It’s easy to make the case against “mompreneur,” a word which surfaced a little over a decade ago and may be enjoying a renaissance, according to a piece in Mashable. It reinforces the assumption that women who have children are always moms before all and that this fact infiltrates everything else they might do. “In a world where business owners are expected to prove total dedication to their product, their possible stockholders and their bottom line, it makes sure that everyone knows that these women have other priorities,” the Grindstone argued of the term back in 2011. Like feminized nouns, such as “actress” or “waitress,” or modified ones, such as “female novelist,” it implies that the neutral term is male and the female version, a lesser sub-category. Phonically, the word is awkward, as if the mompreneur is offering up a self-deprecating joke before anyone else can look askance at her presence. Plus, who ever heard of a dadpreneur? The injustice is self-evident.
But, read another way, the label may have revolutionary potential. As a portmanteau that gives parenting and professional work equal weight, could it point the way toward a future in which caregiving and breadwinning are awarded equal value? The earliest pieces about mompreneurs described women going into business for themselves after employers failed to accommodate their commitments at home. “You can’t be a part-time vice president,” a co-founder of the networking site MomSpace told the Associated Press in 2007. “And maybe you can’t attend every PTA meeting. But I do believe you can have it all, in bits and pieces.” Almost a decade later, many women still find that stitching a life together for themselves is the best way to make everything fit. In 2015, a study by a University of California, Santa Barbara sociologist found that U.S. women cited the desire to fit work around family as their number one reason for starting their own businesses.
There are downsides to this trend. As Quartz wrote of the UC Santa Barbara study, “While the US has a greater proportion of women entrepreneurs than many other countries, far fewer of their enterprises prioritize growth. This limits the businesses’ ability to create new jobs and generate higher incomes. … [I]n countries where governments mandate generous amounts of paid family leave, women who start businesses tend to build larger, higher-impact, and more scalable enterprises.” But there are also obvious upsides: Women who succeed in business while setting their own schedules show that it’s sexism, not sense, that undergirds pervasive prejudice against working moms.
On the one hand, the can-do tone of “mompreneur” advice columns glosses over the ugly constraints that force many women out of stable, lucrative jobs in traditional workplaces, into experiments that can easily flop. On the other hand, when Entrepreneur.com’s “mompreneurs” section runs testimonials from women who say some version of what a life consultant and mother of four, April Perry, told the site recently—“There are many days I wonder what we were thinking, but overall, it works for us and we enjoy being able to spend so much time with each other and with our children”—they cast a line to working moms who may feel trapped in an inhospitable paradigm.
When Mashable interviewed Australian “mumpreneurs,” many recounted seeing the term used often, and proudly, by women selling a product to make mothers’ lives easier. On this side of the globe, proponents of the label have also argued that wearing it combats the stigma that anything associated with motherhood—from parenting products to professional women who advertise their status as parents—is somehow unserious. “Whoever decided that ‘professionalism’ meant ‘devoid of parenthood’ was clearly not living in the reality that the rest of us are,” Jill Salzman of the Founding Moms, a mompreneur meet-up, wrote at the New York Times’ Motherlode blog in 2012. “It’s true that a few people don’t think mothers belong in business. But when we reject the ‘mom’ label, we’re missing an opportunity to change their minds.”
In the end, the word “mompreneur” cuts both ways in the battle for more gender equitable workplaces. It reinforces the notion that motherhood is the de facto center of women’s identities, and it can even distract from our ruinously inflexible culture of work with the sparkle of narratives about moms who “have it all”—a dangerous story to tell considering that the majority of small businesses fail. Then again, the term has subversive potential for highlighting caregiving in places where that work is devalued, and for rejecting the idea that motherhood is incompatible with professional respect. The best way to do away with the concept of the “mompreneur” is to fight for flexible workplaces, family-friendly policies, and a true split between men and women of both caregiving and breadwinning. The term will become obsolete when the forces pushing moms toward “mompreneurship” are gone.