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Super Women and their Harmful Narratives

February 13, 2012

Licia Ronzulli, a member of the EU parliament, who is shown above cradling her baby as she does her job.


I am really happy for Licia Ronzulli.

I am glad that Ronzulli was able to win on this day in finding a balance between her responsibilities as a mother and her commitment to herself and her work. Furthermore, I am glad that her particular win on this particular day has allowed her a validation for her own motherhood, instead of an indictment against it.

It’s great that her child was too young or too well-nourished or too disposed-towards-tranquility to cry out or demand attention during her important meeting. I am glad her co-workers were understanding (as the cameras roll) and that the institution she works for adjusted their policies so that she could triumph.

Good for her.

But while I am feeling glad for her, is it also possible to not mistake her privilege and good fortune for a moment of universal empowerment? And while we are at it, can we check in on what equality actually means.

I realize many feel warm about a visual that accommodates Licia Ronzulli’s motherhood in such a strikingly bureaucratic, globally powerful and therefore patriarchal space. But I think we need to reign in that warmth. Patriarchy has always had space for women who are mothers first, everything else later.

The reason this is a “feel-good” moment is because Ronzulli is seen prioritizing her child along with her work. As if — if she had found a baby-sitter (or if the child’s father had assumed the responsibility), she would have done something less than extraordinary. Or worse, she would have been less of a wonderful mother. Which is all crap, of course. Also. She was able to do this because she was privileged, not because she was doing anything particularly special.

As this image rotates through my facebook newsfeed, there has been a lot of cyber applauding and occasional nonsense.

Here’s what some fool had to say.

I will also add: women who are investing their vital energies trying to fit into tight black pants and inhabit the club, women who gain their sense of value from how well they can lure the savage stare of men upon their flesh, women who offer not a fiber of resistance to a financial reliance/exploitation or emotional dependency on men… they ought see this and feel obligated to up their game, too.

*excuse me, while I throw up a little*

I won’t pretend to have the patience to respond politely to such sexist douchery. One that uses the opportunity to shame women’s bodies and financial choices and status. (see if members of the EU parliament can do it, so can you!) As if a woman is failing at being a woman (whatever the fuck that means) — if she does not dress a certain way, or if she does not display the correct degree of financial security. What an ass-hat.

But also this photo was filled with comments like “super-mom!” (as if a woman who works full time raising her children cannot be a super-mom?) or “women are good at multi-tasking” (I have never understood why men “work hard” while women “multi-task” — demoting women’s real labor to a trick.)

Images like these (and the ideas they carry) glorify a “super-woman” ideal that fail utterly in recognizing the irrationality of asking a woman to do everything, be everywhere while the father gets a free pass. For no reason. And it’s hurting women. Not only do women get paid less for similar work, but they also do the bulk of unpaid labor in the world.

As far as I am concerned, the only redeeming thing about this picture is that maybe some of us will remember it next time we share office space with a female co-worker who is distracted and stressed because of her child that she was forced to bring to the office. If the EU parliament proceedings can adjust, so can we! I have a feeling that if Ronzulli’s baby had been caught crying and screaming, the image would have been deemed less powerful. Which is pretty pathetic.

It is unfortunate that Licia Ronzulli did not have the social, structural or community support needed for her to be at work without her children. It is distinctly odd to me that her many obvious privileges that allowed her the option of bringing her child to work is mistaken for empowerment.

Daily Wage Laborer in India with her child

Not everyone gets a chance to have their triumphs in motherhood televised.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2012 11:46 pm

    That’s an interesting take on this photo. When I saw it, I liked it because it showed mothers having interests/careers outside of caring for their children, and because it showed that mothers can and do put those interests and careers ahead of caring for their children– what I mean by that is that she brought her child to work instead of bringing her work home by, I don’t know, casting an absentee vote. So often we are bombarded with images of mothers who are all about their children, but this is an image of a mother who is all about the politics.

    I’ve been lucky not to see misogynist comments accompanying this photo, though, and I’m sorry you had to deal with them.

    • February 20, 2012 1:55 am

      Yeah. No, I agree that it’s an overall pretty heartwarming photo. It certainly made me feel good too. But the main point I was trying to make was about privilege, really. And how, as a society, we often reward and value privilege over courage. I think there is nothing wrong with Ronzulli voting from home or getting a babysitter. Motherhood is tough, and it’s tough on women’s careers. And a big reason this is true is because fathers don’t have the burden of taking care of children nearly enough, nearly as often. If that equality existed… that would be empowering. Not expecting women to carry the burden from all, every time, in order to fulfill some unrealistic, fantasy idea of “woman”.

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