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Is a Woman’s Place in the Workforce?

Following Hillary Clinton’s first major address on the economy this week, Jeff Spross wrote Wednesday for The Week that Clinton’s “focus on freeing up women to enter the labor force,” while laudable, is “also too narrow and uni-directional”:

She needs an approach that is both broader and more radical: giving all Americans, men and women alike, more control over when they participate and don’t participate in the labor force. … We should be working towards a society where men and women can negotiate with one another, with equal resources to pick their own version of the good life. And so that when they have to compromise that ideal, they can do so on their own terms.

Whether women are working less or working more is the wrong question to ask. Rather, ask if they’re doing what they want to do, or what society and the economy demand they do.

It’s interesting that we live in a time when society (or certain political groups within society) is single-mindedly focused on driving women into the workforce, seeing full-time work as a superior lifestyle for mothers. Contrast this with a piece also published yesterday, in which Wednesday Martin considers the “captivity of motherhood” experienced by women in the 1960s:

Johnson was groping toward feminism’s second wave before it came to be, feeling for a toehold. She listed, in her catalogue not of grievances so much as unsentimental facts about the lives of herself and her conspecifics, the following: isolation, worries about illness and money, and sexual boredom. She referred to the whole schmear as “the housewife’s syndrome, the vicious circle, the feeling of emptiness in the gap between what she thought marriage was going to be like and what it really is like.”

… A participant-observer in the bizarre social reality she describes, Johnson conveys without rancor the existentially isolated, restless feeling that my mother’s generation grappled with, and that Friedan wrote about when she quoted one of her subjects: “I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bed-maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?”

And Johnson might have added, “Why am I the only one?” Johnson starts off with the demographically inflected observation that women are cut off from their extended families and friends by the idealized nuclear family, with its ostensibly perfect evenings of popcorn and TV in PJs, but moves toward darker realities, including the impact of this existence on female consciousness.

This latter paragraph illustrates the geographical and urban components of Johnson’s problem: compare the isolation described above with this account from Benjamin Schwarz of working-class motherhood amongst working-class families in London up until the late 1950s:

…Working-class life was defined by an idiosyncratic approach to what is “always one of the great and indispensible functions of any society,” as Willmott and Young put it: the task of caring for children. That approach emerged from the distinctive relationship of the working-class mother—the sainted, mythic figure known as “Mum”—to her married daughters, a relationship that had developed from a universal truth: “Child-rearing,” Willmott and Young wrote in a deceptively obvious observation, “is arduous, it is puzzling, it is monotonous…” But a daughter’s “work can be less arduous because it is shared; her life less lonely because she has someone to talk to; the behavior of her children less perplexing because she has someone whose experience she can draw on.”

For a married working-class daughter whose husband was at work, her Mum was “the person with whom she can share the mysteries as well as the tribulations, the burdens as well as the satisfactions, of childbirth and motherhood.”

The result was a flourishing matriarchy, in which a woman’s authority and stature grew with age and in which—thanks to the proximity of employment for the menfolk and the geographically compressed layout of working-class districts—the households of Mum and of her married daughters’ families were, and in fact had to be, nearly always at most a few blocks away and often on the same street. (In a 1956 study of a Liverpool neighborhood, the sociologist Charles Verker revealed a not-atypical arrangement in which the households of one extended family—mother, daughter, father-in-law, sister-in-law, uncle, three cousins—occupied eight of the 22 houses of a short street.)

Children were raised as much in Mum’s house as in their own; married daughters would see their sisters and their sisters’ children at Mum’s, usually daily; their husbands would regularly have their supper after work at Mum’s; family “popping in” for a cup of tea and a chat was the norm—Mum and her daughters saw each other on as many as a dozen separate visits each day. The sons-in-law who gathered at Mum’s were usually drinking friends, and the friends and workmates of each became part of the others’ vast network of acquaintances.

