I’m generally with Linda Hirshman on this one: Hilary Rosen was right that Ann Romney does not speak for women in the workforce. And the whole controversy is entirely manufactured. For those just tuning in, here’s what Hilary Rosen said on Anderson Cooper, in response to a question about women and the economy:
What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues. And when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing.
Guess what, 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 do we worry about their future?
Cue OUTRAGE. Why? Because the implication is that stay-at-home moms don’t work. And then cue “being a mom is the MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD.” And then cue Rosen getting thrown under the bus by every male dem with a microphone.
It’s pretty clear, in context, that Rosen was talking about women who work outside of the home — i.e., the majority of women in America, who are concerned about issues like the economy because it impacts how to feed their kids and how to send them to school. Those are issues that Ann Romney does not have to think about, both because she doesn’t work for pay and because she’s married to a gazillionaire. Ann Romney as Mitt’s ambassador to American women is a questionable concept.
And the term “work,” in these kinds of conversations, typically does mean work for pay. Have we seen fits pitched over the names of, say, The Drug-Free Workplace Act or the Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act because they don’t include the home as a workplace? No. Do we get mad at Obama or Romney when they talk about how the economic downturn has put too many Americans out of work, when SAHMs are not put out of work by economic downturns? No. Because we understand that in context, words mean things. And we also seem to understand that when a man uses the word “work,” he means work outside of the home for pay. But when a woman uses it to mean the exact same thing, we feel free to jump all over her.
But instead of engaging Rosen’s points, the media storm is about how Democrats Hate Mothers. Or, Democrats Hate GOOD Mothers — you know, the kind who stay at home. The women the Democrats like are those slutty Planned Parenthood sluts, or something. And while all the Democratic and Republican spokespeople (including President Obama) seem to agree that being a mother is THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD:
-None of the men who think parenthood is THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD seem willing to do it full-time themselves, even when, like Mitt Romney, they surely have the family money to enable them to be financially comfortable and still stay home full time;
-None of the men who think parenthood is THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD have ever suggested that if we value it so much, we should pay for it;
-None of the Republicans who think parenthood is THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD support legislation like federally-mandated maternity (and in an alternate universe, paternity) leave that would enable more parents to stay home for longer (or even reasonable) periods of time with newly-born children;
-Very few of the Republicans who think parenthood is THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD support legislation like national healthcare, which would help families who aren’t as rich as the Romneys to stay healthy, and which would enable more parents to stay home with their kids since health insurance would be one expense off the table;
-A lot of conservatives who are tooting on about how we should respect women’s CHOICES to stay home or to work, and who say that criticizing that CHOICE in any way is off-limits have zero to say about the fact that there’s no real structural support for the choice to stay home (or, um, other choices that fall almost entirely on women), and there’s no real structural support for the choice to have kids and also work; those same conservatives of course don’t recognize at all that liberal legislation and feminist activism are the entire reason it’s a choice for so many women;
-Large majorities of women work outside the home, and most women don’t have a “choice” to stay at home or not;
-I’m pretty sure that the cheerleading of stay-at-home moms doesn’t apply to moms who are single (and especially moms who are single and poor and of color — instead of “stay-at-home moms,” the Republicans call them “welfare queens”);
-Republicans also say that family members of candidates are off-limits. If family members are off-limits for criticism, that’s fine; but those family members don’t get to campaign for you and then be immune from criticism on the exact issues they’re campaigning on.
Also, if I hear the phrase “being a mother is THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD” one more time, I am going to stab myself (funnily enough, I almost always hear that phrase uttered by men who work, and very rarely hear it from actual mothers outside of Facebook chain-posts). Is being a mother (and a father) an important job? Yes. Do I have to raise an eyebrow when the President of the United States says being a mother is the most important job in the world? Yes. Because it’s not. Neither is being a feminist blogger, or a lawyer, or a stock person at a drug store, or doctor, or a nanny. Those jobs can all hold varying degrees of importance, for sure. But no one would be insulted if it were suggested that my job were not The Most Important. In fact, most people would look at you funny if you said it was.
Of course, I’m not going to go on national TV and say that motherhood is not in fact the most important job in the world, because OUTRAGE. Motherhood may be the most important thing to you (and I would say that it’s pretty healthy to position your family as the most important thing in the world to you personally). And good, involved parenthood is crucial for a functional society. Parenthood is quite important. But “motherhood is the most important job in the world” is basically a rhetorical trick to romanticize motherhood so that we don’t have to see it as real work.
