This is the first in a series of posts reviewing Neil Gilbert’s new book A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
Gilbert, a professor at U.C. Berkeley, has a long and distinguished track record working in many fields related to social policy, welfare, and family issues. This, his latest book, turns his considerable experience and acumen to the vexing issue of the choices women make about motherhood and paid employment. He argues that the shift over the past forty years away from motherhood and toward paid employment is not the result of women now having the freedom to go to work nor is it a matter of economic necessity. Rather, he argues that three factors have conspired to undervalue motherhood:
First, the culture of capitalism “undervalues the economic worth of child-rearing activities and domestic production;” second, feminist rhetoric has overstated “the social and emotional benefits of labor-force participation;” and finally, ostensibly “family-friendly” welfare policies have actually reinforced “the norms and values of capitalism and feminism.”
A key reason why government policy has conspired with feminism and capitalism against the traditional mother is that the sort of people who write books and policy about these issues have jobs that really ARE rewarding, so it makes sense to them to celebrate paid work. They tend not to think of paid work as the drudgery that it is for most Americans. So they craft public policy to help women have children yet stay employed so as not to fall behind in the career track (a “concurrent” model of work and family). Gilbert, on the other hand, advocates in this book for a more “sequential” approach that would help women who choose to do so opt out of paid labor for several years to devote themselves more fully to the important work of childrearing. At its heart Gilbert’s book is an appeal for “greater public appreciation for a mother’s work.”
The book is divided into three sections. The first section lays out the facts on the ground, explaining what has happened in recent years to motherhood, women’s work, and families caught in the middle. The second section details his argument about capitalism, feminism, and social policy. The third section offers his alternative “sequential” model. For the remainder of this post I will summarize section one.
Gilbert begins with a survey of recent articles in popular magazines and other sources that have described an “opt out” revolution as young women increasingly turn their backs on the rat-race and choose domestic happiness. But Gilbert is skeptical, noting that such stories rely on anecdote rather than hard data. He does note a drop (8% from 1994 to 2004) in labor-force participation among college-educated women with young children, a drop he thinks may result from social norms shifting back to more traditional patterns. Yet the same period has seen much more dramatic gains in women’s employment: female-owned businesses increased by 20% from 1997 to 2004; by 2004 women made more than their husbands in 33% of two-income families. And, concurrently, by 2002 nearly one in five women in their forties were childless, double the rate of 1976. Given these trends, Gilbert summarizes, “compared to the relatively few Ivy League law graduates who have traded the bar for rocking the cradle,” the real story is that “women are increasingly having fewer children, and a growing proportion of women are choosing not to have children at all.” While the media has been having a field day reporting on a 2% decline in women in the workforce, nobody has noticed that we’ve had an 80% jump in childlessness in a generation. If women are opting out of anything, it’s having and raising children.
Which women choose what and how do they choose? Gilbert describes four types of women, based largely on how many children they have. Traditional mothers (29% of women aged 40-44 in 2002 compared to 59% in 1976) have three or more children and spend a large part of their adult lives as full-time mothers. Middle class women of this type often possess what Sharon Hays has called an ideology of “intensive mothering,” where mothers continuously work with their children and schedule “a stunning array of activities” for them. Homeschooling mothers, though Gilbert doesn’t mention them, might be perhaps the purest form of this type. Lower class mothers often have a more laissez faire approach to parenting, as Annette Lareau has shown.
At the other extreme are postmodern women, or what one study calls “contrasexuals,” who have no children (18% of women aged 40-44 in 2002). Whereas childlessness used to be associated with grinding poverty, today’s childless women “are a highly individualistic, work-centered group,” well-educated, adventurous, confident. They are the women celebrated in Sex and the City.
Between these two extremes are neotraditional women who have two children (35.5% in 2002, a 50% increase since 1976) and modern women who have one (17.5%). These women are typically those who try to “have it all” by raising a family and keeping up with a career. Neotraditional women frequently work part-time but are more invested in their families. For modern women, the reverse is the case. Gilbert offers the usual caveats that a typology like this of course doesn’t capture everyone.
Given this spread from traditional to postmodern, is this what women really want? Gilbert summarizes lots of survey data on this question only to conclude that it’s hard to say. He thinks that to really answer this question we must look at the social context in which women make these choices, a context informed by capitalism, feminism, and social policy. In my next post I’ll summarize his discussion of these issues.