conway declare, “my favorite label is Mommy.” Or Ivanka Trump who claims, “the most important job any woman can have is being a mother.”
Being a parent is a source of joy and challenge and meaning for many humans of all genders. But it’s not the most important job there is. It’s not even technically a job, insofar as it pays no money. It is more like a very demanding volunteer position that you can never, ever get out of.
And, as rewarding as that position may be, producing a younger person is not necessarily the main contribution people make to the world. People can probably not tell you how many children Harriet Tubman or Marie Curie or Elizabeth Cady Stanton had, but they can, hopefully, tell you what they did.
Society’s specific glorification of motherhood—the repeated emphasis that it is a woman’s most important job—implies that a woman’s main purpose is not to change the world. It’s not to write books or invent or be feminist abolitionists. It is just to serve as a vessel for younger women and future men. Despite the perkier language, this is a view not far removed from the GOP congressmen who said women were “hosts.”
Subtly, gently, it is a view that tells women to do less. Why would a woman bother with the business of trying to lead a government or corporation when society is continually quick to remind her that, really, she should be focusing on mothering? Because that is her most important job.
This might be less offensive if anyone said being a father is a man’s most important job. But it’s always assumed that a father’s most important job might be something like… being the President. Or walking on the moon. Or being the Vice President. So, something quite important, really.
This notion that motherhood is a woman’s most important job is a holdover from days when women couldn’t have many other jobs. And the glorification of a woman’s role as a mother has always been a breadcrumb intended to sate women who might otherwise demand to be more than mothers. From the early suffragette days, women who did not ask for rights were seen as good mothers, while women who did were seen as terrible mothers. This was a view espoused by people who would have had them be only mothers.
Talking about how important it is for a woman to be a mother also doesn’t demand much in the way of action. If the United States actually accorded mothers as much respect as Republican leaders claim to, the United States would not have the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Americans don’t use this rhetoric because they actually revere mothers. They use it so that when women demand to know why they are not occupying other important jobs—like say, that of Fortune 500 CEOs, or President of the United States—they can say “but you have the most important job already.”
You don’t. The most important jobs are the one that comes with the most respect and power. If that job was being a parent, ambitious men would all be jockeying to be the best father in the world.
Oh, and Amal’s shoes? They were fine.