We put motherhood on a pedestal so that we don’t actually have to discuss the reality of it. Is motherhood important, and should we create structures that assist parents (but let’s be real, disproportionate amounts of care-taking are done by women, so we’re mostly talking about mothers here) and allow them to be healthier and have more time with their children? Yes, of course. Should we see household labor as “real” labor, on par with work outside of the home? Yes, of course. Without good parenting, would society be in a whole lot of trouble? Big yes. But in reality, is a lot of household labor tedious and not requiring of the same skill-set one needs to, say, run a Fortune 500 company or perform heart surgery or be the leader of the free world? Yes. And that’s ok! I don’t have those skill sets either, and it doesn’t make my job totally lacking in value or importance. In fact, I know exactly how valuable society thinks my job is, because, as a traditionally male occupation, there’s a price tag on it. Traditionally female occupations, by contrast, are under-paid and under-valued. Either way, most of us can recognize that the “value” of a job is not inherent, nor necessarily reflective of how difficult it is (see, e.g., the payscale differences between a Big Law attorney and a Chilean miner). And most of us can recognize that “importance” is a nebulous concept, but one that has some meaning. Is a lawyer more important than a construction worker? Depends on the lawyer and on the construction worker. But on the other hand, Obama’s job as President of the United States is pretty damn important by any measure, since he could basically blow up the world if he wanted to. Your plumber’s job is pretty important when your basement is being flooded by sewage, but on a large scale, we can see how maybe that’s not totally comparable to, say, what Ban Ki-moon does. But if you just got your arm caught in saw, your EMT and ER doctor are a lot more important to you than Barack Obama or Ban Ki-moon. If you’re an infant, your mom is a lot more important to your immediate survival than any of those people.
Point being, in most situations, we understand that there are varying degrees of importance; and we understand that on a macro level, there are some people who are Big Time Important, even if in your day-to-day life you don’t experience them as particularly central.
So this “motherhood is the most important job in the world” thing is an outlier. And it’s a tool used to not give actual mothers their due. It romanticizes what motherhood actually looks like; since the job is So Important, it’s positioned as something that women should be happy to sacrifice for. Of course motherhood should be tedious and financially stressful and uncompensated — your compensation is the smile on your child’s face! And that’s invaluable. If you think otherwise, you are probably some sort of witch.
None of which is to say that parenthood doesn’t have incredible emotional benefits — the smile on your child’s face is invaluable. But that smile doesn’t mean that you should have to forgo healthcare or basic financial stability.
Free female labor props up our economy and saves us all tax money. I’m not just talking about stay-at-home moms; I’m also talking about the labor that working moms do when they leave their paid job at the end of the day (and yes, I use “moms,” because although there are full-time stay-at-home dads their numbers are actually very tiny and they are not a social force the way SAHMs are; dads also spend more time with their kids than ever before, but still not nearly as much time as moms; and systematically, it is moms who are disproportionately doing the kind of work I’m describing). Women with children, whether they work outside the home or not, aren’t just doing the inside the home care-taking work; they’re volunteering at schools, in community centers, on sports teams. They’re filling the gaps that state and federal funding leaves, so in the short term kids get necessary classroom assistance when lawmakers cut programs. Women are much more likely to be a (again unpaid) care-taker for an aging or ill relative. As a nation, we can afford to not pay for necessary things because there are so many women who are doing those things for free.
(Caveat, again: I’m not suggesting that men are lazy or don’t help out or don’t take care of their children. Most men do spend significant amounts of time parenting and doing household work — in fact, since the feminist revolutions of the 1960s and 70s and since medical advances that allow couples to plan their families, men now spend more time with their children than ever before, and help out much more around the house. Women, too, spend more time — and more quality time — with their children than in the 1960s, which was the historical height of stay-at-home motherhood. That’s true for working-outside-the-home moms and for stay-at-home moms. But systematically, women do spend much more time housekeeping and care-giving than men, and policies like paid parental leave do impact women far more than they impact men. Even where heterosexual couples think they are doing equal amounts of work, studies have shown that the female partner actually does more than 50%. This isn’t about undervaluing the work that men do in the home, which is significant, and increasing. It is about recognizing that in most families, women are still doing a lot more, and policies related to the family fall more heavily on women. It’s also about recognizing the fact that single parents are almost always women).
