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Apr 20, 2014
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Posted on Oct 11, 2013
By Ruth Rosen
What Slaughter—and Alcorn—fails to understand is that the modern women’s movement sought an economic and social revolution that would create equality at home and at the workplace. For magazine and book publishers, however, it’s more profitable to publish another article or book that blames feminism or the individual for the agonizing choices faced by working mothers. Every year brings one more article on the Death of Feminism or Why Women Can’t Have It All. It’s good for sales. Exhausted by their lives, working mothers buy up copies, hoping to better comprehend their sense of failure and despair.
True, “Maxed Out” is a memoir, but the author seems clueless about the historical and economic world in which she unravels. Until she wrote her pamphlet-like inserts that appear between the chapters, she clearly didn’t grasp that her breakdown was the result of a systemic problem that is unique to the United States.
She never mentions that activists in the women’s movement made child care one of their three demands in 1970, when they marched down Fifth Avenue in New York, an event that made the movement into a household word by the next day. Nor does she recall that feminists and child care advocates pushed comprehensive child care legislation through Congress in 1970, only to witness President Richard Nixon veto it the next year. She seems oblivious to the history of women’s struggles for working mothers.
Reading her memoir is like watching an anguished woman discover, for the first time, what thousands of activists and scholars have been discussing and analyzing for the last 40 years. She never seems to “get” that the personal really is political and that her problems have a political solution, until, that is, she writes a blog, and then a book. Even then, her story is told as if nothing similar is happening in the world around her.
What’s missing in the book is any recognition that working mothers’ problems should be at the top of the political agenda. Many people gasped when President Obama, in his inaugural speech, even suggested that the government should pay for preschool education. Imagine the response if he had suggested universal child care, one year paid parental leaves, part-time jobs for parents with young children or tax incentives for companies and corporations that embraced “family-friendly” policies.
American political culture still embraces individual solutions for nearly everything. If you have a child, it’s your responsibility. Can’t find child care? It’s your problem. Your employer won’t allow you to take paid parental leave? Well of course not. That’s what most of the rest of the world does and moreover, it stinks of socialism.
“Maxed Out” may offer some women consolation that they are not alone. But it is also a cautionary tale about a profit-oriented society that expects people to work 60 hours a week, at the expense of families and individual health. In the end, Alcorn returns to work as a freelance consultant, and the book concludes on a happy, upbeat note of individual redemption. But we have no idea how the “price of motherhood” will affect her old age.
At the end, Alcorn tacks on 10 things working mothers can do to help themselves. Her most political suggestions—donating to candidate funder EMILY’s List or joining grass-roots organizer MomsRising—do not exactly constitute a political agenda for working mothers. Nor does she explain what these excellent groups have tried to achieve. Alcorn begins her book with the words, “Much ink has been spilled instructing women to have it all—thriving careers, happy children and satisfying marriages.” She’s right. But “Maxed Out” required more than the story of one working mom’s decline. What’s needed is a broader political and economic context in which working mothers can understand their situation.
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