Culture > Books

Books: Power of motherhood

Books | A TV personality takes a second look at feminism

Issue: "Betting on the future," Aug. 1, 1998

The gist of Cokie Roberts's new bestseller, We Are Our Mothers' Daughters, is best summed up in her dedication. The ABC reporter and feminist stalwart dedicates a book on women and "women's issues" to her husband, Steven. The book is a collection of word-snapshots of women Mrs. Roberts respects-but it's also a snapshot of her own discomfort with the strident feminism of recent decades. "Now here's our generation," she writes, "women in our fifties, with grown daughters taking on the challenges of work and families. There's a lot of reassessment going on, and a lot of rewriting of history." The feminism that still lets fly with cracks about Tammy Wynette and baking cookies "drives me nuts," she says. "It's not men who are doing this to women, it's women who are doing this to each other, trying to validate the decisions they make by denigrating the decisions of others." The women she focuses on aren't necessarily famous women-but they're women, she says, who impressed her with their strength and wisdom. Chief among them is her sister, the late Barbara Sigmund, mayor of Princeton, N.J. (Mrs. Roberts has deep Democratic political roots. Her father was Hale Boggs, a Louisiana congressman and House majority leader; her mother won his seat after he died.) "When my older sister died, she was younger than I am now," Mrs. Roberts writes. "Any woman who's been even slightly close to her big sister knows what that means-it means uncharted territory." Her big sister had always been a beacon, she says. "All my life she had been there, lording it over me and loving me, pushing me around and protecting me." They had mammograms performed on the same day in 1989; Mrs. Roberts' showed she was in good health, Mrs. Sigmund's showed tumors. They conspired on how to break the news to their mother; at Mrs. Roberts's husband's suggestion, they told their mother just before noon Mass. They broke the news to her, then went to church to pray. It's a beautifully written chapter. But the spell is often broken in subsequent chapters, when Mrs. Roberts slips into that strident feminism she's rethinking, but has not yet totally rejected. For example, she's all for women in the military, even in combat roles. But she sees that lately, feminism is becoming a caricature of itself. "We've been known to grow a little grumpy over the ingratitude of younger women, for their sometimes smug assumption that all of that 'woman stuff' is passé, ancient history. We find ourselves muttering, like the Wicked Witch of the West, 'Just you wait, my pretty.'" And she distances herself from the pragmatical feminism that's bolstering Bill Clinton. "A lot of people are sorry that we now know so much about a presidential candidate's private life. I'm not among them. I think character counts, especially for a president.... And I think that attitudes toward women and family contribute to the definition of character." What Mrs. Roberts leaves the reader with is a clearer understanding of the question: "A woman's place is anywhere she wants to be. Fine, but who's taking care of the children? That's the question that keeps us roiled up over this issue." Contemporary feminism has always focused on the "power of sisterhood." Mrs. Roberts brings into the equation the "power of motherhood."

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