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International Socialist Review Issue 38, November—December 2004

Turning Back the Clock?
Women, Work and Family Today


THIRTY-FIVE years ago, the women’s liberation movement raised the hopes and expectations of a generation of women. This movement challenged the prevailing notion that women were supposed to spend their entire lives engaged in housework and raising children. It demanded equal pay for women in the workplace, publicly funded child care, and the legalization of abortion.

It challenged sexist stereotypes of women and the ideal of the traditional nuclear family, which often tied women to abusive or oppressive relationships. While the Ozzie and Harriet myth of the nuclear family—with a male breadwinner and stay-at-home mother—never really existed for many working-class Americans, the women’s liberation movement altered people’s ideas about the role of women in society on a mass scale.

Today, both the ideological and the material gains of the women’s movement have come under a sustained attack. This backlash has its roots in the assault on working-class people over the last three decades. The intent of this class attack has been two-fold: to roll back the social gains of the late 1960s and early 1970s and to transfer wealth upward. This has meant a gutting of working-class living standards at the same time as the social safety net has been systematically shredded.

The backlash against the gains of the women’s movement has mirrored these two trends. On an ideological level, a right-wing "family values" agenda has reversed the most basic assumptions of the women’s movement about the nuclear family and women’s role within it. On an economic level, working-class women and children have been subjected to a devastating series of attacks, while more and more responsibility for children’s welfare has been placed on individual families.

Unfortunately, the largest and most established feminist organizations have failed to respond effectively to the escalating attacks on women. In fact, "post-feminism" has eclipsed the struggle for women’s rights in the media and general public. While a coalition of women’s organizations showed promise in calling a March for Women’s Lives in April 2004, it squandered the opportunity for reigniting a fighting movement by directing the efforts of the million participants into a voter mobilization campaign.

While the media has touted the importance of the "women’s vote" in the 2004 elections, real women’s issues have remained sidelined. When polls in late September 2004 showed Democratic candidate John Kerry losing his lead with women, his response was to appear on the morning show "Live with Regis and Kelly."1 While the politicians and pundits focused on "security moms," a term invented to describe women who lean toward Bush because they think he’s strong on terrorism, a CBS/New York Times poll showed that only 6 percent of voters considered terrorism a top issue. The economy and jobs (24 percent), the war in Iraq (17 percent), and health care (16 percent) remained the top concerns of voters.2

Neither the candidates nor the media have called attention to the most pressing issues facing the majority of women today: the assault on abortion rights; lack of access to affordable and quality child care; the lack of social supports for poor women and their children; non-existent or inadequate health care; and the continuing wage gap—to name just a few. And the mainstream women’s rights organizations have failed to challenge this narrow framework. Thus, the prevailing media image of women today is that of a white suburban mom in a minivan whose top concern is "national security."

There is an urgent need to discuss the real state of women and their families today. But the traditional women’s organizations are either unwilling or unable to take up the challenge. For millions, the promises of the women’s liberation movement have failed to materialize, and the language and politics of feminism have been unable to explain the gap. The aim of this article is to show how the ideological backlash against the gains of the women’s movement has accompanied a material assault on women and children; to examine the reality of women and the family today; to offer an explanation of why the women’s movement failed to deliver for the majority of women; and to argue what it would take to win genuine liberation today.

Restoring the family

The main ideological aim of the backlash has been to reassert the centrality of the traditional nuclear family. This has meant undermining many of the most basic ideas of the women’s movement: that women should be able to freely leave unhappy marriages; that women can combine work and family; that a woman’s right to control her own body is fundamental to equality.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is President George W. Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, which seeks to promote marriage among low-income families.3 The current House of Representatives’ welfare reauthorization bill earmarks $1.5 billion of funds for poor women and children to be diverted into this program.4 Diverting $1.5 billion in desperately needed funds from the welfare system to educate heterosexuals in marriage skills, while simultaneously opposing the right of gays and lesbians to marry, exemplifies the hypocrisy of the family values agenda.

Family values advocates place most of the blame for social ills on the breakdown of the nuclear family. Childhood poverty is blamed on single mothers. School shootings are explained by the phenomenon of "latchkey kids" whose mothers put paid work ahead of parenting. Declining test scores are not attributed to reduced school funding and overcrowded classrooms, but parents who do not spend enough time helping children with their homework.

While conservatives often couch their proposals in soft and "compassionate" language, the actual policies they advocate are reactionary. They aim to repeal no-fault divorce laws, re-stigmatize single motherhood, and take away women’s right to control their own bodies. Because conservatives consider the restoration of the traditional nuclear family as the primary goal, they often oppose measures that would actually improve families’ lives, such as child care funding or paid maternity leave. As a member of the conservative Family Research Council put it: "Providing child care is a distraction from our main goal of helping married women stay home to raise their kids. If you make it easier for mothers to have careers, you also reward divorce and illegitimacy."5

Opt-out revolution?

