SAHMs: Who’s got your back?

Feminism Parenting Women

Parents invest more time and money in their kids than ever, but the shocking lesson of twin and adoption research is that upbringing is much less important than genetics in the long run.

There are so many things wrong with Bryan Caplan’s reasoning outlined in this article. I think the first and obvious is that — even if extreme tiger/helicopter parenting is probably not a good idea — it doesn’t automatically follow that the opposite extreme is better.

But there’s another point that I’ve been trying to put my finger on ever since I read that article a couple of weeks ago. It’s that — by the same logic — staying home to raise your kids full time is a complete waste of time. And this recommendation is coming from Deseret News which is run by the same church that teaches that moms need to sacrifice their career ambitions to be at home for their kids. Thanks, Deseret News, for letting us know just how much you guys value women’s time and talents!

Since some of my very earliest blog posts I’ve been arguing that (contrary to popular myth) the feminist movement benefits SAHMs. When a woman has the option of supporting herself and her kids (if necessary), then she has more leverage in her relationship, even if she never takes that option. If a husband isn’t the one thing keeping your kids from starving, then bye-bye abusive husbands!

And then there’s the question of status and respect. Plenty of women (and even men) who have the talents and opportunity (or potential opportunity) to earn money and respect in the business and professional world choose nonetheless to stay home with their kids instead, demonstrating that homemaker is not just a role that one settles for but is a role that has value.

I recently read (via clobberblog) an interesting article giving some historical perspective on these same points. Read the whole thing, but let me just highlight a couple of quotes:

Contrary to myth, The Feminine Mystique and feminism did not represent the beginning of the decline of the stay-at-home mother, but a turning point that led to much stronger legal rights and working conditions for her.

Domestic violence rates have fallen sharply for all wives, employed or not. As late as 1980, approximately 30 percent of wives said their husbands did no housework at all. By 2000, only 16 percent of wives made that statement and almost one-third said their husbands did half of all housework, child care or both.

Most researchers agree that these changes were spurred by the entry of wives and mothers into the work force. But full-time homemakers have especially benefited from them.

From 1975 to 1998 men married to full-time homemakers increased their contributions to housework as much, proportionally, as men whose wives were employed.

Contrast this with the 1950’s, an era so often held up as an idyllic time for motherhood:

Typical of the invective against homemakers in the 1950s and 1960s was a 1957 best seller, The Crack in the Picture Window, which described suburban America as a matriarchal society, with the average husband a woman-bossed, inadequate, money-terrified neuter and the average wife a nagging slob.

Meanwhile, modern books are making it clearer and clearer that there’s no sharp dividing line between career women and stay-at-home-moms. Middle-class mothers these days (and fathers too!) typically sacrifice some career advancement for their kids and sacrifice some potential kid/family time for their careers. So, as I’ve argued in my series on women’s conflicting interests, the following is the wrong model:

11 thoughts on “SAHMs: Who’s got your back?

  1. I agree that the dividing line between working mothers and SAHMs is a lot more blurry than most people acknowledge. It’s a rare SAHM who doesn’t have ANY interests or pursuits beyond her children, and it’s a rare working mother who works 80 hours a week and never sees her kids.

    I’ve also come to the conclusion that “having it all” is a myth: You can have both kids and a career, but one or the other will have to give at least somewhat. That goes for men too, as you rightly point out. I can’t tell you how many times during my days as an at-home mom when the kids would do something cute or special, and always my first thought was that I wished my husband could have been there.

    I’d really love to see SAHM (or SAHD) financially legitimized as a career choice, with parents who stay home receiving some sort of stipend for their work. Raising children really is a service to society and there should be better support for those who undertake the effort.

  2. Most researchers agree that these changes were spurred by the entry of wives and mothers into the work force. But full-time homemakers have especially benefited from them.

    Okay, well, what about low-income families where women were already in the workforce, working jobs such as taking care of other women’s children or cleaning another family’s house? The idea of “change” here is misleading.

    The NYT piece is interesting, but it actually makes me somewhat disappointed in the author, Stephanie Coontz.

    I appreciated how she points out how the mother figure was despised in the 1940s and 50s because she was seen as tying men to her apron, making them unmanly or even *gasp* gay.

    The tongue-in-cheek suggestion of looking back to the 19th century when women were actually happy as mothers because motherhood was seen as a valuable space whereupon the success of society was based strikes me as not a good idea. It makes me recall a discussion about how the mothers of British Empire had the most important duty of all, to raise the caretakers of the Empire. A response to this notion has been “Wow, look how evil the British Empire was…do we really want to blame mothers for that?”

