Is the ‘War on Mothers’ Really A War on Working-Class America?

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From the battle over birth control to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s repeal of the state’s Equal Pay law, conservatives have been seen as assailing women’s hard-won rights this campaign season. Then, last week, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a mother of five, had “never worked a day in her life.” The statement was seen as an attack on traditional stay-at-home moms, and war was officially declared.

We reached out to Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, to learn more about the realities behind the rhetoric of American women balancing work and life.

Lauren Feeney: Is there a “war on women” being waged this campaign season? A “war on mothers”? Both?

Stephanie Coontz: I try to avoid hyperbole, so I would say it’s more like guerilla campaign of harassment and attrition, conducted on two fronts.

One, the attack on contraception, is a classical guerilla sniping attack, because it is picking off the most vulnerable people. Most of us who are professionals, who are employed, who have some resources, are going to be able to find contraception. But unemployed women, women who are impoverished, with less education, are really vulnerable to attacks on reproductive rights.

The other front is the old divide and conquer strategy, pitting stay-at-home moms against working moms to deflect attention from the fact that our workplace policy and social programs  are completely unfriendly to caregiving of any kind, by either gender. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not provide paid parental leave; and the leave we do provide is also the shortest of any comparable country. Plus, only half of America’s workers are even eligible for the 12 weeks allowed by law.

Feeney: Is anyone really fighting for better life-work policies?

Coontz: There are plenty of organizations fighting for better work-family policies (Moms Rising; Families & Work Institute), and some states have even initiated policies to help subsidize leave, so that it doesn’t become a class privilege to stay home with your child. But I don’t know of many politicians who have gotten very serious about it. You know, when you look at us in comparison to the rest of the industrial world, it’s just stunning. A few years ago I would’ve said it’s a Neanderthal approach, except that since then I’ve done enough research on prehistoric societies to conclude that Neanderthals took better care of their dependents than we do.

Feeney: What policies do we need to make caring for young children and the infirm easier, especially for the poor and middle class?

Coontz: Well, we need a combination of policies. We need to make it more possible for parents to stay home after the birth of a child. It doesn’t take a lot of time off to make a difference for effective bonding. Three to six months seems a very good, workable amount of time to have off. Staying home for extended periods does not provide added benefits to babies and tends to encourage a more gender-divided pattern of parenting that reinforces men’s second-class status as parents and women’s second-class status as workers. I favor giving leave to both mothers and fathers, on “use it or lose it” terms, so that both parents get this experience and opportunity.

But you also need flexibility as your children age. In Sweden they have a law that says you can cut down to three-quarters time if you’ve got a child in the home, and you take a cut in pay, but you don’t lose health benefits. So another important thing would be a national healthcare system, or at least healthcare for people who are not working full-time. And we don’t have a law, as the European Union does, saying you can’t pay part-timers less per hour than you do full-timers. We have this too-much or nothing approach to work that makes it tough for families to increase and decrease work hours as they need to.

The other important thing is to treat our children as resources for the future, and to invest in higher quality childcare. The payoffs have been demonstrated for years — high quality childcare that is regulated, where there are national standards, has been demonstrated to reduce teen pregnancy, to reduce crime, and to increase the likelihood that children who receive this kind of care will not drop out of school and will go on to college.

So you make it easier for parents to take time off when they need to, but you also make it easier for them to leave their children in childcare with the confidence that those children are gaining something from it, not that you’re taking away something from them.

Feeney: And perhaps you need to make it easier for women (or men) to get back into the workforce at the same level once they’ve taken time off. Is that part of the equation?

Coontz: Yes, absolutely. That’s why we need anti-discrimination laws. Shelley Correll and other people have done studies where they send employers resumes that are essentially the same in all respects, except that one of the resumes makes it clear that the female applying for the job is a mother, like she’s active in the PTA or something. Those women tend to be offered fewer interviews, and when even college students are asked to look at these blindly and assess the people, they offer the supposed mothers lower pay and hold them to higher standards for promotion. There’s this tremendous prejudice that women who are mothers will in fact devote so much time to their mothering that they will not be good employees, and that’s made it very hard for women who do take time off to get back onto the onramp, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett puts it.

Feeney: Yesterday was Equal Pay Day, symbolizing roughly how far into 2012 women had to work to earn what men earned just in 2011. How is it that 50 years after Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act women still earn 77 cents on the dollar?

Coontz: Well, that’s a very complex question. I think it’s important to understand how far we’ve come since the Equal Pay Act, and since Betty Friedan wrote her book, The Feminine Mystique. In those days there were sex-segregated want ads. Even after the Equal Pay Act was passed, it was very poorly enforced. As late as 1970, a college-educated woman earned less, on average, than a male high school graduate. There’s been just a huge change since then.

Today, education trumps race and gender, and discrimination against women works through more subtle and devious ways. Young women in many cities now out-earn their male counterparts because of their higher education. Yet when women and men negotiate their entering salaries and raises, women are still socialized to ask for less, and therefore get less. The big pay difference tends to really kick in not when you’re hired, as it did back in ’63 and ’64, but when you become a parent. Women are still considered to be the default parent, so they do most of the cutting back on work hours, or they pick jobs that don’t require as many hours. They pressure themselves into being the parent who makes the work adjustments, and they are pressured into doing it by societal expectations. But even when we account for different job experience, work hours, and interruptions in work, there’s still a gap that probably reflects some level of outright discrimination.

Feeney: The progress that you mentioned — it seems like that’s more among middle, upper class and well-educated women. Is that true?

Coontz: Yes. Women have made more progress breaking down occupational segregation in upper-middle class occupations. In fact, a recent study by the Council on Contemporary Families found that working class occupations are now as segregated by sex as they were in the 1950s. They made a little bit of progress in the ’80s and ’90s, but fell back after the mid-’90s.

Ann Romney, the wife of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, holds her 8-month-old granddaughter, Soleil, as she greet guests during a ceremony to unveil her husband's official portrait on the Grand Staircase at the Statehouse in Boston Tuesday, June 30, 2009. (AP/Elise Amendola)

I think what’s been exaggeratedly called a war on women is also part of an attack on all working class Americans, this attitude that we no longer intend to take social responsibility for ensuring the health and well-being of the next generation (or the older one for that matter), so that every family needs to sink or swim on their own . All of this “mommy wars” debate is over whether we value the choice that somebody like Ann Romney makes to stay home. You notice that there’s almost no sympathy for the impoverished mother who wants to stay home instead of working two jobs to make ends meet while leaving her kids in sub-par care or even home alone. The same people who  glamorize the stay-at-home choices of affluent women talk about poor women who want to stay home as welfare queens.

One of the big ironies is that the only segment of the population where stay-at-home moms are now a majority is among women married to men who earn in the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution. And in many cases, they are stay-at-home moms because though the family could really use the income, they can’t afford child care and other costs associated with gaining work experience.

You know, 40 percent of women who are stay-at-home mothers would rather be working, while most women who are working full-time would like to work fewer hours. But this imbalance  isn’t just a women’s problem. Men now report higher levels of work-family conflict than women. Men in the professionally overscheduled class would like to be working fewer hours too. And most men who are unemployed, like most women who are unemployed, would like to be working more hours. Somehow we have to have a conversation about how to build a society that distributes work fairly, as well as the rewards of work more fairly.

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