While the Christian Right has long championed the return of the traditional family, today the media is busy trying to sell the idea of a "post-feminist" revolution in women’s attitudes toward work and family. The pundits of post-feminism argue that women have achieved equality and are now suffering from an excess of liberation. They would like us to believe that the daughters of the Gloria Steinem generation are abandoning the workplace to dedicate themselves to the more fulfilling realm of home and family.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of articles, news stories, and books heralding this supposed phenomenon. An article that ran in the New York Times Magazine in October 2003 is typical. Titled "The Opt-Out Revolution," the story ran on the front cover of the magazine with the provocative statement: "Why don’t women run the world? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to."6

In the article, Lisa Belkin, the Times’ life-work correspondent, examines a small group of Yale and Princeton graduates who have chosen to leave behind the corporate world to stay home with their children. From this small and unrepresentative sampling, she concludes that there is a significant trend of women choosing to become stay-at-home mothers. She paints this not as a return to traditional values but as the new wave in feminism: "This is not the failure of a revolution, but the start of a new one."7

Yet many of the sentiments expressed in the article are a throwback to the 1950s. For example, a large proportion of her story is devoted to the idea that women are biologically conditioned to play a nurturing and child-rearing role. She claims that much of the conversation among women today is "not about how the workplace is unfair to women, but about how the relationship between work and life is different for women than for men." She quotes one mother saying, "I think some of us are swinging to a place where we enjoy, and can admit we enjoy, the stereotypical role of female/mother/caregiver. I think we were born with those feelings."8

In addition, this group of privileged women shuns any connection to an actual movement for women’s equality. In the words of one woman: "I don’t want to take on the mantle of all womanhood and fight a fight for some sister who isn’t really my sister because I don’t even know her."9

Just a few months after the Belkin story, Time magazine ran a similar article on its cover called "The Case for Staying Home." Reading through the article, one discovers a story of long work hours necessary to make ends meet, inflexible workplace policies, and enormous societal pressure on mothers. However, the conclusion the editors chose to run on the front page was: "Caught between the pressures of the workplace and the demands of being a mom, more women are sticking with the kids."10 In the climate of post-feminist family values, a story that might have been an opportunity to expose the difficult demands of the workplace becomes another argument for women returning home.

Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, the authors of the book The Mommy Myth, refer to "the new momism." They describe how the media has created an unattainable ideal of the mother who can "do it all"—while removing the social supports (welfare, child care funding, preschool education, etc.) that working mothers so desperately need. This has left women to conclude that, if they are unable to successfully manage the multiple demands of paid work, housework, and child care, it is their own personal failure. Women who work are fed heavy doses of guilt as news stories about bad day care, latchkey kids, and the dangers of "detached parenting" fill the airwaves.

The authors show how the ideas of women’s liberation have been turned on their head by this campaign:

The mythology of the new momism now insinuates that, when all is said and done, the enlightened mother chooses to stay home with the kids. Back in the 1950s, mothers stayed home because they had no choice, so the thinking goes. Today, having been to the office, having tried a career, women supposedly have seen the inside of the male working world and found it to be the inferior choice to staying home, especially when their kids’ future is at stake. It’s not that mothers can’t hack it (1950s thinking). It’s that progressive mothers refuse to hack it. Inexperienced women thought they knew what they wanted, but they got experience and learned they were wrong. Now mothers have seen the error of their ways, and supposedly seen that the June Cleaver model, if taken as a choice, as opposed to a requirement, is the truly modern, fulfilling, forward-thinking version of motherhood.11

The intent of all of this is to convince us that the institutional barriers that women faced in the past have been broken down (or at least mitigated) and replaced by a set of individual choices that they may pursue. As one woman put it, "Women today, if we think about feminism at all, we see it as a battle fought for ‘the choice.’ For us, the freedom to choose work if we want to work is the feminist strain in our lives." The value of this notion to employers and politicians cannot be underestimated. It allows them to reframe the question of women’s equality as one of personal achievement, rather than institutional change.

The main problem with the theory of women’s recent return to the home is that it’s simply not true. There is no sign of a mass exodus of women from the paid workforce. In fact women, including mothers, are doing the opposite; they are working longer and harder than ever before. In 2003, 78 percent of women with school-aged children, 59 percent of women with children under the age of five and 54 percent of women with infants worked for pay.12

Clearly, women are not heading home—and for a very simple reason. Far from the idea that women working outside the home for pay is a matter of individual preference, most women work because they must. In an era of increasing job insecurity and economic precariousness, 30 percent of working women make all or almost all of their family’s income, and 60 percent earn half or more of their family’s income.13 Women’s wages are not pocket change or disposable earnings that could be done without if only families would eat at home as some of the back-to-home crusaders argue. Women’s wages have become increasingly crucial to families’ ability to stay afloat.

