The elusive “soccer mom” (and a bit of Betty Friedan)

Pejorative pigeonholes

Honda Minivan

When we hear, “she’s a soccer mom,” we Americans all know the speaker means that the woman drives her kid, and perhaps their friends, to and from soccer in a minivan. Like all stereotypes, there is additional meaning lurking just below the surface. However, because this stereotype is “coded” with markers of the dominant culture, those of us within any part of that culture may not “read” deeper. A “soccer mom” drives a nice late-model minivan, the family’s second car. Her husband drives the sedan to work. The wife is probably harried by having to organize when she drives which kid where, but has the time to do it: she doesn’t [need to] work for pay. The husband, wife, and children (most likely biological) live in the suburbs. The practice uniforms, because they also have game uniforms, are clean when the kids leave the car and dirty when they come back. Unspoken but especially important to the stereotype is that the soccer mom is white.

Betty Naomi Goldstein Friedan (1921-2006)
Betty Friedan. Smithsonian photo.

I don’t want to be called a “soccer mom.” Not only does the stereotype not apply to the specifics of my life but also its use reminds me of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Bear with me as I try to explain the connection. Friedan described women’s malaise, the “problem that has no name,” as stemming from being bound by the definition of femininity, which kept women in the home, fawning over their children and catering to their husbands. Friedan’s mistake was that she generalized about all women, based on the experiences of well-to-do, suburban, well-educated women. Many 1960s and 70s feminists fell into the same trap. They heralded the book and promoted Friedan’s analyses. Most second second wave feminists also perpetuated generalizations by identifying as “women’s issues” some problems that were, in fact, unique to their class, ethnic, and color group. For example, they emphasized abortion rights without acknowledging that African American women were still facing forced sterilization. In the same way, the characteristics attributed to “soccer moms” do not describe all moms of soccer players. Certainly there are some who fit the stereotype, but I haven’t met any.

A stereotype is shorthand–a way for one group to label another as “other,” as different from “us.” By deriding the “other,” this differentiation claims, or sometimes reclaims, power. The virtually all white slave owners used not only gruesome deeds but also terrible words to reinforce their power over slaves. Women athletes continually fight against the stereotype that they are lesbians by going overboard to prove their femininity. Many of these women would assert that they’re just “being themselves,” but wearing makeup on the field? At any given Women’s Professional Soccer match, count the number of women without ponytails, i.e. with short hair, which is one, albeit dated, sign of a potentially lesbian female athlete. Many groups have empowered themselves by reclaiming slurs, calling one another by a particular word the original namers are no longer allowed to use, at least in polite society. Groups that are discriminated against also create their own words to assert their own power or pride; before the gay baby boom, my friends and I used to refer to heterosexuals as “breeders.” Although it is more subtle than many other terms, used without thinking or derisively, “soccer mom” distinguishes between my group (good) and their group (bad).

Stereotypes are often created or used for political purposes, which is probably the chief reason for the emergence of the term “soccer mom.” My Google search results indicate that during the 1996 presidential election, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole vied for women voters. A campaign strategist coined or appropriated the term “soccer mom.”* Also, Consider the debate started in 2008 over whether or not Sarah Palin was a “soccer mom” (also “hockey mom”), either literally or as a representative. Pundits and voters discussed: was she a down-to-earth mother supporting her children’s activities? Did she understand and speak for “soccer moms”?

It is obvious, especially today, that Betty Friedan had political reasons for writing The Feminine Mystique. It wasn’t merely a sociological study; she intended the book to motivate women to change their situations. Intriguingly, she also had political reasons for not acknowledging her own background, and perhaps also for describing her suburban, disaffected housewives as though they were representative of all women’s experiences. Friedan was a Jewish leftist who had worked as a Marxist labor journalist. Dodging questions about her past would have helped her avoid the attention of the dwindling but still active anti-communists. But more importantly, her past and that she wasn’t a fellow victim of the feminine mystique: would have diminished the credibility of her story; would have bared her desire to provoke women into action; and, for some, might have revealed an underlying critique of capitalism.**

I wonder: is “soccer mom” the latest incarnation of those isolated, white, suburban, well-off, stay-at-home wives? Pigeonholed women stuck in the covey? My head hurts.

