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The writing on the wall

The explosion of excellent media coverage on women and work-life issues, and what it means for the mothers' movement

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

Last week I spoke with a reporter who wanted to know whether an actual "mothers' movement" is gaining momentum in the United States. Reporters have been asking me that question for about five years, and my response has always been cautiously optimistic. I usually say that thanks to thirty years of formal research on gender, work and family, the motherhood problem is exceptionally well documented. I add that a growing number of maternal activists -- from welfare rights groups to middle-class members of organizations such as Mothers & More and the National Association of Mothers Centers -- are seriously committed to doing something about it. I try to give the low profile of the movement a positive spin -- it's happening, but it's under the radar of mainstream media; it's happening, but we're still in the consciousness-raising stage; it's happening, but we haven't reached the tipping point.

Well, dear readers, I believe we've reached the tipping point.

Anyone who's been tracking the recent surge of media stories on barriers to integrating work and family has noticed the sea change -- a certain ratcheting up of tensions surrounding the persistence of gender inequality in and outside the workplace, which over the last few weeks has culminated in a precision attack on the misguided belief that if women's progress has stalled, mothers and the choices they make are to blame.

This "pinch me" moment kicked off with a New York Times story on the mothers' movement, centering on interviews with mothers attending a MomsRising house party. Although some readers were disappointed Kara Jesella's well-balanced piece appeared in the Style section ("Mom's Mad. And She's Organized," February 22), her story was the second most emailed NYT article of the week. Human interest stories on moms groups are a staple of lifestyle reporting, but beyond the sporadic Mother's Day feature this is the first time a major newspaper has devoted space to mothers' activism on work-life policy.

A few days later, Ruth Rosen's essay, "The Care Crisis," ran as the cover story of the March 12 issue of The Nation. "For four decades, American women have entered the paid workforce -- on men's terms, not their own -- yet we have done precious little as a society to restructure the workplace or family life," Rosen writes. "The consequence of this 'stalled revolution' … is a profound 'care deficit.' …Today the care crisis has replaced the feminine mystique as women's 'problem that has no name.' It is the elephant in the room -- at home, at work and in national politics -- gigantic but ignored."

The latest edition of The American Prospect followed suit with a special report on the "Mother Load," featuring a collection of essays by some of the best and brightest scholars and authors on the state of work and family in the U.S., including Joan C. Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law, Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic Policy Research, working women's advocate Ellen Bravo, and Kathleen Gerson, co-author of "The Time Divide". (TAP editors are continuing to add web-only content on related topics, including a predictably bitchy and self-serving ripost by Linda Hirshman.)

But the centerpiece of this flurry of corrective journalism is EJ Graff's essay, "The Opt Out Myth," in the current edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. (Links to all articles appear below.) While others have challenged the factual basis and class bias of reporting on the so-called "opt-out revolution" -- most notably Heather Boushey and Joan Williams -- Graff denounces the recent spate of "moms-go-home" stories as socially irresponsible journalism. The problem, she argues, is not just that this stream of reporting is misleading and inaccurate; it also frames the issues the wrong way by erasing the experiences of the vast majority of American families. According to Graff, the danger in perpetuating the "opt-out" narrative is that if policymakers and the public accept its narrow definition of the women-work-family dilemma, they will end up supporting the wrong solutions. Graff's criticism of the underlying elitism of mainstream news reporting on mothers in the workplace -- and the writers, editors and publishers who cultivate it -- echoes Tamara Draut's observations in the American Prospect report. Because opt-out reporting reinforces the perception of high-income parents as broadly representative of the middle class, these families' ability to spend their way out of the care crisis prevents key decision-makers "from fully understanding that the real middle class is desperate for help."

"This well-off, well-educated minority exerts inordinate influence in our democracy, from the voting booth to the beltway." Draut writes. "This socioeconomic distortion was brought home in a conversation I had with a senator's senior staffer. As I was describing how the cost of child care was a major factor in the squeeze on the middle class, she nodded her head in acknowledgement and shared what she thought was her similar struggle: 'I know, my husband and I can barely afford the $35,000 a year for our nanny.' Deluded into thinking she's middle class, she clearly doesn't understand the reality facing ordinary parents and likely doesn't put affordable child care on the top of her reform list or the senator's."

It's tempting to attribute the new momentum surrounding the politics of work and family to MomsRising's recent entry into the fray of maternal activism -- and Joan Blades' celebrity as a progressive icon has obviously attracted attention to the mothers' rights agenda. But it would be a grave mistake to overlook the growing urgency of social conditions affecting women and working families as a driving factor.

After a historically freakish blip of widely shared prosperity in the thirty years following World War II, America has returned to level of income inequality not seen since the run up to the Great Depression. One-third of U.S. jobs are unfavorable to what economists call "social inclusion," meaning they reinforce conditions that prevent low-income workers from rising to the middle-class. Profit, productivity growth and tax policies have disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Americans, while it's becoming more and more difficult for middle-income parents to find the time and money they need to resist the downward pressures on their economic security. Poverty rates are up, the number of Americans with health care coverage is down, and employment security among white-collar workers is accepted as a thing of the past. More families with children are headed by single parents and more single parents are working than at any previous time in the nation's history -- and despite conservative's claims to the contrary, this not a problem that marriage promotion is likely to cure, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Under the circumstances, the gender wage gap -- which costs women and dual-earner families anywhere from $700,000 to $2 million in lost earnings over a lifetime -- and the disproportionate representation of mothers in lower-earning occupations and dead-end, no-benefits jobs becomes much more than a "women's issue." Not to mention that from the deadly, unjustified war in Iraq, to the grim aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it's clear the nation's leaders are not staying to the right path. In other words, conditions are ripe for a progressive social movement, and mothers' economic rights are on the menu.