In fact, the common problem with both the right-wing family values advocates and the pundits of the post-feminist revolution is that neither speaks to the actual reality of the majority of real women and children’s lives. The family values crusaders may long for a return to the traditional family, but that family, to the extent that it ever existed, no longer does. Only 9 percent of people today live in the traditional nuclear family of two married parents with a wage-earning father and full-time mother.14 The trend is toward a greater diversity of families. Today, families may be headed by a gay couple, a single mother, an unmarried couple, or a combination of biological and stepparents. Despite the media-induced anxiety about unwed mothers, divorce, and gay marriage, 90 percent of people, when polled, say society should value "all types of families."15

The role of the family under capitalism

If the family-values rhetoric is out of step with the vast majority of people’s lives, then why does the traditional family ideal survive? If one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, why do people keep trying? And why do politicians, writers, and policy-makers continue to focus their efforts on shoring up this institution? As family therapist Betty Carter put it, "If any other institution in this country was failing half the people who entered it, we’d demand that the institution change to fit people’s new needs, not the other way around."16

It is necessary to distinguish between the family as a social unit and the nuclear family as an economic unit. The family as a social unit functions as a source of comfort and refuge in an often difficult or hostile world. In any society, people are bound to seek living situations that provide this sort of emotional bonding. Many families do provide this kind of support, even today. But many other families are a source of tension, anger, and alienation. Furthermore, under capitalism, the family ideal is defined to require two heterosexual parents and their children—a social unit that props up the nuclear family’s economic function in capitalist society.

The institution of the nuclear family as an economic unit is central to meeting the needs of capitalism. Under the current system, employers pay workers a wage, but take no responsibility for most of the social costs of maintaining the current generation of workers—or for raising the next generation of workers into adulthood. Rather than these responsibilities being shared collectively by society as whole through government programs—paid for by taxing the profits of the private enterprises that employ workers—they are shouldered by individual families. And within the family, it is primarily women who are expected to perform the unpaid domestic labor of raising children, cooking, housework, and primary health care.

Capitalism now relies on the unpaid labor of women within the home. In 1995, the UN Development Program reported that women’s unpaid and underpaid labor (annually) represented $11 trillion worldwide and $1.4 trillion in the United States alone.17 This is obviously a price that individual bosses and governments aren’t willing to pay. So the nuclear family requires the continuing oppression of women—and the ideology of the traditional family helps to justify it.

While the Christian Right has a very specific and reactionary agenda, it is not the case that most politicians want women to return home and leave the workforce. Women today are a necessary and permanent part of the labor force, and their income has become critical to even a minimal maintenance of living standards for working-class households. While wages have stagnated over the last thirty years, women’s work has helped to fill the gap.

However, the politicians do benefit enormously from the family values backlash. Society is built around the assumption that households are organized around a male breadwinner and female full-time homemaker—even if this is no longer (if it ever was) true for working-class families. This assumption justifies the double burden of labor women workers face daily. Even though women now participate in the labor force on a mass scale, because of the "privatized" nature of the family and women’s oppression, they return home to face a "second shift" of household labor. Women’s role inside the nuclear family also serves to justify everything from lower wages for women to the lack of funding for child care and other social services.

This is why politicians of all stripes embrace the family values rhetoric even as they institute policies that undermine the family itself. It is the great contradiction of capitalism: it elevates the family to the central organizing principle of social life and yet its tendency to increase working hours, destroy leisure time, and draw increasing numbers of the population into the workforce all tend to pull those families apart. It is not accidental that the Christian Right’s proposals to restore the stability of the family are designed to ensure that individuals see their inability to succeed within the norm as a personal failure rather than what it really is: the bankruptcy of a system that forces people into a form of social organization that cannot adequately fulfill their needs.

Women and the family today

The institution of the nuclear family is increasingly important today. As privatization, layoffs, and the shredding of the social safety net have become facts of life, the pressure on individual families, and particularly women within them, has become immense. Far from women’s oppression being a thing of the past, it has deepened as the overall ruling-class offensive has gained momentum, lowering wages and living standards on a mass scale.

Women still earn only $.76 to a man’s dollar. This figure, reported by the Census Bureau for 2003, represents a 1.4 percent decline in women’s wages and is the first statistically significant decline since 1995.18 While the wage gap has narrowed over the last thirty years, 59 percent of that is due to men’s falling wages rather than rising wages for women.19 However, even these figures do not fully account for the wage gap. When economists examined the long-term earnings gap between mean and women, the results were even more stark. In a study of average men and women’s wages over a fifteen-year period from 1983 to 1998, women earned $274,000 while men earned $723,000.20 In other words, taken over fifteen prime working years, women averaged $.38 for a man’s dollar. This study more accurately measures the impact of women’s oppression because it takes into account the cumulative effect on women’s earnings from having to balance work and family.

