Monday, September 03, 2007

Women Working

In another blog, the writer attempts to smooth the feathers ruffles in a debate sparked by one mother's take on how candidate John Edwards' family should handle parenting in the middle of a presidential campaign. The mother took a shot at Elizabeth Edwards (why not at John?) on the basis of the soundbite of her husband chiding their boy Jack -- the spank heard around the world.

Chani tiptoes into that debate proclaiming that she has never been a mother. I, too, have never been a mother, yet I am interested in and would like to say a few things about this.

Should women work?

That's the way the question was phrased before 1970, the year Sisterhood Is Powerful was first published. The presumption was that when women stay home to raise children and keep house they are not working. After all, in that context, the man came home with the paycheck.

Things changed. A little. Then a bit more.

In the Boomer generation women became lawyers and doctors and engineers and linepeople and mail carriers and miners in proportions never seen before. My sneaking suspicion, however, was that U.S. American women gained the lifestyle of the Soviet woman, who essentially had become an cash income-winner in the labor market on top of her traditional work as mother and housewife.

The mass entry of women into the labor market in the United States coincides with the beginning of a period of wage stagnation that has not yet ended. From 1973 to 2003, average U.S. wages declined by about a fifth.

Do these two events correlate perfectly and exclusively to the point that one can draw a line of causation from one to the other? Not that I know of, but the parallel is striking.

To a certain extent, I would conclude, Boomer women were taken for a ride.

Chani was smart not to go for it and decline motherhood. In my case, my now-estranged spouse chose to stay home and be an excellent mother; I think my sons are better people for it. But the path of both these women need not be the best one. It was the path chosen by women lucky enough to have the choice.

Despite the enhanced intellectual and psychological gratification of participating in the labor force, especially in a culture so devoted to the notion of work for pay, Boomer women for the most part were offered bad choices. Men on the job could turn off the home and the children; in my experience, women have not been able to and, frankly, I wonder whether they should have had to try.

We Boomers did not resolve the issues that arose out of the question we raised: Since women do work, why shouldn't they get paid, get degrees and prestige and so on, just like men?

The Generation X families and couples I have known seem to have begun the task of digging deeper. In some, the principal breadwinner is the woman and the principal nurturer, cook and household keeper is the man. Or they try shifting balances of work and family duties, since men have not found a way to undergo pregnancy or breastfeed. Not yet, anyway.

Of course, the men were born well after the precepts of Second Wave Feminism had seeped into every burrow of society.

The fly in the ointment was the twofold whammy introduced by the Reagan Era.

Social neoconservatism has been attempting -- so far with mixed results -- to bring women back to the famous three Ks of yore, kinder, k├╝che, kirche (children, kitchen and church). Economic neoconservatism has fairly successfully generated a yawning divide between the wealthiest 20 percent (household income of more than $97,000) and the rest of Americans.

Worse still, Newton Leroy Gingrich's version of welfare reform, which triumphed in 1996 on the shoulders of both conservatisms I have mentioned, suddenly threw out the window the notion that mothering during early childhood -- let's say from birth to kindergarten or first grade -- is a socially worthwhile contribution deserving public assistance if the household has no other means of support.

Initially, poor mothers with children under six were exempt from work, then states began to ratchet that age down until now it has become more or less the national policy that poor women give birth and go back to their low-wage dead-end job lickety split -- or else.

I like to cite to the conservatives who are proud of compelling these women back to the workplace that no less than that wild-eyed liberal from Spain, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, instituted a policy in the 1950s whereby the state paid stay-at-home mothers a monthly stipend. The sum was only a few hundred pesetas (a few U.S. dollars today, worth somewhat more then, but never a lot of money), thus largely symbolic.

Still, when has U.S. society ever recognized or assigned any economic value to mothering at home?

My point is not that all women should stay at home, nor that all should go hold a job. My view is that the choice should be a reasonable option between two more or less equitable possibilities. It isn't yet, although we are making strides toward that goal.

In the meantime, it never ceases to amaze me that women would put as much energy berating one of their own, instead of uniting to get the necessary changes done.
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