By Colleen Leahey, reporter
FORTUNE — Taken out of context, just about any quote can spark outrage. Queen’s Counsel Cherie Blair learned that lesson the hard way this week, in the aftermath of comments she made about stay-at-home moms.
At the inaugural Fortune Most Powerful Women London conference, the barrister and wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair sat on a panel with McKinsey & Co. director Joanna Barsh, Accel Partners partner Sonali De Rycker, and Susan Gilchrist group chief executive at the Brunswick Group.
The women discussed female leadership and the lack of parity in the C-suite – regardless of the country in question – and the topic of motherhood came up. De Rycker claimed that never thinking she had a choice to not work was one of the best things for her career. It’s an issue, she said, that women who are “so smart, so capable, kind of drop out because it’s okay to. I think that just causes mediocrity.” She cited her lack of a choice, due to financial and other reasons, as the push she needed to keep climbing the corporate ladder.
Blair agreed. “One of the things that worries me now is you see young women who say: ‘I look at the sacrifices that women have made and I think why do I need to bother, why can’t I just marry a rich husband and retire?’ And you think how could they even imagine that is the way to fulfill yourself, how dangerous it is… Even good men — and not all men are good men — could have an accident and die and you’re left holding the baby.”
She continued, “There’s lots of talk now, isn’t there, about yummy mummies. They want to be the best possible mother and they put all their effort into their children. I also want to be the best possible mother.”
Blair’s “yummy mummies” comment has gained quite a bit of traction in the British press. “Cherie Blair attacks ‘yummy mummies’ who choose children over careers,” “Cherie Blair criticises career-shunning ‘yummy mummies’” and “Cherie Blair takes a swipe at stay-at-home yummy mummies” read headlines from the Telegraph, Guardian, and Daily Mail, respectively.
More than anything, the harsh words simply reveal a media culture that craves a catfight. Yet a Mommy War is not what the panelists — particularly Blair — were hoping to provoke. Instead, they were searching for a solution to a pervasive, complex social challenge: How can women pursue their careers and embrace motherhood in an economic world (for many) that all but mandates dual-income households but a culture that still retains skepticism about its effects?
Barsh clarified Blair’s statement, saying, “So many women actually let somebody else make the choice for them.” Society, Barsh continued, makes these women think that it’s an uneven playing field, rather than giving them the confidence to choose what they really want. “I want you to have a choice — and make it. When my kid was two, she had on her diapers, pearls, and a handbag and stood at the door and said, ‘I’m going to work,’” Barsh laughed.
“You’re absolutely right, of course it’s about choice,” responded Blair. “What we have to do is devise business strategies in societies which allow women to make choices which aren’t all or nothing choices.”
Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most visible working moms, wrote an article for Fortune in 2009 entitled “Don’t Leave Before You Leave,” where she argued that an ambitious woman “thinks hard about how busy she is and realizes that finding time for a child means something will have to give.” Indeed, most women still feel starting a family and being a good mother is an all-or-nothing venture.
Sandberg and Blair aren’t slamming stay-at-home mothers – they’re looking for viable options for those mothers who want to pursue their careers. To be sure, husbands and partners play a major role in breaking this black-and-white decision, both women have argued. “The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry,” Sandberg said at a Business Insider conference last December, referring to her supportive husband, SurveyMonkey CEO David Goldberg.
On stage in London, Blair concluded, “There are plenty of men who want better for their daughters, they’re inspired by their mothers, and you know even might be quite nice to their wives. And [sometimes] men don’t stand up and reclaim what a good man looks like.”
Blair’s comments deserve discussion in context. As the threat of a Mommy War subsides, perhaps we can have an adult conversation about these issues.