These statistics highlight a key problem in our society: The lack of government-guaranteed protections for women with children ensures that women pay a heavy price for raising children. For example, the United States is one of only two Western industrialized nations with no system of paid parental leave or subsidized child care. In twenty-nine of the most advanced industrialized countries, paid parental leave averaged one-and-a-half years with the average leave lasting thirty-six weeks.21

The comparison with the situation faced by new mothers in this country is stunning. When the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed in 1993, it was the first legislation of any kind that even guaranteed unpaid leave. It offers a mere twelve weeks of unpaid leave, and 45 percent of private businesses aren’t even covered by it.22 But many women who are covered by FMLA cannot afford to take unpaid time off. According to the FMLA’s statistics, there were 3.5 million workers in the year 2000 alone that had access to unpaid leave but couldn’t take it. Of those, 77 percent cited lack of money as the reason and another one-third said they feared they would lose their jobs. Hourly workers and divorced and single women were disproportionately represented among those not able to take advantage of unpaid leave.23

Wave after wave of recession and decades of attacks on living standards have taken their toll on the incomes of working-class families, while every cutback in basic social services has corresponded to a new demand that the individual family take on more responsibility.

One example among many is the public education system. Decades of funding cuts have created overcrowded classrooms and overworked and underpaid teachers. In this context, families have been asked to fill the gap. Parents are now forced to pay for school supplies and other items once covered by the government. Parents are asked to spend more time doing homework with their children each night; they and their children are drafted into time-consuming fundraising committees to raise money to fill in the gap in school funding. And parents are pressured to volunteer in the classroom in addition to their paid work responsibilities. Those parents, usually working mothers, who cannot commit to such activities are considered unconcerned with their children’s welfare and blamed for falling test scores.

This is particularly galling because it comes at a time when women are working longer than ever and struggling to stay afloat. Women are concentrated in low-wage industries and part-time work. They make up 60 percent of minimum-wage workers, and are also the most vulnerable when jobs are cut or health care disasters strike. Most states do not provide unemployment benefits for part-time workers, while women make up two-thirds of the part-time workforce. The unemployment rate as of 2002 was 8.3 percent for female heads of households. And between one-quarter and one-half of women earning less than $40,000 a year lacked basic benefits.24

The statistics on women and children in poverty are staggering:

Of all female-headed households in the U.S., 30 percent live in poverty.25

• More than one-third of all children and 40 percent of children under five live in low-income families—defined as double the poverty rate. One in five children are growing up beneath the poverty level and 42 percent of those are living in extreme poverty—defined in 1998 as less than $6,500/year for a family of three.26

• One in seven children have no health insurance despite the fact that 90 percent of these children have working parents.27

• One out of every six households with children are food insecure and thirteen million children don’t know where their next meal is coming from.28

• Within any given year, 30 percent of near-poor families experience at least one critical hardship (missing meals, eviction, inability to find housing, lack of necessary health care) and 72 percent of near-poor families experience at least one serious hardship (missed rent or mortgage payments, reliance on the emergency room for basic medical care, inadequate child care arrangements).29

• Families with children make up nearly 40 percent of the homeless population.30

Politicians often assign the blame for these statistics to poor women themselves. Myths are peddled about poor women being lazy and irresponsible, lacking a strong work ethic, or not caring about their children. While these myths have helped to fuel the attack on poor women and children, the numbers speak a very different story. Eighty-four percent of all low-income children have a parent who works part- or full-time.31 Far from being lazy, families with children are struggling to provide the best care possible for their children under enormously difficult circumstances. They are paying a heavy price in lost sleep, reduced time with their partners and children, and difficult hours.

Four in ten working women work evenings, nights, and weekends on a regular basis. The figure is 61 percent for African American women and 53 percent for Latinas. One-third of these women work different shifts from their partners. Sixty-three percent of women work more than forty hours per week.32 It’s no wonder that 82 percent of parents (both women and men) report feeling "used up at the end of the day."33 Not only does this create tremendous stress for working families, it also points to the other major crisis affecting women and their children: the child care crisis.

Despite the fact that a strong majority of women with young children work, child care provisions in the U.S. are disastrous. Full-time private child care costs between $4,000 and $10,000 per year. For families with children, child care costs are the third largest expenditure after housing and food. Publicly funded child care is almost non-existent. Only 10 percent of eligible children nationally receive assistance. And because child care is organized on the basis of profit, the child care workers themselves are dreadfully underpaid. Child care providers earn an average of $15,000 a year, and one-third lack health insurance. Because of these conditions, one-third of these workers leave their centers each year.34

The lack of affordable child care has left working-class families in a bind. Many patch together fragile networks of arrangements involving friends, neighbors, and split shifts with partners. Any disruption in these arrangements can spell disaster for a family. In addition to the job insecurity such situations can create, women also worry about the standard of care their children receive. The media has seized on this insecurity by dramatically highlighting stories of inadequate or abusive day care providers. Researchers and politicians have produced numerous studies claiming that children in day care suffer from an inability to form attachments with their mothers and thus are prone to everything from bullying to depression.35

These stories prey on the very real fears that women have about their children’s care. Too much child care is substandard, and women often have to make difficult choices about where to leave their children while at work. However, the media focus on the dangers of day care ignores the research showing that quality child care can actually have a positive effect on children’s development. For example, one of the largest studies conducted over five years found that children’s attachment to their mothers is not affected by whether or not they are in day care, at what age they enter, or how many hours they spend there. One researcher has found that the social and intellectual development of children in day care is six to nine months ahead of children who stay at home. These gains are particularly great for poor children who participate in early childhood programs.36 By downplaying the potentially positive effects of day care, the media shifts the discussion away from how society could help to provide quality day care to one of how individual parents should be wary. The result is that parents (especially mothers) feel guilty while government is left off the hook.

