It’s almost poetic that this year’s Equal Pay Day—the one day of the year when Americans are supposed to reflect on the value (and undervaluing) of women’s work—coincided with the media firestorm surrounding the American stay-at-home-mom. The “controversy” over Ann Romney’s decision to stay home rather than work a “regular” job should highlight some of the continuing struggles of women to be valued and respected for their work, in and out of the home.
But the partisan proxy war waged over the mommy question only underscores the country’s lacking vocabulary when it comes to discussing the totality of social and economic barriers facing women. Pay discrimination, domestic violence, attacks on reproductive rights, overlapping oppressions facing women of color—it’s misleading to try to lump all these issues together into a blanket term like “woman problem,” but there is one persistent theme: society’s fear of women controlling their own lives.
The distorted framing of the debate is captured in Mitt Romney’s contradictory comments about forcing mothers receiving public assistance into the labor force—in order to instill in them the “dignity of work.” This myopic binary between women of poverty and women of privilege reflects the evolution of the federal welfare state throughout the 20th century.
Poor women, who evidently lack dignity, must redeem themselves through work, while the apparently inborn dignity of their affluent counterparts allows them to embody feminine virtue by staying within the domestic sphere. And if they volunteer to climb the career ladder, they’re vaunted as supermoms.
Part of this mentality stems from a reactionary, often racialized construction of the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor. The argument is also steeped in the corrosive cultural assumption that poor women’s social value derives from their labor or reproductive capacity, not their humanity, intellect or relationships.
The counterpoint to Ann Romney’s domestic sainthood is the right’s fictional “welfare queen,” the unwed mother who supposedly leeches off the state with abandon and embodies corrupt, uncontrollable fertility.
And that’s where the “dignity of work” comes in, to discipline the unruly woman and keep her in her place, safely below the poverty line. Neoliberals like Newt Gingrich have sought to broaden the attack on poor women by advocating for the use of the child welfare as a punitive tool, sweeping kids into state custody to “rescue” them from disadvantaged mothers and their communities. So much for family values.
Zerlina Maxwell remarks on the racial and class inflection of terms like “stay at home mom” at Feministing:
While a certain level of economic success allows for these women to stay at home with their kids instead of also bringing in money to support their families and put food on the table, I would be very hard pressed to find anyone, particularly on the right, praising a woman of color for being a “stay at home” mom. I hear a lot of “welfare queen” language or that our current president is a “food stamp” president but nothing about how wonderful it is that so many women of color are choosing to stay home and raise their kids. More likely women of color who are “stay at home” moms would be viewed as “lazy” or “poor role models” for their children.
But the extremely poor don’t have families—not the way the affluent do. The mother of color raising her kids alone, in a dilapidated public housing complex, won’t be sharing the spotlight with mommy-in-chief Ann Romney anytime soon.
Poor mothers don’t necessarily want public accolades; they’re just trying to survive and earn a meaningful living. But society doesn’t recognize the incredible dignity they display every day as they brave economic disenfranchisement, living a reality that’s probably not intimately familiar either to Ann Romney or Hilary Rosen.
And some of the hardest-working women don’t even get proper recognition under the law, much less the political arena. In sectors like domestic work and home-based health care, women, many of them poor women of color, lack basic protections against labor abuses. These include women who actually serve dual roles of wage work and home work: as they struggle to support their own families, they labor for relatively privileged parents, who can pay for services that “liberate” them to pursue out-of-home careers.
The question we should be asking is not whether domestic caregiving is more or less important than wage work—they’re both crucial, and crucially different. The question is which women have the privilege of choice, because too often, decisions of work and home are made for them, without their consent. That gender gap in personal autonomy and freedom may be more detrimental to feminist struggles than economic or employment disparities.
The deficit in opportunities for women isn’t so much about who’s working and where, as it is about who has the power to be heard—in the kitchen, in the office, on the unemployment line or on Capitol Hill.