Flattering motherhood, still

I offered the first draft of this — for free — to the major newspapers, to no avail. In the meantime, there have been some great short pieces written on the recent motherhood-is-work kerfuffle. I don’t remember them all, but I liked those by Katha PollittNancy FolbreAdia Harvey Wingfield, Barbara Risman, Laura Flanders, Feminist Hulk, and Linda Hirshman. The feminist field on this issue has been crowded, which is great.

* * *

Hopefully we can agree that that the true measure of motherhood is somewhere between “toughest job in the world” and “nothing.”

On the one hand, both President Obama and pundit Hilary Rosen have now called motherhood the world’s hardest job. And with the Romneys flopping onto the all-mothers-work bandwagon, it appears we’re reaching a rare rhetorical consensus.

On the other hand, the majority in both major political parties agrees that poor single mothers and their children need one thing above all – a (real) job, one that provides the “dignity of an honest day’s work.”* For welfare purposes, taking care of children is not only not the toughest job in the world, it is more akin to nothing at all. When Bill Clinton’s endorsed welfare-to-work he famously declared: “The days of something for nothing are over.” President Obama and Mitt Romney both support that welfare reform.

Of course parenthood is work. But it’s really many jobs, not one. And now that more and more of them are also available for a fee — as real jobs — we can see how much the “market” thinks they’re really worth. Answer: not much. When sold as services, the many tasks of parenthood are disproportionately done by women. Some of its core tasks – such as cooking, cleaning, diaper-changing and laundry – are among the lowest-paid, most demeaning, female-dominated occupations.

Source: My calculations from 2010 American Community Survey.

As I wrote before, when it comes to reproductive labor, there’s work and there’s work:

Katha Pollitt made this point more eloquently in her column:

But the brouhaha over Hilary Rosen’s injudicious remarks is not really about whether what stay-home mothers do is work. Because we know the answer to that: it depends. When performed by married women in their own homes, domestic labor is work—difficult, sacred, noble work. … When performed for pay, however, this supremely important, difficult job becomes low-wage labor that almost anyone can do—teenagers, elderly women, even despised illegal immigrants. But here’s the real magic: when performed by low-income single mothers in their own homes, those same exact tasks—changing diapers, going to the playground and the store, making dinner, washing the dishes, giving a bath—are not only not work; they are idleness itself.

Instead of the money men get for their labors, mothers are asked to settle for less money and a rhetorical pat on the head (if they are middle class “moms” instead of merely poor mothers — I think that’s known in economics as a “compensating differential“). As Barbara Ehrenreich put it, nobody ever put motherhood on a pedestal until feminists pointed out that “the pay is lousy and the career ladder is nonexistent.”

Still, the universal agreement that motherhood is “work” marks a genuine moment. Among other possible interpretations, it is a victory of “choice” feminism – which would have us “respect women in all the choices they make,” in the words of the newfound feminist Mrs. Romney. (Work = respect, nowadays in America, though it wasn’t always that way.) But celebrating the choice to do something most women can’t choose is the dangerous outcome of putting motherhood on a pedestal. It divides women according to the value of their motherhood.

Accepting pedestal status instead of equality is a bargain some feminists have refused for a century or more. One of those was Harriet Stanton Blatch (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter), who wrote in 1908: “Of all the people who block the progress of woman suffrage, the worst are the women of wealth and leisure who never knew a day’s work and never felt a day’s want, but who selfishly stand in the way of those women who know what it means to earn the bread they eat by the sternest toil” (emphasis added).

Parenthood won’t get the respect it deserves – including men embracing it in more equal numbers – until the monetary reward it draws matches the rhetoric of its symbolic value. That means recognizing the real value of parents’ sternest toils – even if they’re not married – from which we all benefit.

*California Gov. Pete Wilson, Washington Times, 12/7/1995, p. A21.

3 thoughts on “Flattering motherhood, still

  1. Did Blatch refer to women who hired nannies to raise their children and had staff to do *all* of the housework (including helping the lady dress)?

    It would be interesting to know how much paid help that Mrs Romney had raising 5 boys. (My grandmother had a maid come in once a week to help with the housework required of 3 boys.)


  2. I completely agree. I’m currently working on a project looking at the U.S. (and other developed countries) women’s rise in the workplace and how that inspired the feminization of migration. Can we consider that a step forward for feminism when it’s still primarily women who are doing care work, and those women are still severely undervalued? Until women and men change their perspective on the value of care work, women will always be paid less.


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