War on poor women

Women today are told that if they cannot provide for their families, it is their own fault. Nothing has helped to ideologically cement this idea, while throwing more women and children into poverty, as much as the Welfare Reform and Personal Responsibility Act passed under Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996. Welfare, won out of struggle in the 1930s and extended through struggles in the 1960s, had provided a safety net to poor women and their children for decades. But throughout the 1980s it became a consistent target of the right wing.

The war on welfare, begun during Reagan’s presidency, relied on stereotypes and the demonization of poor women. To listen to the politicians or media, one would believe that women on welfare were all Black, refused to work, were trapped in a culture of poverty, and came from generations of welfare moms. In fact, the vast majority of women on welfare were white. And far from being lazy, most mothers on welfare were forced to spend hours each day in humiliating visits to caseworkers, food stamp offices, public health centers, and other offices just to keep their families in the system and afloat. Nothing is more time-consuming than raising children in poverty.

If Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. had tried to eliminate welfare altogether, however, they would have faced massive opposition. Yet, with virtual silence from most liberal organizations, Democrat Bill Clinton was able to sell welfare reform as an empowering act that would encourage "personal responsibility." With two former welfare recipients at his side, Clinton signed a bill that would consign millions of poor women and their children to increased hardship. This bill required that women work in exchange for benefits (workfare) and imposed strict time limits, including a lifetime limit of five years. It converted guaranteed funds from the federal government into "block grants" that left specific provisions for spending on child care and other supports to the states.

Today, the "end of welfare as we know it" is praised as a success across the political spectrum. Indeed, welfare rolls have been dramatically cut over the last eight years. However, this doesn’t mean that former welfare recipients have acquired stable, well-paying jobs and quality child care arrangements. It means that more mothers are struggling to survive the new rules on jobs that still don’t pay enough to lift their families out of poverty. Many of those struggling to deal with the new limitations are barely keeping their heads above water.

Mothers who have moved from welfare to work are most vulnerable to a contracting economy and risk further poverty. The full impact of welfare reform is now beginning to be fully felt as more women reach their lifetime limits in a contracted job market. The last four years have begun to show the cost of eliminating the social safety net. Between 2000 and 2002, unemployment for single mothers rose by 2 percentage points. And while 50 percent of those leaving welfare obtained jobs in the stronger economy of 1999, only 42 percent of those leaving welfare in 2002 found employment. During this period, child poverty has risen while welfare rolls have declined. This means that more and more women and their children are being left behind while poverty, unemployment, and low wages are rising.37

Rather than prompting a reexamination of the disastrous consequences of welfare reform, the Bush administration’s proposals went even farther in eliminating child care subsidies and increasing work rules. Under Bush’s proposed plan, women would have to work forty hours a week to receive benefits. While the politicians claim that women gain pride and self-esteem from getting off welfare, the reality is far more painful and tenuous. In fact, beneath the compassionate conservative rhetoric, women have become the target of increasingly punitive policies that scapegoat the actual victims of this war on the poor.

For example, a child welfare system that is supposed to assist families and protect children, more often punishes women who fall victim to poverty. In New York City, women who lose their homes often end up putting their children into foster care. But they are unable to obtain housing assistance if they do not have custody of their children and often have to prove that they have stable housing before they can get custody. This Catch-22 ends up tearing families apart, not because of abuse or real neglect, but because of poverty.

Welfare reform has accelerated this process in many places. Take the case of a woman in Athens, Georgia who was forced into a mandatory welfare-to-work program. She couldn’t find day care for her children, so she hid them in a grocery cart where she worked, while checking on them frequently and feeding them. Eventually she was discovered. Rather than releasing her from her work assignment or assisting her to find child care, the state took her children away and put them in foster care.

While women struggle to hold their families together, new policies have been designed that make it easier to take children away from their mothers. In 1997, Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which stipulates that women whose children are in foster care for fifteen of twenty-two months have their parental rights terminated. Women who are working to get on their feet and get housing or recover from drug addiction risk losing their children if they cannot gain custody within fifteen months. While these policies are couched in pro-children terms, they evade any real responsibility for ensuring that women and their children are able to have their needs met. And these policies disproportionately affect Black and Latina women who are stigmatized as "bad mothers."

