We Are Our Mothers' DaughtersRevised and Expanded Edition
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Cokie Roberts
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780061741951
A Woman's Place
A woman's place is in the house... And in the senate," the T-shirts and buttons proclaim at women's political events. "A Woman's Place Is in Uniform," trumpets a book about women in the military. "A woman's place is at the typewriter," declared Fortune magazine back in 1935. That was convenient for the economy and so it was decreed. A few years later a woman's place was in the factory or in the nursing corps because that was essential for the war effort. Then a woman's place was in the home. And now? A woman's place is anywhere she wants it to be. Fine, but who's taking care of the children? That's the question that keeps us roiled up over this issue.
Recently the country got all in a snit over the case of ababy apparently killed by his baby-sitter in Boston. Were people demanding the head of the baby-sitter? No, quite the contrary, it was the mother who came in for abuse by the radio callers and the editorial writers. She went to work three days a week, corning home at lunchtime to breast-feed, even though her husband had a perfectly good job. What kind of mother was she? Obviously, a selfish, greedy one who was willing to leave her children in the care of an inexperienced young woman. Wait a minute. Suppose she had gone out at night with her husband and left the babies with a teenager? What then? And didn't society just direct thousands of mothers to leave their children in another's care by requiring that we welfare mothers go to work? Could we make up our minds here, please?
No, probably not, because we're still confused about this issue of a woman's place. We're confused because we know that no matter what else a woman is doing, she's also care taking and we worry that a woman "out at work" might leave someone, especially her children, without care. That's what's at the heart of this sometimes vicious debate. Sure, a lot of other, much less noble, attitudes also underlie these arguments. Plenty of people still think that women are just plain uppity and they see a woman's place as someplace to put her. But I think it's the question of the children, and now old people as well, that truly troubles us. And women with children often find whatever choice they make uncomfortable.
That wasn't always true. For most of human history menand women worked together in the same place and each one's work complemented the other's. No one thought the farmer's job was more important than the farm wife's. Neither could manage without the other. Teenage relatives often moved in to help care for the children, to protect them from household hazards like open fires while the busy mother made the soap and the candles, spun the cloth, pieced together the clothes, fixed the food. Women gathered together to help with large chores, and visited as they worked. They also congregated to attend to births and deaths, taking comfort from each other's company.Whenever I think of the courage it took to leave everything and everyone behind to come to this continent in the early years of colonization, I am struck by the fortitude of those settlers. First the trip across the ocean, then in later generations the trek across the continent, required women to "do it all." The history of the movement west is one of extraordinary men and women overcoming incredible odds together. It was the industrial revolution that changed everything. Men went out to work for wages, and they were paid for the hours they put in, not the tasks they completed. (Poor women went into the factories, or to domestic work, as well. In 1850 women comprised 13 percent of the paid labor force; this question of women's work is one directly related to economic class.) Suddenly, what women did at home lost its value because there was no paycheck attached. Repetitive housework replaced home manufacture as women's crafts moved into assembly-line production. And that's what we've been struggling with ever since. Doing work that is economically rewarded and socially recognized means leaving home. That could change with the information revolution, as machines make it possible to work just about anywhere. But I think it's unlikely to alter the fact that women aren't paid for their jobs as nurturers, and it still leaves women at home isolated from other women.