This is my third and final post reviewing Neil Gilbert, A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
In Gilbert’s first section he described the shift over the past several decades away from motherhood and toward paid labor among American women. In the second section he explained how capitalism, feminism, and government policy have all conspired to further this shift. In his third and final section Gilbert provides an alternative to the “male model” of women trying to work and have a family at the same time.
Gilbert begins by summarizing all of the policies put in place by government and private business to help women stay on an even playing field with men in their jobs: “family-friendly” benefits like child care, paid parental leave, and part-time work, as well as efforts to get fathers more involved in domestic duties. While such initiatives have helped loosen “the shackles of traditional gender hierarchy,” they have done so by trying to fit women into the “male model” of continuous employment. In contrast, Gilbert offers here three proposals to help women “have it all–one step at a time.”
First, Gilbert suggests that we pay mothers (or fathers) who wish to stay at home full-time with children age 5 and under. If the country were to go in the direction of universal, government-sponsored childcare, it would turn out to be cheaper to offer parents who opted out of the child care, say, 80% of the going rate as a cash grant so they could raise their own child at home.
Second, Gilbert recommends policies that “smooth the transition” of women (or men) who have spent five, ten, or more years as full-time mothers (or fathers) back into the workforce. Just as veterans who take time out of a career to serve the country are rewarded with benefits, so mothers’ time out to “shape the moral and physical stock of future citizens” ought be rewarded with things like free tuition at colleges and technical schools or preferential points on federal civil-service examinations. Universal health care would also help here.
Finally, Gilbert advocates a shift in social security policy such that credits are shared by married couples rather than accruing only to individuals. This would encourage “fathers and mothers to divide up the work of paid employment and domestic labor according to their talents and personal inclinations, in order to furthur the mutual objectives of family life.” It would also be a lifesaver for women whose husbands divorce them after decades of sacrificial stay-at-home motherhood.
As these three posts have hopefully demonstrated, this is a rich book on one of the most important themes in modern life. I’d like here to make a few points about its connection to the topic of homeschooling.
As my first post noted, Gilbert’s taxonomy of female types provides a good way of naming the sort of woman who frequently is drawn to homeschooling. The “intensive mothering” of the traditional woman reaches its zenith in the homschooling mother. Gilbert notes that this group tends to be the most politically conservative and to have the highest birth rate. While homeschooling mothers are a diverse lot, many of them are some of the most conservative people in America, especially those “Titus 2” mothers who turn homeschooling into an entire world-view involving home businesses, self-made clothing and foodstuffs, “open embrace” marriage and the “quiver full” child rate that follows from it, house church, and much else. Gilbert is not the only one worrying about declines in childbirth and in the status of motherhood. Such concerns have long been a staple in the rhetoric of leaders of the hyper-natalist wing of the homeschooling movement like Bill Gothard and Mary Pride and realized to perfection in the Duggar family with their 17 children (and counting).
But what would this wing of the homeschooling movement think of Gilbert? They would no doubt be shocked to discover that a sociologist at U.C. Berkeley is saying the sort of stuff he does (and that he has four children of his own). And while they’d certainly agree with his indictment of the feminist celebration of paid labor for women, there are two points where his analysis and recommendations would likely meet resistance.
First, one of the hallmarks of this conservative segment of the homeschooling movement is its commitment to free market capitalism. Perhaps this stems from the fact that the modern conservative movement in the United States came of age in the Reagan era when the Cold War was still a dominant force, or perhaps it is part of conservative homeschooling’s nostalgia for Antebellum America when the producer values of early capitalism were more vibrant than the consumer values that dominate today. Whatever the reason, it will be news to many homeschoolers that capitalism itself is part of the problem.
Second, homeschoolers of all stripes tend toward extreme libertarianism on most issues, so Gilbert’s policy recommendations are likely to cause perplexity. If the government began offering checks to mothers for staying at home with their children, would homeschoolers take the money? Or would they stick to their principles that government should stay out of family affairs? I have a feeling that there would be mixed reviews, similar to reactions to virtual charter schools. Many homeschooling leaders excoriate government-sponsored homeschooling, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of homeschoolers from taking the free computers and curriculum.
Would homeschoolers be for government-financed education for mothers seeking to re-enter the workforce after a decade or more of full-time childcare? Again, some would not because of a conviction that women should always work from the home, but many more probably would. And what about sharing social security? This is perhaps the most intriguing of Gilbert’s recommendations and I would love to listen in on a roundtable discussion among homeschoolers discussing the topic. This proposal clearly celebrates the family relationship and partnership over the individualism of modern life, but in so doing it also limits the authority of the male breadwinner. We’re also talking about social security, which is of course one of the great entitlement programs and hence an example of creeping socialism to many conservatives (who nevertheless will no doubt take the check when they hit retirement). Gilbert’s discussion of shared credit also recognizes the reality of divorce and its brutal impact on stay-at-home moms. Again, principles collide here, as many in the natalist wing of the homeschooling movement reject divorce entirely even as the rate of divorce remains high among conservative protestants.
I say all of this only to suggest that Gilbert’s book provides a wealth of information and cogent argumentation in behalf of a revived motherhood that bears striking resemblance to some of the themes that have animated the homeschooling movement. But it does so in ways that many homeschoolers will find provocative. I don’t know exactly how the book’s analysis and recommendations would be received by homeschoolers, but it certainly merits their attention, as it does anyone else intrested in the vexing issue of motherhood and female employment.