These policies have had the most impact on the female prison population. Since 1986, female incarceration has increased 400 percent overall, and 800 percent for African-American women. Women are now the fastest growing part of the prison population, with over 200,000 in prison and more than one million in the criminal justice system overall. More than 75 percent of these women have dependent children and more than 50 percent of those in prison never see their children while incarcerated.38

The child welfare system and the increasing incarceration of women are two examples of the trend toward criminalizing poor women who fall through the cracks of the system. Nothing exemplifies this trend more than the story of one woman who had recently moved from welfare to work. On October 12, 2003, Kim Brathwaite—a single mother from Brooklyn—had to make an agonizing decision. Her babysitter hadn’t shown up by the time that she needed to leave for her twelve-hour night shift at McDonald’s—so she had to decide whether to stay home and risk losing her family’s only source of income, or leave her nine-year-old and nineteen-month-old children home alone. It is a choice that thousands of parents have to make all the time. But on that night, there was a fire in Kim’s apartment, and her two children died. The district attorney decided to charge her with reckless endangerment of her children with a possible jail sentence of sixteen years.39

Just one month earlier, a Connecticut woman, Judith Scruggs, had been convicted of criminal negligence in the case of her twelve-year-old son’s suicide. Her son had been mercilessly bullied at school and received little support from the administration. Judith—who worked seventy hours a week at her two jobs as a teacher’s aide and at Wal-Mart—repeatedly sought help for her son. Nevertheless, the prosecution argued that her dirty house was a contributing factor in the suicide.40

These cases highlight the "blame the victim" policies that have come to dominate any discussion of women, children, and poverty in our society. But the destruction of welfare and the attacks on poor mothers are not simply about demonizing the women at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. They have targeted the poorest women and their children, while also shifting the public debate around the family as a whole. Not just welfare mothers, but all women, are told that if they are falling behind it is their fault. The attack on poor women has served an ideological role in opening up the space for an attack on working women as a whole.

Do women buy the backlash?

When family values rhetoric or the ideas of post-feminism are set against the material reality of women’s lives today, they seem not only painfully inadequate but also dangerous. They are dangerous because they shift the debate away from any acknowledgement of women’s oppression. In fact, the post-feminists argue that women’s oppression is a thing of the past and now the battle is one of individual choice and fulfillment. In this scenario, the greatest problems faced by women are not pay inequity, lack of child care, institutionalized sexism, or poverty, but the price of success paid by professional women.

The ideas of the backlash are widespread, and their effects have been pernicious. But a key question to ask is to what extent women have accepted them. Have women turned their backs on the aspirations of the women’s liberation movement? The answer is complicated and points to the contradictions of women’s lives today.

Although most people reject the most right-wing proposals of the Christian Right, many of the ideas of the family values advocates and the back-to-home brigade have become common sense. We are surrounded constantly with the idea that divorce harms children, that parents are not spending enough time with their kids, that daycare is detrimental, that mothers are the key to children’s development, and on and on. In the midst of this barrage, people’s experiences and hopes clash with the ideology they are fed.

For example, in one survey, 70 percent of the public said that they felt one parent at home is the best child care arrangement for children.41 However, two-thirds of people said that this is not realistic.42 More importantly, 46 percent said that it is a positive development that women with kids work outside the home, while 70 percent disagree with the statement that women should return to their traditional roles in society.43 These responses reflect the extent to which people have accepted the idea that children need their mothers at home; however, they are not willing to send women back to the home.

Some of the myths around daycare or divorce have had an impact on popular attitudes. The media and politicians have made women feel more guilty and anxious. The unapologetic demands of the women’s liberation movement have been overtaken by a culture of moralism that places women’s needs last.

Women are not leaving the workforce in droves, but many do express anxiety about long working hours and inadequate child care arrangements. But this does not indicate that we have reached a post-feminist age or that women are rejecting the idea of paid work in and of itself. Instead, it indicates the contradictions of women’s lives today and the limitations of many of the gains of the women’s liberation movement. To understand these contradictions it is important to look at what the women’s movement did and did not accomplish.

The women’s liberation movement in the U.S. grew out of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s—and also as a response to profound forces changing many women’s lives, particularly the rapid rate of women entering the workforce. Although the active leadership of the movement was small and mostly middle-class, the ideas of the movement had an impact far beyond its organized participants. Millions of women began to change their ideas about themselves and their role in society and became more confident to speak out on a whole range of issues. In the early 1970s, the movement fought for working-class demands such as child care, equal pay, and abortion rights—gaining the support of large numbers of women. The women’s liberation movement and the entry of women into the workforce on a mass scale, have had a lasting effect on American society. At the same time, middle and upper-class women benefited the most from the gains of the movement. Today, large numbers of women have become middle-class professionals—doctors, lawyers, and engineers—achieving success that their grandmothers could never have dreamed of. Much smaller numbers of women have broken through to the still mostly male top levels of management; they are partners in law firms; they are in Congress; and even shape foreign policy in the White House. These are the women who can afford to pay for hired help to manage some of the most burdensome aspects of housework and child care. In short, they can buy themselves out of the worst aspects of women’s oppression. In fact, many of these women have directly benefited from the class assault that has destroyed the lives of so many women and children.

