The idealized vision of 1950s womanhood that still permeates our politics ignores the fact that staying home may not actually make mothers happy. Unfortunately, there’s no robust feminist ideal to counter it. Instead, we fall back on the language of “choice”: that it’s best if women simply get to choose to work or stay home, as if these choices are inherently equal and made without carrying the cultural baggage of sacrificial American motherhood. Or the fact that inhospitable workplaces and economic constraints mean many women never have a real choice in the matter at all.
That feminists are so often unable or unwilling to make a vigorous moral argument in favor of women working outside the home is perhaps one reason we have not yet seen the political groundswell necessary to pass the workplace policies we so desperately need. This is especially unfortunate, given that women are better off when we work outside the home: Working correlates with better mental and physical health, and working women not only report higher levels of happiness than women who don’t work, but the more hours women work, the happier we are (with the important exception of women who have very small children and work very long hours).
Mothers who work are also good for families: Daughters of working mothers tend to be higher achieving, work themselves, make more money and spend more time with their children than do daughters of women who did not work; men who were raised by working mothers do more household work and help more with child care than sons of stay-at-home moms. And women’s presence in the workplace is good for women in the aggregate: Men who have stay-at-home wives are more likely than men with working wives to penalize their female co-workers, denying them promotions and viewing them unfavorably.
Not working also puts women at risk. Without financial independence, we are more likely to get stuck in abusive or simply unhappy relationships. Although many women who take time off assume they can come back into the work force easily, even a few years off can have a lifelong impact on earnings.
Lawmakers know all of this. They also know that refusing to provide paid parental leave, adequate sick days and affordable child care means women are routinely forced out of the workplace — women don’t choose to opt out, they’re pushed. Politicians make this choice and then claim it’s women who are free to do the choosing.
Jill Filipovic, “What Women Get From Work”, The New York Times (30 April 2017), SR2.