Nation wavers on women’s work

Jeane Anastas, PhD, LMSWFrom the President

Women’s work was a political hot topic in April, leading some pundits to declare that the “gender wars” were the first big battle of the 2012 presidential campaign.

It began with Mitt Romney talking about his wife, Ann, as his best source of information about what women want and need economically. This was followed by a commentator associated with Democrats deriding Mrs. Romney as a “stay at home mom” who “had never worked a day in her life.”

At times, neither political party seemed able to address the realities of women’s work effectively, which reflects our nation’s deep ambivalence about the topic.

Our policies, as applied to the poor, do not value or even permit being a “stay at home mom.” There appears to be a political consensus in the United States about “workfare” — that those who turn to public assistance for economic help must agree to work.

Statistically, the majority of all women in the United States are employed, even when their children are very young. Providing subsidized day care for preschool children, to support employment outside the home, is surely a much-needed and valued benefit that the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program can provide.

Historically, the ideal of the two-parent family with a stay-at-home wife was an anomaly of the white middle class in the mid-20th century. However, because of this legacy, it is assumed that Ann Romney’s care and attention to her children is of benefit to them — she is a “fit” mother.

In response to the criticisms of her, Ann Romney noted that it was “hard work” rearing her children, as we know it is for anyone — employed or not — who does a responsible job of it, as first lady Michelle Obama also mentions.

A core principle of social work is self-determination. People should be able to make their own choices about how best to live their lives as long as their choices do not harm others. However, most employment does not pay a “family wage,” that is, it does not provide earnings that would adequately support a household, with or without children.

It usually takes two (or more) jobs and earners to make ends meet. Therefore, the choice that women (and some men) might make to forgo paid employment for child-rearing is realistic and responsible only for the affluent.

Women in the workforce still earn less than men do, although even this assertion has recently been questioned.

The pay gap varies state by state , and progress has been made since these statistics were first compiled and publicized in the 1970s.

While more women than men are found in low-wage, service-sector jobs, there are pay gaps in janitorial or table-waiting work as well as on Wall Street. Black and Hispanic women pay a bigger price in earnings than white women do.

All family and household members would benefit if women were paid more fairly.

While too much of our welfare spending may already benefit the middle class, why are we the only wealthy industrialized nation that does not offer paid parental leave?

It took until the Clinton administration to mandate family leave without risking the loss of one’s job, although the law does not mandate paid leave. While we may argue in the political arena about whether women’s (or anyone’s) unpaid work in the home, such as child-rearing, is to be valued, we seem less ready to change our policies and practices in ways that would benefit families of all kinds and at all income levels.

Social work has been concerned with both the paid employment and the “family work” of women since its beginnings. We must not get caught up in debates about who is a “good enough” mother — the one who can forgo employment for child-rearing, the one who is required to work to receive income benefits, or the one who sees no choice but to remain employed while rearing children.

The energy and the obfuscation generated by these debates only detract us from the real priority, to change our policies and practices in ways that equalize the potential of all people to earn a living and to care for one another in the ways that they think best.