Also? A lot of very wealthy and very powerful men got that way because they had someone at home taking care of everything else. When you have someone who runs every aspect of your life outside of work — raising your kids, cleaning your house, coordinating your schedule, taking everyone including the dog to the doctor, planning vacations, making connections, attending events and holding up conversation even if you have to step out — you can dedicate every fiber of your being to your work. You can work twice as hard as the person down the hall who doesn’t have that support system. And that system, of powerful men having stay-at-home wives, impacts the success of younger employees (and negatively impacts the success of female employees). If men who have nothing else to worry about other than their jobs are setting the bar, of course women can’t keep up. Because younger single women do actually have to clean their own houses (usually, at least) and are interested in coordinating their own social lives; women who are married still have to clean their own houses (usually, at least) and end up doing disproportionate amounts of household labor and emotional work in their marriages; women who have kids, even if those women are wealthy, may have nannies and housekeepers but almost never have an unpaid full-time domestic laborer living with them who will take care of every single aspect of their entire lives, and who will allow them to feel zero guilt or stress about utilizing that unpaid laborer’s services. I would argue that does not exist — there is not one family where the full-time caretaker is the dad, and where the mom has felt the same total lack of social judgment and pressure not only about the family’s choices, but about her own totally hands-off approach to housework and child-rearing, to the point that it doesn’t even cross her mind to think about a doctor’s appointment or a PTA meeting.
So when powerful men with stay-at-home wives are setting the bar for what it means to be hard-working, it’s no shock that women don’t measure up (at least not in as large of numbers). And those same powerful older men tend to mentor younger men in the workplace — it’s not intentionally excluding women, of course, but it’s what happens, because they just “naturally” have more in common or because those older men see a lot of promising young women opt for lower-stress jobs when they have kids. And it means that while women are having the 9,000th conversation about how to balance work and life — the take-away being, of course, that (a) balancing work and family is your job, and (b) there’s really no good way to do it — younger men can just seek out a wife who is willing to stay home, and, unlike a woman who might think “well maybe I’ll just marry a guy who will stay home,” men can have a reasonable chance of finding one. And since we all have to agree that staying home is about “choice,” it gets impossible to criticize how this system actually functions in the most-privileged classes; and since the most-privileged classes are running the show, these norms trickle down and do real damage to everyone.
Women at home prop up the careers of many many men, who can condescendingly say that their wives’ jobs are “more important” than their own, while being wholly unwilling to even consider switching places (and when men leave their wives, you can see exactly how much they value those years of domestic labor). And while that model is hardly the American norm — most of us are not millionaires many times over — it absolutely does impact policy-making, and it absolutely does impact the broader position of women and mothers.
As Irin Carmon points out at Salon, Ann Romney is not exactly the average stay-at-home mom. Stay-at-home moms in the U.S. are disproportionately Latina, foreign-born, and young. They are more than twice as likely as working mothers to lack even a high school degree. I’m not sure that Ann Romney’s experience managing a handful of mansions and raising five boys (six if you count Mitt, she says, haha!) is really all that relevant to what most stay-at-home moms experience. That doesn’t mean that what Ann Romney did wasn’t work — it was. But it does mean that her experience was very, very unusual and very, very privileged, and that she is very, very unlike most women in this country.
“Women” are not a united interest group. There are some issues which of course impact women far more than men — reproductive rights, for example — and where women’s interests are aligned. But as Linda Hirschman says in her article, wealthy white married women are GOP voters already; it’s single women, women of color and low-income women who the Democrats tend to pick up, and for whose rights they should more strongly advocate. So when Mitt Romeny talks about “stay-at-home moms,” he’s talking about women like his wife. Unfortunately, his lauding of “moms” is interpreted more broadly, as if Mitt thinks that a brown 19-year-old in a housing project (or, hell, an unmarried white 28-year-old in a Brooklyn walk-up) should have the same right to stay home with her kids (and not starve) as his neighbors in one of his many homes.
And as Irin also says, why is Ann Romney reporting back to Mitt on women? Is Mitt unable to speak to women himself? Or does the GOP only care about women’s “rights” when that right involves staying home so that you can further your husband’s white-collar career, and insure that the government won’t have to provide necessary services to folks who need them?
It’s easy to talk about what you value. But when Republicans value things, they put money behind it. And I’m not seeing many dollars spent on mothers.