May 10, 2009

Forget the flowers: Support working mommas and families

Filed under: Event,Gender,Politics,Violence — Tags: , , , , , — Melanie @ 1:20 pm

I love Stephanie Coontz and I’m glad she blogged on the lack of childcare today.  Lets not even begin talking about maternity leave in this country.

Family values? Valuing the family means supporting families across the country.

Here’s a thought for a Mother’s Day gift that would go beyond the complimentary flowers passed out by restaurants and the complementary speeches churned out by politicians every May: Affordable childcare that is operated in accord with high-quality national standards.

It’s a gift long overdue. In 1971 the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a Comprehensive Child Development Act to provide quality child care for working parents. The bill mandated extensive training for child care workers and strict standards, written and enforced with extensive input from parents. But on December 9, 1971, President Nixon vetoed the bill, declaring that publicly-provided child care would be “a long leap into the dark” that might weaken American families.

Since then, American families have indeed taken a “long leap” into an unanticipated world. Forty-five years ago, just 14 percent of working women who bore a child returned to work by the baby’s first birthday. Today, 83 percent of working moms do, 70 percent of them at the same hours they worked before the child’s birth.

February 6, 2009

The high cost of traditional gender roles in a recession

Last spring, long before the impending financial armageddon began it’s death spiral, one of my young female students told me that in another one of her classes each person was supposed to make an introductory statement including their name, major and future aspirations.  Typical first day stuff. My student was taking my “Women, Work and Family” class and her other class was an introductory class in the department of “Family and Consumer Sciences.” This department houses programs such as family studies, nutrition and food science, fashion merchandising and interior design.

The entire class, she tells me, was populated with 18-19 year-old women and every single one said that in the her plans for the future included “doing nothing.” “Doing nothing” included shopping and grooming appointments.  Ever the critic of traditional gender roles, gender roles, that mind you, never represented the majority of the population even while the mass media shoved these images of gender coupled with the nuclear family (heterosexual mother and father, man and woman, in a monogamous, romantic, legally and religiously sanctioned marriage with their own biological children living on their own property) down the public’s throat with homogeneous, middle-class, white sitcoms, I was surprised to hear that these women didn’t even want to work and exchange their domestic skills for the money the man made in the public sphere.  They just wanted to shop and have some other woman (an immigrant woman? woman of color? lower class/working poor woman?) take care of the house and children. Yeah, that’s realistic.

I was alarmed that these young women couldn’t recognize a fact that seemed clear to me.  We were not ( and are definitely not now) living in the same economic climate.  My class was assigned Stephanie Coontz‘s The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap for the semester and Coontz compares the climate post WWII with the contemporary economic landscape prior to last fall’s economic house of cards being blown down (the signs were there for quite some time).  Post WWII saw growing infrastructure, investment and production in the United States. We can’t even compare to the economic state experienced at this time.

But, it was realistic for these young women and, really, I’m not surprised when I think about it further.  These teenagers had grown up in a similar cultural climate as women during the post WWII era in which domestic propaganda was unleashed in high volumes to urge women out of the work force and back in the home.  These teens had grown up in the conservative Bush climate for 8 years in which “family values” and religion had been tossed around with ever increasing frequency, television shows promoted endless consumption and the dumbing down of the American female, and becoming obsessed with the baby bump and celebrity marriages to the point that a public female figure was always asked about her marriage, cooking skills and highlighted her desire to be a mom.  Celebrity career second, natch.

Deborah Siegel‘s article confirms what many of us have know for quite some time: even if we, as women, wanted to stay at home to bake sagging cakes, birth and bathe babies and have an afternoon snack of tranquilizers, WE CAN’T AFFORD IT! “Traditional” (this is in quotes because upon cross-cultural and historical investigation it becomes clear that there’s nothing traditional or normative of these gender roles or the fallacy of the nuclear family) gender roles can’t be supported or sustained in this economy.  In fcat, they were not sustained for long.  By the 1970s women were launched into action by many variables including (surprise??) the economy.

I wonder about these young women in that other class.  What are they dreaming of now or are they planning for their future by being practical?  We can’t all marry a millionaire despite the claims that is is possible.


Remember that economic downturn of the 1970s?  It was part of what catapulted egalitarianism into the future.  Women went to work in droves because of a change in the culture — but for economic reasons, too.  Feminism and recession have gone hand in glove.  So if these Times couples come across as anachronisms, it’s because, statistically, they are.  They are operating from a model that is no longer widely popular in part because it no longer works — especially in times like these.

Could it be that the Times meant to provoke?  Because the gender mythology that courses through the article is as irksome as the class fantasy it conveys.  Says Framingham State College sociologist Virginia Rutter, “The reason why reading an article like this one is so galling isn’t because we resent the rich — but hey, it is a little galling to read about the people who have to curb their luxury vacations to luxury weekends — but because the suffering we are experiencing is a consequence of the privilege the guys on top were enjoying.”  In other words, these couples’ traditional gender roles were “purchased” through inflated Bush-era incomes that allowed executive wives to opt out of the workforce and hire a nanny too.

For couples like the Berrys, downsizing means replacing that fulltime nanny with a more “cost-effective” au pair and thinking about schools other than Harvard for the kids.  Loss is relative, and the Berrys’ pain is no less real than mine. However, highlighting such stories accentuates the gap between the haves and have-lesses.  I’d rather see stories with a wider range of families, a more realistic sample, portrayed. Recession is a leveler, and it’d be nice to see more level coverage.