What got me to writing about stereotypes & soccer moms

Blog: From a Left Wing

Every day, I check my Twitter feed for news about women’s soccer. In December, when I saw an exchange about “soccer moms,” I couldn’t help but jump in. Unfortunately, I can’t find the full conversation–Twitter doesn’t keep past messages–but I do have a small piece of it. My memory is that @TanyaKeith  wrote that she is aggravated when the media uses the term “soccer mom”– she’s a mom who plays, referees, follows US Soccer with passion and, before she had kids, coached. Then @FromALeftWing responded, and I wrote back to the two of them. (See their blogs, Soccer . . . Family Style and From A Left Wing: Soccer & Sports Polemics.)

{For those not using Twitter: posts are limited to 140 characters. The @ sign indicates someone’s username. Including someone’s username in a post is called a “mention,” and makes it appear in the mentioned user’s stream of posts. Otherwise the stream only consists of posts from people someone “follows.”}

Blog: Soccer …. Family Style

khbrookes: @FromaLeftWing @TanyaKeith So I muse: how do “they” define “soccer mom,” how differ from “baseball mom,” who fits pigeonhole, etc. etc. Dec 23, ’10, 9:30 PM

khbrookes: @FromaLeftWing @TanyaKeith If I could write a blog post as quickly as you two do, I’d write one about soccer & parents right now. Dec 23, ’10, 9:31 PM

TanyaKeith: @khbrookes @fromaleftwing take the weekened…write that soccer & parents. I triple dog dare you. Dec 23, ’10, 10:31 PM
[For the detail-oriented: Keith lives in a different time zone; the entries are listed in the order of posted time.]

khbrookes: @TanyaKeith @fromaleftwing Triple dog dare? Man, that’s harsh. I’ll work on one. But don’t wait with bated breath. Not baited. From abated. Dec 24, ’10, 9:40 PM

She’d thrown down the gauntlet. I’d accepted the challenge and decided my timeframe was a month. The clock has been ticking.

Who are the soccer parents in my neighborhood?

Cousin's in the car seat: we're on our way

Jon’s mom is nearly the prototypical soccer mom. She always gets Jon to practice on time, and calls in advance (and apologizes) if he can’t be there. She knows she’s horrible with directions so, having planned ahead, always arrives early to away games. She’s happy to give anyone a ride who needs it, and brings orange slices or other healthy treats for all the boys. She and Jon are white. She’s single, currently unemployed, and drives an old small sedan.

Ralph’s mom also almost fits the stereotype. She doesn’t bring treats, but she always brings Sean and Eduardo along in her minivan. She gets her two daughters and son to all of their practices and games. She volunteers to help out at every single youth soccer event. She and her husband are white. Her husband’s car is a beat up pick-up truck. Ralph’s parents work different shifts so they can share parenting.

Brianna’s mom has a minivan, is on the soccer board, is married, works part-time, and looks the part of sweet, feminine middle American. But she coaches her daughter’s team. One of my favorite discordant sounds is hearing her switch between her heavy Boston accent and Portuguese (from Portugal, she emphasizes, especially to Brazilians).

I can’t think of a single mom whose kid plays soccer who fits the stereotype. It’s true that Malden, Massachusetts doesn’t meet the socio-economic requirements necessary to cultivate stereotypical soccer moms, but neither are the soccer moms, dads and relatives whom I know homogeneous.

Louibert’s dad is the soccer chauffer for the family’s three players. He has the time, because he purposefully schedules his dental hygiene school courses for early in the day or late at night. Like many first generation Americans, only when pressed do the kids speak Haitian Creole in public.

I don’t think Pablo’s mom has ever missed one of his games, but I often give him a ride home at night because his dad is working and she’s taking classes to study for her GED. Pablo told me that once when he visited his parents’ home country of El Savador, he got to straddle the border of two countries, one with each foot.