    On the same thread, what I feel like is missing from Coontz’ narrative is race. The Feminine Mystique is certainly a response to the degradation of the woman in the home based on these notions of “manhood” as being “productive.” But it was also a response to what was happening to white middle-class women particularly. The article acts like this anti-momism came about because of “Freudianism,” which I can see that, but it obviously isn’t the whole picture. I’m not entirely read on this, but my guess is that when you think about how “masculinity” has been to tied to “rulership,” and you think about what was happening in the 1950s and 60s (the Civil Rights movement), white men were blaming white women for making them “too weak” or “feminine” to keep a hold of things.

    Meanwhile, many families of color, where both parents were already working outside the home due to being low income, weren’t thinking about gender at all the same way. Feminists of color were interested in giving women of color more power to have time to be with their families. (Not that I’m idealizing gender relations in relationships of color, as this has to be nuanced, too. Think of the “Indian housewife” stereotype, for instance).

    To be honest, Cootnz’ narrative makes me rather uncomfortable. I read her as saying something along the lines of “Here’s how to remember the 1970s feminist movement: not as anti-conservative, like opponents of the ERA thought, but pro-woman generally, because in hindsight, women in the workforce has made conservative men think differently about how treat their stay-at-home wives.” Okay, I see that.

    Maybe I’m just biased in terms of what I expect to be talked about, but I do see her as folding history in a problematic way.

    Anyhow, I appreciate your post here about gender in gay relationships. There are studies that kids raised by lesbians see the balance of power between their parents and how great this is. Admittedly, though, in my own relationship, my partner has had a difficult time making housework a balanced task. =D =/

    Leah @1

    Id really love to see SAHM (or SAHD) financially legitimized as a career choice, with parents who stay home receiving some sort of stipend for their work

    I wonder if the Church would support this.

  3. Okay, well, what about low-income families where women were already in the workforce, working jobs such as taking care of other womens children or cleaning another familys house? The idea of change here is misleading.

    What about them?

    The “change” isn’t that women were all homemakers and then feminism came and women consequently started working outside the home. That’s inverting the cause and effect. It would be more accurate to say that increasing numbers of women were working outside the home (for largely economic reasons), and didn’t appreciate being locked into menial, dead-end jobs on account of their sex.

    Really, if you think 60’s-70’s feminism = Betty Friedan, then you’re only seeing part of the picture.

  4. If we take Coontz’ notion of the 19th century as a good place for “Mom” and we look at what was actually happening for low-income women (dying in childbirth, working in factories or agriculture), it raises a question of what exactly is happening in her article and why.

    The article is titled “Why We Hated Mom.” Who is “We?” Why is there this comparison between the 19th century SAHM, the 1950s SAHM, the SAHM today? Low-income people can’t afford to stay at home and raise their kids. That is as true today as it was in the 1950s. What has “changed” and for whom?

  5. Look, she is simply challenging the popular myth that feminism decreased public status and esteem for homemakers — indeed women’s increasing economic empowerment [relative to men] has had the opposite effect.

    She didn’t claim that “the 19th century as a good place for Mom” [in general], she was contrasting the popular cultural picture of motherhood from one era to another.

    Why is there this comparison between the 19th century SAHM, the 1950s SAHM, the SAHM today?

    Because giving three examples gives a good idea of how popular perception can change. She’s not trying to write a survey of how cultural perceptions of motherhood have changed throughout human history.

    Low-income people cant afford to stay at home and raise their kids. That is as true today as it was in the 1950s. What has changed and for whom?

    Sorry, did you even read my comment @3? Or my post?

    To simplify, I’ll pick just one example from the above, and challenge you to find others for yourself:

    Domestic violence rates have fallen sharply for all wives, employed or not.

  6. A Chicana emigrates to America in the 1950s. Due to her sex and race and inability to speak English, the job available to her is crop-picker. She doesn’t have the option to be a “homemaker” because her husband is in the same situation she is (other than the fact that he’s a man) and they both need to work. She probably would like more time with her family, but it isn’t an option. Her daughter who grows up in the 1970s knows English, but due to her sex and race, the job available to her is housekeeper (she also has to work). Her daughter who grows up in the 1990s with a good deal of luck is a first generation college student.

    Meanwhile, another Chicana who emigrates to America in the 1990s enters the workforce as a crop-picker. Maybe in the 2030s her granddaughter will go to college.

    What is feminism for these women? What does the 1960s-70s feminist movement have to do with them? The feminist storyline Coontz is talking about is about particular women, not all women. Since low-income women can’t afford to be homemakers, a feminist movement and its relation to the esteem for homemakers sounds like a topic that has nothing to do with them, so why pretend that it does, as you seem to be doing @ 3?

