When I was in college I took a class called A History of Feminism. The professor noted that the class was A History and not The History because a quarter long class could not be definitive. A decade and a half later, the only word I care about is the word history, and why we weren’t in a class focused on the future instead of the past.
It’s too late now, and the damage has been done. Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir could not save me or my cohorts from joining the “opt-out revolution.” Yes, we became saboteurs; we became stay-at-home-moms.
I started this week with the idea of looking at the phrase, stay-at-home mom, and when it replaced homemaker or housewife. I opened Pandora’s gender specific box.
Let’s first answer the simple question. When did the phrase stay-at-home mom come into use? Since the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is not one of the five people following me on twitter, I emailed my Aunt, a reference librarian at Carnegie Mellon.
I should mention that I had first tried to find this information myself. My experience in the library’s reference section started with a wrestling match between me, a giant dictionary and a double stroller and ended with a homeless man mumbling offensive remarks at me as I boarded the elevator. In between there were crushed goldfish crackers, one piercing cry, and a few changes to the Dewey Decimal system thanks to Ava, my 18 month old.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists several examples starting in the 1800’s with the term stay-at home referring to those who do not travel abroad. One could be a stay-at-home man (Jane Austen), or a stay-at-home insect (E. Hyams) or what seems more pejorative, a stay-at-home who avoids serving abroad in the military (Churchill).
The search in Lexis-Nexis got us closer to our answer, however, considering we are neither men nor insects. It was in 1986 that ADWEEK compared the nutritional meals prepared by “nine-to-fivers” to those of “stay-at-home moms”. (The nine-to-fivers won.) And In 1987, Newsweek ran a piece on the popularity of preschool for children of both working women and “stay-at-home moms”.
Fast forward nearly ten years to me sitting in my college class. It was the mid-nineties and women were still climbing the corporate ladder. The number of mothers in the work force with infant children peaked just a few years later in 1998. Of course no one was talking about the future of feminism, we sat there proud of the progress. I suppose it was assumed we’d move in one direction.
But, we have not. Of my friends from college, some are working full time, some are working part time and some are at home. I had not thought much of these differences—not even felt, much less heard the artillery of the mommy-wars. Instead, I’ve known a sense of camaraderie. We are all trying to raise our kids the best we can and we are all exhausted.
But, my anecdotal report from the front lines reveals only a few things, mainly, that my generation of women—at least superficially—is not spending much of their depleted free time debating one another’s career choices. And, when you tell someone at a party you, “stay-at-home” with your kids, most people know better than to make jokes about bon bons.
This renewed acceptance of the stay-at-home mom is part of what some say is undermining the progress of women. Although I do not agree with all of this argument, I am interested in it. Because there is not a day that goes by when I do not wonder: am I raising my daughters to be smart and aggressive so that one day they too can quit their careers and stay at home?
Linda Hirshman wrote about the opt-out revolution in her 2005 article in The American Prospect, originally titled, “Homeward Bound”. 2005 was a lifetime ago for many of us. Literally. We had not yet had our first child. The world, too, has changed in significant ways—Sonia Sotomayor is now on the Supreme Court, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton had historic runs for the white house, and Michelle Obama is now in it, placing the work-family relationship among her top policy interests.
Still, when I read the story, now called “America’s Stay-at-Home-Feminists”, a few days ago on the website AlterNet, I realized I had not considered my life in a bigger context. At what point are my choices driven by social trends and at what point do my choices drive the trends? And most important, how does this blurry intersection influence the future?
Hirshman says the public world may have changed but the “real glass ceiling is at home.” She did a fascinating study. She looked through the New York Times Sunday Styles wedding announcements from 1996 and tracked down three weekend’s worth of brides. What were these women doing in 2004, eight years later?
At the time of their weddings, the women were what Hirshman refers to as “elite”. They had strong educations and potentially ambitious careers—doctors, lawyers, editors, executives in marketing. She interviewed 80 percent of the 41 women listed and found 30 had had babies.
“Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time-time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.”
She concludes that this anecdotal data, along with census results showing a decline in the previously upward trend of women with children working, represent a, “loss of hope for the future—a loss of hope that the role of women in society will continue to increase.”
She anticipates most of the arguments that you might toss to her: wait, it’s my choice to stay home, to which she says: No, feminism failed to take on gender relations strong enough and left you holding the domestic bag and decided to call it “choice”.
Wait, my husband makes more than I do, and my going back to work full time would hardly cover childcare. She says, “This totally ignores that both adults are in the enterprise together and (ignores) the demonstrable future loss of income, power, security for the woman who quits." Don’t subtract childcare from the woman’s salary alone, but think combined income, and subtract from that.
The family, she says, “with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks—is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.”
The goal is women with power, and women with money.
To get there, she has rules for young women: “Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.” I need to add that when she says “prepare yourself to qualify for good work,” she means, don’t waste your college years majoring in the liberal arts. There is actually one last rule: have only one baby.
It makes sense and it also makes my head hurt.
First, I know her goal is large-scale and the personal details I might offer in defense of the “opt-out revolution” do not stand up to her method.
Second, I don’t care. There are three issues she does not address and they are important.
The first issue: who exactly is supposed to raise the kids? It’s going to be the mom, the dad, or a childcare provider --grandparents, a nanny, a day care center. How a family makes this decision is driven by more than social agendas. It’s decided by proximity to grandparents, access to daycare, the financial situation of the breadwinners, and their emotional make-up.
And, I think it’s important to note that often, in the effort to keep the elite mom working full time, there is a nanny who may have to leave her own kids with a relative. At best, the drive for, so-called, “full-human flourishing” is for those who can afford to buy it.
The second issue: Is it the case that the home is socially invisible and without value? It was interesting to read the stories from the late 1980’s on Lexis-Nexis in which stay-at-home moms dealt with isolation by subscribing to newsletters. These came once a month, and via snail mail.
Has the internet and technology changed the fabric of the domestic sphere? Aren't we more connected, more vocal, and less invisible?
And, third: has the career trajectory changed (even for those who have never taken time off to raise kids) to the point that many people start new careers in their 40’s and 50’s? If so, the stay-at-home mom may re-enter the workforce with fewer light years seperating her from those who never left it.
But, let’s say the stay-at-home mom does not return to work. What if she stays home until the kids are in college? What if all she does is raise her kids, run the house, volunteer at school, learn a new language, sit on the town council, help her aging parents, volunteer at a woman’s shelter, adopt a dog, raise money for a presidential candidate, mentor a teenager, and vote? Is there no value in that? Is there no power in that?
There is no money in that. And, maybe that is the sticking point.
Someday, when my daughters ask me about the “opt-out revolution", I’ll pull out a faded story written by Linda Hirshman. “Read this,” I’ll say, “and then decide if you want to major in econ or art history.” And, instead of A History of Feminism, they may take a class like the one being taught at George Washington University called, Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership. The work-family balance is not left to chance; it’s taught.
I often tell my four year old that she can be a doctor, or a dentist, or an artist or writer, or as her pediatrician suggested when she was five months old, an air traffic controller. And, she usually says, "Yes." Then she pauses and says, "I want to be a mommy."
And, then I say, "You can be both."
And, even if it means being both at different times, or more of one and less of the other at other times, I mean it. She can be both. The example I am setting by being a stay-at-home mom today may represent less of a revolution and more of an evolution.
To read Linda Hirshman's full article, or to read more about the program at George Washington University, check out the links posted on the sidebar. The GW program also has a related page on Facebook called Hot Momma's Project.
Also, I am looking for a few stay-at-home dads for some Q & A for a future blog. If you are one, or know one, please email me: email@example.com