The Freedom to Choose
This week, there’s been a faux-controversy about some comments made by Democratic political consultant Hilary Rosen, saying that Ann Romney, as a stay at home mom, has “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally, this stoked a lot of the fires of stereotypes about feminist leftists in that, evidently, we view SAHMs as lazy, good for nothings, who just sit at home and eat bon-bons all day.
Unfortunately, this view is complete fiction, on multiple levels. It’s a fiction that this is how feminists view SAHMs – made almost funny by the fact that I know quite a few feminists who are the stay at home parent. And it’s a fiction that Rosen’s comments were a dig at stay at home mom’s in general. And it's a fiction that stay at home moms don't work hard.
Here’s the full context of Rosen’s statement:
What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues. And when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing.
Guess what, his wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we—why do we worry about their future? [emphasis mine]
Rosen’s point is a political one – the Romneys are very well off.* Everyone knows that. We’ve been laughing for months at how Romney is so rich he’s unable to relate to the average middle class person he’s representing. And Ann Romney – who “drives a couple of Cadillacs” – is, as Rosen was pointing out, in a situation that allows her to be a stay at home mom without worry about finances, job loss, or how to pay for day care if she chose to work. Fundamentally, Ann Romney was lucky enough to have the choice about being a stay at home mom.
As a childfree person, happily so by choice, I fundamentally support the rights of mothers to have choices in how they parent and whether they work or not. Just as my hackles get raised when someone suggests that it’s my duty to stay at home and raise children, I understand that SAHMs feel like they get a negative rap, and feel the need to push back against the "working woman’s feminism."**
But here’s the thing: Feminism is fundamentally about choice. When we take away a woman’s choice to work or to be a stay at home mom - be it through economic or religious means - we take away a fundamental part of her dignity and humanity. The free will to say “This is what I want to do in my life” is a massive part of personal identity and personal dignity, and it is something that women all over the world are denied.
That’s why Ann Romney cannot relate to the single mother who has to work three jobs in order to make ends meet. That’s why Ann Romney cannot relate to the middle class teacher who would like to stay at home but can’t because her state doesn’t pay a high enough salary for her to do so. That’s why Ann Romney cannot relate to the economic woes facing most of middle class America. She’s never had to wonder if her next pay check would be enough to cover a bill. She’s never had an IRS mix up prevent her from taking time off work. She's never had to decide between formula and keeping the lights on another month.
Christopher Hayes is right when he calls the controversy over Rosen’s comments “substance-less idiocy.” No one is arguing that stay at home moms don’t work hard. What many current feminists contend and have contended for years is that there is a systemic problem in the way this government handles women’s issues that prevents women from being stay at home mothers by choice. We are frequently economically unable to choose to work at home because companies don’t offer paid maternity or parental leave, because there’s no security that we would be able to get a job when we return from mothering. Additionally, the wage gap favors men as breadwinners. Making the decision to leave the workforce or to have a baby impacts women much more negatively in terms of career advancement than it ever does men.
We live in a culture that values neither the career women nor the stay at home moms. Because women live lives that are considered public property, to be legislated and debated and discussed, rather than merely lived, there’s not a woman in the United States who is not facing criticism for her choices.
The point is neither here nor there when it comes to whether or not stay at home moms work. The point is that women need to have the choice – economically, socially, religiously, and physically – to be a stay at home mom if they want to be, and to be a childfree career woman if they want to be. The freedom to choose one's path in life is fundamentally American. To deny the economic reality that takes the choice away is to create a fiction of epic proportions.
*Understatement of the century, I know.
**The reason many have this impression is because of second wave feminism of the 50s/60s, which pushed back against the idea that women should be housewives and that was our station in life. Last May, the NY Times had an interesting article explaining that part of the reason there was a backlash against housewifery and being a stay at home mom was not because feminists are secretly sexists who hate mothers. Rather, Coontz writes: “In the early 20th century, under the influence of Freudianism, Americans began to view public avowals of “Mother Love” as unmanly and redefine what used to be called “uplifting encouragement” as nagging. By the 1940s, educators, psychiatrists and popular opinion-makers were assailing the idealization of mothers; in their view, women should stop seeing themselves as guardians of societal and familial morality and content themselves with being, in the self-deprecating words of so many 1960s homemakers, ‘just a housewife.’” The entire article is worth a read.