In this world, Willmott and Young explained, in which daughters turned to Mum “in the great personal crises and on the small domestic occasions,” daughters and mothers would “share so much and give such help to each other because, in their women’s world, they have the same functions of caring for home and bringing up children.”

Separate clusters of extended families formed the working-class neighborhood. Its residents knew each other with an intimacy of detail and often through several points of connection—the people a young mother encountered while doing her marketing were her or her parents’ childhood playmates and the friends and relatives of her husband or her brothers- and sisters-in-law. Characterized by these informal, intimate, multilayered social networks, and by what Willmott and Young called “a sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries”—in which the local pub was at the end of the block, the store for daily provisions around the corner, and a destination five minutes’ walk away was considered in a different neighborhood entirely—this was a largely static, tremendously local, intensely parochial realm.

This strikes a remarkable contrast to the suburban housewives described by Martin, “cut off from their extended families and friends by the idealized nuclear family.”

And the problem persists today—Martin says that even the “privileged mommies” she’s met are most often “cut off from extended families,” and thus “depend at least in part on nannies to help them with the heavy lifting of motherhood.” The disintegration of the home economy and its corresponding networks of support has developed steadily throughout time, and it’s had consequences for mothers.

When we talk about the plight of the 1960s housewife, we don’t talk enough about the role the rise of the suburbs—and increasing familial atomization—may have played in her isolation. Cut off from the rapport and community infrastructure Schwarz describes in his article, she was increasingly alone. Housework, child care, cooking, and cleaning responsibilities fell squarely on her shoulders—without any of the corresponding social or familial supports that may have alleviated those burdens.

Yet as our society industrialized and urbanized, women came to recognize their feelings of loneliness and isolation as an economic / inequality problem. While that may not be entirely false, there were other social, cultural, and geographic dilemmas involved. And without fixing those, the problem has continued to simmer beneath the surface.

Why? Because not all women have found contentment within the workforce, within a 9-to-5 job. Martin suggests that a lot of this discontent comes from a still-rigid set of options available to women: a lack of institutional flexibility, coupled with a lack of benefits, that make it difficult for a woman to “have it all” (job plus kids). Spross, too, despite his welcome acknowledgement that women should be able to choose their venue of work, be it in or outside the traditional workforce, continues to look to economic or career-related policies to salvage and assuage the problem. This understanding continues to reinforce the idea that SAHM’s loneliness or search for meaning can be fixed with economic band-aids. This makes no sense, when you consider the fact that this is an entirely narrow and fractured understanding of the human person, whose nature is decidedly social, relational, intellectual, and emotional, as well as vocational.

Last week, I talked to Joel Salatin, sustainable farmer and author, about the interns who come to his farm. He noted that several of them are coming from white-collar desk jobs: one current intern worked 10 years as an engineer for a Fortune 500 company. He got tired of computers and cubicles, Salatin said. “Our trajectory of institutional schooling, to student loans and college, to a white collar job keeps people from discovering other passions,” he said. “Lots of our interns were burned out by white collar careers. They tell me, ‘I always wanted to do this, but I was told I couldn’t.'”

While increased flexibility and benefits for women are of course beneficial and important, they overlook the other problem we face: that of a culture whose fabric has become increasingly rigid and atomized, in which women are separated from the familial, communal, and institutional supports that could help give them a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s a culture that gives smart, talented women one trajectory for their gifts, and tells them other pathways are a “waste,” or a sure-fire road to loneliness and dejection.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the stay-at-home moms, homeschoolers, and retired ladies who I met growing up, it’s that everything is a matter of perspective, location, and relationship. What are you doing with your time? Are you living in a place that increases or decreases your ability to connect in a meaningful way? Are you reaching out to others, building an infrastructure of community and camaraderie around your family?

These questions may not be sufficient to assuage all the problems or inner conflicts that a mother faces—but they present a more holistic solution to her problem than the purely career-centric focus that modern society most often presents her with.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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