I normally avoid motherhood analogies because such things lend themselves to unnecessary sentimentality and exclude non-mothers and women who've taken different paths to motherhood. But pregnancy and childbirth are as good a metaphor as any for the evolution of social movements. Both begin with a germ of possibility, require long periods of gestation followed by a seemingly endless stage of slow, painful work --  and before it's over, you have to push like hell. And while the outcome is never assured, both have the potential to create a new future.

It's time to take our movement to the next level. Trust me -- we can do this.

mmo : march 2007

Mom's Mad. And She's Organized
Kara Jesella, New York Times, 22.Feb.07
(full text of article provided by Truthout.org)
"For years, mothers have been taking to the Internet to blog or post messages about the travails of motherhood, commiserating, fuming or laughing about their shared lives. But in the last year there has been a marked increase in those who are going beyond simply expressing their feelings. In a throwback to their mothers' - or was it their grandmothers'? - time, they are organizing about family and work issues."

The Opt Out Myth
EJ Graff, Columbia Journalism Review, March 2007
"The problem is that the moms-go-home storyline presents [work-life] issues as personal rather than public—and does so in misleading ways. The stories’ statistics are selective, their anecdotes about upper-echelon white women are misleading, and their “counterintuitive” narrative line parrots conventional ideas about gender roles. Thus they erase most American families’ real experiences and the resulting social policy needs from view."

The Care Crisis
Ruth Rosen, The Nation, 27.Feb.07
"For four decades, American women have entered the paid workforce--on men's terms, not their own--yet we have done precious little as a society to restructure the workplace or family life. The consequence of this "stalled revolution," a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, is a profound "care deficit." …Today the care crisis has replaced the feminine mystique as women's "problem that has no name." It is the elephant in the room--at home, at work and in national politics--gigantic but ignored."

American Prospect Special Report:
The Mother Load

Values Begin at Home, but Who's Home?
In the struggle to balance work and family, work is winning.
By Heather Boushey

The Architecture of Work and Family
To have a job and a life, we need to redesign the national household.
By Ellen Bravo

What Do Women and Men Want?
Many of the same things -- but our system contributes to gender conflicts over work, parenting, and marriage.
By Kathleen Gerson

The Opt-Out Revolution Revisited
Women aren't foresaking careers for domestic life. The ground rules just make it impossible to have both.
By Joan C. Williams

Responsive Workplaces
The business case for employment that values fairness and families
By Jodie Levin-Epstein

Atlantic Passages
How Europe supports working parents and their children.
By Janet C. Gornick

What About Fathers?
Marriage, work, and family in men's lives.
By Scott Coltrane

The Mother of All Issues
What it will take to put work and family on the national agenda.
By Tamara Draut

Related TAP Content:

Father Load
"Mother Load" authors respond to Linda Hirshman's bleak view of the role of fathers in shouldering their share of family responsibilities.
By Kathleen Gerson, Courtney E. Martin, and Brian Reid

What a Load
In the discussion about achieving work/life balance, men are getting a free pass. By Linda Hirshman

Fighting Apart for Time Together
Why is all the activism for work/life balance split along gender lines?
By Courtney E. Martin

Grade Inflation
Too many magazines and organizations set a low bar for honoring "family-friendly" companies.
By Ann Friedman

More stories on public policy and
reconciling work and family in America:

The Haves and the Have Lots
Christopher Howard, Democracy Journal, Spring 2007
The American welfare state is bigger than you think, and more unfair than you’d want. "A number of social policies make a mockery of the goal, enshrined in the Constitution, that government exists to 'promote the general welfare.' Our long-standing commitment to equal opportunity rings hollow when certain programs help people with good jobs and incomes to get health insurance, housing, parental leave, and retirement pensions, but offer little help to the poor and near-poor. We may disagree over how hard government should try to reduce poverty and inequality. Surely, however, when millions of Americans live in poverty and inequality has reached record levels, we can agree that public policies should not make these problems worse."

Small Steps for Big Problems of the Middle Class
David Nather, CQ Weekly, 12.mar.07
"The prescriptions Democrats are pursuing -- for the next two years at least -- aren't exactly the second coming of the Great Society… Instead the new majority is focused on bite-sized, narrowly targeted designed to address one part of a larger problem, or provide first steps that may lead to more ambitious initiatives down the road." Article available from Georgetown University Law Center Workplace Flexibility 2010.

How to Save the Middle Class from Extinction
Paul Krugman, AlterNet, 9.mar.07
Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explains in simple terms how the American economy went from having the world's most dynamic middle class to being on the verge of a rich-poor state in only 30 years.

This essay and related links originally appeared in Editor's Notes, March 2007
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