    I think I’ve told the following story before to try to make a similar point. I heard a story once of a man in Guatamala who became Mormon. He attributed the rapid growth of his business to his conversion to the LDS faith. Now he works on Sundays. He was asked about how he feels about “making the sacrifice of not attending church on Sundays” for the sake of his livelihood. He was insulted by the question. For him, he isn’t “making a sacrifice”; he is very pleased to be working more and finds the suggestion that he has to go to church on Sundays ridiculous. “Being Mormon isn’t about going to church,” he said. So, the ideal for him is different because the ideal as it was suggested to him is insulting.

    If you want to be a “good” Mormon, and follow the rules in the Proclamation on the Family (dad works, mom stays at home), you have to be at least middle-class. If you’re working-class, then there’s this sense that you aren’t there yet, you are lesser, you need “help” to “help yourself” get to the proper gender roles. In actuality, the gender roles as laid out by the Church were never for low-income people to begin with. The way Coontz talks about feminism is similarly problematic, IMO.

  7. I understand that Coontz is responding to folks like Schlafly who are giving people like the leaders of the LDS Church ammunition for their view of history: that the ERA was bad (they were right or even “inspired” to oppose it) because this “supposed feminism happened yet women are more unhappy.” I appreciate Coontz for taking this false narrative on.

    Like you mention on that other post, there’s an assumption conservatives make that

    keep mom from working => encouraging motherhood.

    as if somehow the two are opposed. Coontz shows that they aren’t opposed. That’s not the source of my critique. But rather than try to hash it out further here, next time this kind of thing comes up I’ll just try to find a link that expresses my concerns more succinctly. I can’t find one at the moment for this particular opinion piece.

  8. What is feminism for these women?

    I suspected back at your comment @4 that your question wasn’t really a question, but rather a rhetorical bludgeon (eg. I know deep in my heart that ‘Feminism’ is all about privileged white women oppressing women of color — and I’m just going to bring this point up whenever people discuss Feminism regardless of the relevance to the topic at hand.”). However, I’d like to give you the benefit of the doubt and imagine that this question (and the one @4) were serious questions.

    How does the feminist movement intersect with economic social justice movements? How has feminism changed things for women on the lower end of the economic spectrum? What are the successes, failures, and points that need improvement?

    Do you really want to know?

    These are extremely complex questions that can’t be answered in a couple of sentences or even a single blog post. Certainly not ones you can expect to find answered on every blog post about feminism. I’d recommend that you start with Feminism 101, and then take a history and/or economics class.

    What does the 1960s-70s feminist movement have to do with them? The feminist storyline Coontz is talking about is about particular women, not all women.

    As much as I hate repeating myself, I fear I need to repeat an important part of my comment @3: Really, if you think 60?s-70?s feminism = Betty Friedan, then youre only seeing part of the picture..

    Now, in case that’s not clear enough, let me rephrase it: This post is not intended to cover every part of Feminism — just because there’s some part of Feminism that you don’t see in this post, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all.

    Now, if you’d followed my links above, you’d have noticed that I specifically stated that this particular question (women’s careers) gets disproportionate air-time because it disproportionately affects privileged women:

    The problem is that it’s hard to empathize with people of another race, age, economic class, education level, belief system, language, culture, etc. So it’s hard to come up with a movement that represents the interests of women in general. “Women’s interests” are just too diverse, and, in fact, the interests of one group of women can conflict with the interests of another.

    As with addressing racism, however, the fact that it’s hard isn’t a reason to give up. Some things that are hard are worth the effort. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t walk into feminism expecting it to be completely simple with nothing but obvious answers.

    One of our challenges is the fact that the feminist movement is often dominated by the concerns and perspectives of middle-to-upper class white women. This is a bit of an endemic problem: Those who already have the most power are the ones with the most opportunity to speak out and have their voices heard. And even if we make an effort to compensate, the people with the microphone will naturally feel most passionate about issues that concern them personally.

    My one piece of advice to women would be this: Don’t give up on feminism just because some feminists hold opinions that you disagree with. What I mean is that if you read/hear someone say “X is the feminist position on issue Y” — and you strongly disagree with X — you shouldn’t immediately conclude “Well, I guess I’m not a feminist, then.” Often women assume that the position that benefits themselves is (or should be) “the feminist position” — without thinking hard about the fact that what benefits one woman may not benefit another. In my opinion, “the feminist position” (when an issue has one) is the position that one that brings the greatest benefit to women in general. If you think some women are claiming the label “feminist” for a position that benefits one class of women at the expense of another class of women, then stand up and dissent. As a feminist.