One of the most notable legacies of the feminist movement is the growing class divide between a small layer of privileged women for whom liberation is now a matter of personal choice and the vast majority of women who have seen their living standards decline and personal opportunities constrict. Feminists fought for legal equality with men, but had no strategy for fighting for full social and economic equality.

For most working-class women, the legacy of the women’s movement is highly contradictory. While the movement raised the expectations and hopes of millions of women, the reality of capitalism meant that it could not deliver on those promises. The reality of women’s oppression, rooted in capitalism’s need for the unpaid labor of women in the home, meant that women faced additional pressures. Now, in addition to raising the children and keeping the house, women are expected to work outside the home as well and support their families. And this is in conditions that are getting harder rather than easier.

But when women express anxiety about working or wanting more time with their families, they are not longing for a return to the days of Ozzie and Harriet. They are responding to the very real pressures of Corporate America. American families are working two months longer than they did twenty years ago and are earning less doing it. They are mortgaging their homes to pay health care bills and putting Christmas presents on their credit cards. It’s no wonder that people want to turn their backs on Corporate America—both its values and its demands. And not only women feel this way. Seventy percent of men in their twenties and thirties say they would take a job that paid less in order to spend more time with their families.44

The family values advocates prey on these anxieties, fears, and pressures. They argue that if everyone simply embraced the nuclear family and returned to an idealized simpler time, circa 1950, then these contradictions would disappear. However, restoring the traditional nuclear family and sending women home is neither desirable nor possible in today’s world.

Two-thirds of all divorce suits are initiated by women.45 Despite the material loss most women face after a divorce, they continue to fight for some measure of personal happiness and fulfillment. Despite the stresses of working and raising children, the fact that women work outside the home and the weakening of the traditional nuclear family are steps forward for women. While some middle-class professionals now idealize stay-at-home motherhood, for most working-class women it often means a cramped existence. While middle-class women have access to babysitters, "mommy and me" classes, and cultural enrichment activities, most working-class women who stay at home are struggling to make up for lost wages and find themselves with little actual leisure time. These women often lose the workplace networks that keep them connected to a wider world beyond the home.

And the fact that women now contribute to the family income has given them increased leverage within their households. Women who bring home a paycheck are able to influence purchasing decisions and often negotiate higher rates of housework and child care from their partners. And, of course, the ability of a woman to financially support herself gives her the option to walk away from an unhappy relationship. While women suffer a double burden of household and paid work, majorities say they would continue to work even if money were no object.

Sociologist Lillian Rubin’s study of working-class families revealed both the apprehension many men and women feel about women working, but also the increased sense of satisfaction many women derived from it. One woman, a mother of three who Rubin interviewed, poignantly expressed what it meant for her to go to work:

I started to work because I had to. My husband got hurt on the job and the bills started piling up, so I had to do something. I didn’t imagine how much I’d enjoy going to work in the morning. I mean, I love my kids and all that, but let’s face it, being mom can get pretty stale. I mean, it’s wonderful and I know it’s better if I’m home when they come home from school. The kids are great. But going to work, that’s like another reason to live. Since I went to work I’m more interested in life and life’s more interested in me.46

The battle ahead

Women do not only gain a wider personal scope by leaving the home; they also become a part of a working class with potential collective power. This country has a rich tradition of working women’s struggles. Today, the fact that women comprise half the workforce in the United States means that they are in a position to fight alongside working-class men for higher wages and better working conditions. In fact, women have been at the forefront of some of the most significant labor battles in recent years—such as those of daycare workers, grocery workers, nurses, and janitors.

Those who want to turn back the clock also want to reverse all of the gains that women have made in the past thirty-five years. They want to restore the nuclear family at the cost of women’s lives. While some women do accept some of the family values ideology, few would be willing to give up what would be necessary to truly restore the nuclear family. Katha Pollitt has argued that to accomplish this, "we’d have to bring back the whole nineteenth century: Restore the cult of virginity and the double standard, ban birth control, restrict divorce, kick women out of decent jobs, force unwed pregnant women to put their babies up for adoption on pain of social death, make out-of-wedlock children legal nonpersons. That’s not going to happen."47

The family values crusaders cannot turn back the clock and cannot address the needs of women and their families today. But reversing the backlash requires more than exposing the myths of the family values crusaders. It is not enough to simply defend the gains of the women’s movement. We must also ask why that movement has not been able to deliver for the vast majority of women and offer an alternative strategy for achieving liberation.

Women’s lives have changed in permanent and profound ways over the last four decades. However, capitalism’s need for the privatized family continues to shape and justify women’s oppression. While women have escaped some of the most oppressive roles of the past, they have also taken on new burdens. Sexism and women’s oppression have found new forms. This is why it is not enough to fight simply for legal equality—as important as these reforms are. As long as women are expected to shoulder the primary burdens of housework and child care, they can never hope to be equal. To achieve full liberation, we must build a movement that challenges the system that relies on women’s oppression.