Nick’s parents juggle full-time work and 4 kids, two of whom also play hockey and baseball. I wave to the one driving the minivan as he or she drops Nick off, goes to pick up another kid, and gets back in time to see the game. They’re devout Catholics.

Alejandro has arrived at more than one game without his uniform, having left it at the wrong parent/step-parent’s house. His dad’s Argentinian and his mom is Jewish.

A Muslim, Abdul’s mom wears a head covering. His dad is usually the one who brings him to practice; she has a day job in IT. They both come to games. Knowing they were devout Moroccans, I was worried they would have trouble accepting a hairy-legged lesbian as their boy’s coach. Don’t believe everything you hear generalizing about groups of people. I shouldn’t have. They felt comfortable enough to joke around with me; a pair of the grandparents came to our year-end pizza party.

Often when our team travels to other towns in our county, we look with wonder upon their flat, soccer-dedicated fields with thick turf or astroturf and built-in goals with un-holey nets. Sometimes they even have benches for the players. I might look across the field at the parents, almost all white, sitting in their portable folding chairs and think, derisively, “look at the soccer moms.” But I doubt that many among them really fit the stereotype either. I’ve met moms in the wealthier towns who coach their son’s teams. I see plenty of men attending their son’s games. The best referee we’ve ever had was a mother who played competitive soccer. Not a ref, she stepped in at the last minute, but was prepared: her cleats and shorts were in her car.

I moaned on Facebook about having difficulty writing this piece. Here are some responses I got from my white friends.

[While Twitter is public, Facebook is not and so I have not attributed these quotations.]

“I’m a soccer mom. [But] not the stereotype, I’d like to believe.”

“Wish I could have simply been a soccer Mom and stood around at 8:30 am on a Saturday morning drinking DD coffee. Instead of being that, I volunteered to run the first year program when nobody else would. What did I get in return?….One of the most heartwarming, satisfying, fulfilling moments of my adult life. I think few women fit the stereotype because so many of us wish to have a larger impact in our child’s life than someone that just stands on the sidelines sharing crockpot recipes.”

“I never stand around drinking coffee and I don’t coach because I don’t really know the rules. I’m the one photographing every minute of every soccer/volleyball/cross country match or…or marathons or 5/10K’s…which probably seems a little annoying to some. But at the end of the season, with the help of my trusty digital camera and my Mac, I can create really cool posters and DVDs (with music) for my girls and their teammates. And I’m a great, loud, enthusiastic cheerleader…like most moms, I suppose!”

Stereotype or not…I applaud any parent that is driving their kids to practices and meets, supporting them in any kind of fitness activities. I think that message and the importance of that kind of commitment gets lost in the jokes.”

“I find that stereotypes of any kind are usually not true and I hate being stereotyped. Do you really know anyone who ever truly fits any of them?”

Indeed.

While ellusive in Malden, I am sure archetypal soccer moms exist, and many are proud of the label. Whether or not they meet all of the criteria, there are a lot of self-identified “soccer moms,” whether or not they meet all of the criteria. Some “soccer moms” really do see themselves as a political bloc. However, I think there are many more moms with soccer-playing children who are excluded by the stereotype, like me, or view the term as a pejorative and refuse to be pigeonholed, like me.

I’d like to label myself, thank you.

 

* I acknowledge taking the easy way out by googling the political derivation of “soccer mom.” I did not check primary sources, but among the results did find references to multiple legitimate sources.
** For Friedan background, see Tom Blumer’s February 2006 NewsBusters article” AP’s Betty Friedan Obituary Whitewashes Her Known Communist Roots,” in which he refers to David Horowitz’s (no relation to Daniel) January 1999 Salon review “Betty Friedan’s secret Communist past,” which is of Smith College Professor Daniel Horowitz’s wonderful book Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism. Note that Blumer is quite incorrect on one point: Friedan’s book played only one small part in prompting second wave feminism, radical or otherwise.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 The elusive “soccer mom” (and a bit of Betty Friedan) by Kim Brookes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Permission to Use.

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