    Let’s take a classic example from middle-class-white-women feminism: career women vs. stay-at-home-moms.

    Now, before I respond to another comment from you pointing a finger of blame at feminism for being all about privileged white women, I’d like to see a link to your post — the one where you address the men of the queer movement — encouraging them not to let their own privileged concerns overshadow the concerns of the less-privileged.

  9. Now just a second. From the beginning, I was pointing a finger at Coontz. These fingers I was pointing weren’t just because I read her article and wanted to interject something “irrelevant” to the topic. My concerns are born from her article. The only reason I’ve been arguing with you here is not to “point a finger of blame at feminism for being all about privileged white women” but because you’ve been standing up for Coontz — like she’s all innocent and just doing a “part of feminism.” But she’s not innocent.

    The title of her article is “When We Hated Mom.” Her use of “we” is an indicator of audience. “We” equals “Americans” (or, at least, the readers of the New York Times). So either working-class people aren’t Americans, or Coontz’ use of “we” is intentionally or unintentionally exclusionary.

    Here’s a quote of someone who commented after Coontz’ article:

    The myth of the stay-at-home mom and “idyllic” childhoods of the 1950s has always been just that. A myth. Women of color, poor women, immigrant women, and many working class women have always worked in some form. In my family all of the women worked with the exception of one aunt, who cared for all the cousins. My grandmother, a poor, minority, immigrant slaved for decades in Los Angeles’s textile jungle to feed her three kids. Even in the middle of the 19th century this same group of women worked– white and immigrant pioneer women worked on farms, some even ran farms after their husbands could not (or after they died), African-American women were slaves, but even after Emancipation most worked as maids, cleaners and farm hands, Native American women raised crops and would gather food for their clans.

    This is not to denigrate stay-at-home moms, but in many cases it is a middle class (white) phenomena. Why people keep trying to dial back to ‘Leave it to Beaver’ I don’t know, and I think Koontz was right to point this out.

    Personally, I think the commenter is being generous. Coontz’ reason for telling us not to dial back to the 1950s is not because there was “never an idyllic” period, but because “we” actually “hated” our mothers back then (although it’s been established this “we” is middle to upper class). Everything that follows from this “we” is problematic, including the use of “domestic violence falling for all wives.”

    You’re right that 60’s-70’s feminism isn’t just Betty Friedan. But in a big way, Coontz is writing as if it is.

  10. Now, before I respond to another comment from you pointing a finger of blame at feminism for being all about privileged white women, Id like to see a link to your post the one where you address the men of the queer movement encouraging them not to let their own privileged concerns overshadow the concerns of the less-privileged.

    Still waitin’

    Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be great to have such a post here. There are a lot of white gay men on this forum — is anyone up to writing us a post covering the following topics?

    * Being raised in childhood in the most privileged category (white, male, economically favored), and then finding yourself in a marginalized group at adolescence or as an adult — how does that affect your understanding and perception of “privilege”? How do you think that your experience compares to that of people who were raised with less-privileged expectations from the cradle?
    * What do you feel are your responsibilities (if any) to other marginalized groups?
    * How do you feel about the highly-publicized conflicts between the black community and the gay community? (eg. black people voting for prop. 8, and black preachers stating that gay people have no business claiming the mantle of the civil rights movement.) How can you (as a white person) be an ally to people of color, and what are the biggest obstacles?
    * What responsibilities (if any) do you feel you have towards people with fewer economic advantages and opportunities? What can/should the gay rights movement do to work towards overall economic social justice?
    * How can you — as a gay man — be an ally to the feminist movement? What do you see as the natural points of overlap between the women’s movement and the gay rights movement, and what are the biggest challenges to working together?
    * How can you be an ally to other marginalized groups and to people who fall into multiple marginalized categories?
    * etc.

  11. The title of her article is When We Hated Mom. Her use of we is an indicator of audience.

    writers do not write their own headlines in magazine or newspaper journalism. Headlines are sometimes written by feature editors and sometimes by copy editors and sometimes by the typesetter. Sometimes they are written by someone who has done little more than skim the article. So it is inappropriate to hold Coontz responsible for that title, or to assume that “she” meant anything at all by it.

    I can’t tell you how many times I have winced when I have finally seen the headline someone has assigned to one of my pieces, because it was at odds with what I worked very carefully to say. Discussing this piece in terms of its title is not entirely irrelevant, since someone (who may or may not have read the piece with any care) thought it A) adequately summed the piece up in the print space allotted for the title (and this did appear in the print version, so that matters) and B) might get people to read the piece. But it is irrelevant if you want to claim that the title represents a view Coontz holds. That very likely is not the case.

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