We live in a society with the capability to provide for the needs of all. Today we have the technological ability for women to be able to make their own reproductive choices about when and if to have children. As a society, we have the wealth to provide adequately for those children and to provide the opportunities for all women that only a minority of women can now enjoy. But we also live in a society that cannot deliver on that promise and deprives the vast majority of people, men and women, control over the most basic aspects of their lives. That is why if we want to be able to achieve real equality and freedom, we need to fight for a different kind of society—a socialist society—and working-class women can and will be at the forefront of that struggle.

Jen Roesch is a member of the International Socialist Organization in New York City.

1 CBS/New York Times Poll, September 17, 2004, available online at

2 Ibid. For samples of the news coverage of "security moms" and Kerry’s decline among women, see "Kerry in a Struggle for a Democratic Base," New York Times, September 22, 2004; "Female Support for Kerry Slips," Washington Post, September 23, 2004; "Terror Concerns Move More Women into Bush Camp," San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 2004.

3 Robert Pear and David Kirkpatrick, "Bush Plans $1.5 Billion Drive for Promotion of Marriage," New York Times, January 14, 2004.

4 For a description of the different proposals, see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities fact sheet, available online at

5 Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families (New York: Perseus Books, 1997), 72.

6 Lisa Belkin, "Opt-Out Revolution," New York Times Magazine, October 26, 2003.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Claudia Walls, "The Case for Staying Home," Time, March 22, 2004.

11 Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2004), 23.

12 "Employment Characteristics of Families, Tables 4, 5 and 6," 2002—2003, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, available online at:

13 "Ask A Working Woman Survey Report," 2004, AFL-CIO, available online at

14 Cited in Sharon Smith, "Abortion Is Every Woman’s Right," Socialist Worker, April 23, 2004.

15 Cited in Coontz, 94.

16 Ibid., 72.

17 Randy Albelda, "Under the Margins: Feminist Economists Look at Gender and Poverty," Dollars & Sense, September/October 2002.

18 Cited in "Wage Gap Increases Between Women and Men, U.S. Census Reports," Feminist Daily News Wire, September 2, 2004, available online at

19 "The Facts on Pay Equity," International Wages for Housework Campaign Fact Sheet, available online at http://www.payequity._net/factsheet/factsheet.htm.

20 Stephen J. Rose and Heidi I. Hartmann, "Still A Man’s Labor Market: The Long-Term Earnings Gap," a report of a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, June 2004, available online at

21 "Mother’s Day: More Than Candy And Flowers, Working Parents Need Paid Time-Off," The Clearinghouse on International Developments in Child, Youth & Family Policies Issue Brief, Spring 2002, available online at

22 "Paid Family and Medical Leave: Supporting Women’s Families in Illinois," Testimony of Vicky Lovell, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Before the Illinois General Assembly. Published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and available online at percent20testimony percent209-00.pdf

23 "Balancing the Needs of Families and Employers: The Family Medical Leave Surveys 2000 Update," U.S. Department of Labor Report, available online at

24 "Ask A Working Woman Survey Report," AFL-CIO, 2004, available online at

25 Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Robert J. Mills, "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2003," U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, 60—226, August 2004, available online at

26 "Low Income Children in the United States (2004)." National Center for Children in Poverty Fact Sheet, available online at

27 DeNavas-Walt et al., 19.

28 "Food Insecurity and Hunger in the United States, 2002," Center on Hunger and Poverty Fact Sheet, available online at

29 Heather Boushey, Chauna Brocht, Bethney Gunderson, and Jared Bernstein, "Hardship in America: The Real Story of Working Families," Economic Policy Institute, 2001, introduction available online at

30 "Homeless Families With Children," National Coalition for the Homeless Fact Sheet #7, June 2001, available online at

31 "Parental Employment in Low-Income Families (2004)," _National Center for Children in Poverty, available online at

32 "Ask A Working Woman Survey Report."

33 Ibid.

34 National Council of Women’s Organizations Child Care Task Force, available online at

35 For an excellent discussion of the media scares around child care in the United States, see Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, 236—68.

36 Coontz, 67.

37 Shawn Fremstad, "Falling TANF Caseloads Amid Rising Poverty Should Be a Cause of Concern," Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, September 5, 2003, available online at

38 Ann Farmer, "Mothers in Prison Losing All Parental Rights," Women’s eNews, June 21, 2002, available online at

39 Nina Bernstein, "Daily Choice Turned Deadly: Children Left On Their Own," New York Times, October 19, 2003.

40 "Blaming the Mother," Boston Globe editorial, October 10, 2003.

41 "Child Care: Red Flags," Public Agenda Poll, June 2000, _available online at

42 Ibid.

43 First statistic from NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, June 2000; second from Pew Research Center, October 1999.

44 Kirsten Downey Grimley, "Family A Priority For Young Workers," Washington Post, May 3, 2000.

45 Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen, "These Boots are Made For Walking: Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women," American Journal of Law and Economics, vol. 2, No 1, 2000, 126—69.

46 Lillian Rubin, Families on the Fault Line (Harper Collins, New York: 1994), 80—81.

47 Quoted in Coontz, 95.

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