A few days ago, the top story on Huffington Post was an article titled “Women’s Jobs Axed by State Austerity Politics.” The piece argued that as public sector jobs are decreasing, women are disproportionately the ones losing work as many of the jobs that are affected by budget cuts—teaching, providing child care—are those that are typically filled by women. Inasmuch as jobs tend to be sex segregated, the female dominated jobs in the private sector that women tend to occupy (administrative services, secretarial work) are not in high demand, leaving women in a position where the sort of jobs in which they tend to be concentrated are declining or even disappearing.
Though it has been unacknowledged by many major media outlets and pundits, this provides an interesting counterpoint to one of the other top stories in the news cycle: the remarks by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen that called attention to the role of work. On CNN, Rosen addressed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s claim that his wife Ann has been a person who informs him about women’s economic concerns. Rosen stated that Ann Romney was not the best person to help clarify the challenges women face in a sluggishly recovering economy. Or, as she put it: “His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we — why we worry about their future.”
Ann Romney replied by tweeting that she “made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.” And so began a controversy that became defined as a resurgence of “the mommy wars” (a term for the supposed battle between working mothers and those who stay at home) rather than a more fruitful conversation about different types of labor, what sort of labor is rewarded in a capitalist economy, and the ways that gender and class matter in shaping the sort of work that is and is not valued in the modern state.
Sociologists who study work are well aware that there are multiple forms of labor. We distinguish between paid labor (employment) and unpaid labor. Unpaid labor involves work that is uncompensated—laundry, cooking, cleaning, child and/or elder care—but still essential to household reproduction. Thus, when Ann Romney argues that she has worked hard by raising children, she is likely referring to the unpaid labor that is part of parenting. This labor does not receive wages, but is nonetheless work. However, it’s also pretty clear from the context of Hilary Rosen’s comments that she was making the point that as someone who has not done paid labor, Ann Romney is not necessarily the best person to give Mitt Romney advice and opinions about the challenges women facing who balance paid and unpaid labor, particularly in a fluctuating economy where women are generally paid less than men in wage earning work and when, as the aforementioned article notes, jobs that women are likely to fill are becoming increasingly scarce.
There is an important gender dynamic to this as well, but one that has gone largely overlooked as this controversy is cast as a resurgence of the tensions between working mothers and stay at home mothers. Specifically, a great deal of research has shown that married or cohabitating women who do engage in paid labor are still more likely than their male partners to maintain primary responsibility for unpaid labor as well. This holds true even when women outearn male partners. Arlie Hochschild noted this pattern in the late 1970s and termed it the “second shift”, suggesting that when women work in jobs that provide a paycheck, they are still expected by peers, society, and male partners to do the unpaid labor involved with maintaining a household. Sociologist Suzanne Bianchi has suggested that men are increasingly more likely to do housework and other second shift labor than they have been in the past, but what the research into these gender imbalances underscores is that unpaid labor like child care, cooking, cleaning, and other things necessary to maintain a household have traditionally fallen on women—and continue to do so.
Rather than debate whether raising children is work, or whether there is a divide between stay at home mothers and those who work for pay, perhaps the bigger questions both Ann Romney and Hilary Rosen should be asking is why household labor generally goes uncompensated, why women bear more responsibility for this work, and how this arrangement may serve to reinforce gender inequalities.
There are important class and race dynamics to this issue as well, and those are also ignored when pundits frame this as simply another case of the “mommy wars.” Like any other field, child care jobs are arranged hierarchically, with women of color more likely to work at the lower end of the spectrum (i.e. to receive fewer benefits, job protections, and so forth), while white native born and immigrant women are more likely to be au pairs and perform child care services through agencies that can offer better protections. (The Browne and Misra article I cited here touches on this.)
Historically, black women have long been responsible for raising both their own children and those of white families who could afford to hire help, and yet black women have never generated broad reverence or social support (or in most cases, even a living wage) for this labor. Instead, as sociologist Patricia Hill Collins notes, black women are more likely to be stereotyped as mammies, matriarchs, and welfare mothers—all images that suggest that they are unable to conform to traditional ideas about gender, sexuality, and “appropriate” parenting. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that for poor women, particularly those who receive government assistance, raising children is not considered “work” that fits the employment criteria one must meet in order to receive benefits.
Given that women of color are overrepresented among the ranks of the poorest in this country, it’s telling that the unpaid labor of child care is apparently most valuable when done by women like Ann Romney but not by the multitude of everyday women who might like to devote their time exclusively to raising children but are unable to do so because of structural, political, economic and social constraints.
The exchange between Hilary Rosen and Ann Romney had the potential to raise important questions about work and child care, but categorizing it as an example of “mommy wars” establishes a false straw person and a fundamental misreading of feminist analyses of family and labor. I say this because inevitably, facile arguments about “mommy wars” go back to this misconstrued idea that “the feminist movement was about women having choices, including the choice to stay home.”
Actually, if you read histories of the feminist movement as well as accounts written during that time, this sort of banal individualistic argument wasn’t at its core at all. Many feminist writers, activists, and thinkers of this time were very clear that feminism was about drawing attention to the fundamental inequities between women and men, the ways that these imbalances affected various aspects of social, economic, and political life, and working to create change that would lead to equality between women and men. To reduce this important insight (and still unrealized goal) to something as trite as “women having choices” is disingenuous, historically inaccurate, and does a disservice to the complexity of feminist thought.
In point of fact, many feminist analyses would point out that the “choice” about whether to work in the paid labor market or stay at home with children is one borne out of class privilege, and thus a decision that is primarily the province of women of means. Many feminists have worked very hard to ensure that the movement reflects the inequalities facing ALL women, particularly those for whom whether or not to join the paid labor force is simply not even a viable question. But these and other serious debates are obfuscated when this issue is addressed without a more sociological analysis of the interrelated issues of work, family, and gender.