"It’s Her Choice” – Really?

Your (Wo)Man in Washington is happy to offer this cross-post by MOTHERS founder Ann Crittenden which originally appeared on the MomsRising blog.  Ann takes on the argument that mothers “choose” to work less, earn less, have less, or willingly endure discrimination.  This classic “blame the victim” strategy is often invoked to beat back efforts to ensure equality in the workplace, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, which failed to win enough votes in the US Senate a few weeks ago.  Is motherhood simply a “lifestyle choice”?  Or is there more at stake than mere personal preference?  Such as, perhaps….national security and economic sustainability?

Posted on momsrising.org December 10th, 2010 by Ann Crittenden

I was struck recently by the persistence of an old argument used to kill the Fair Pay Act – and every other measure that would make life easier for mothers. You know it by heart: many women “choose” to earn less than men, and if they choose to earn less, then what’s the big deal about a little wage inequality?

This so-called “choice” argument can be superficially persuasive. Most women probably do prefer cleaner, relatively lower-paying jobs. Most women would rather be beauticians than coal miners, art teachers than mechanics. (Although this begs the question why teachers and beauticians earn so much less than mechanics and miners). Women working full-time often work fewer hours (for pay) than full-time working men. And in recent surveys, far more working women than men say they would prefer to work part-time.

Women, in short, are different from men. They’re just not as into dirt, long hours and making money. Maybe they are just …. more French!

But before you buy into this one, remember that those who benefit from the status quo always attribute inequities to the choices of the underdog. And women are still underdogs in the job market. Women working 40 hours a week still earn 86 cents for every dollar a man earns, a bigger gap than in many developed countries with more family-friendly policies. But if American women accept this willingly, then there’s nothing to worry about. It’s their choice. No one “made them do it.” So no one has to do anything about it.

The only thing wrong with this argument is that it leaves out history:

  • The history that still dictates lower wages in female-dominated professions;
  • The history that discourages women from entering better-paying, male-dominated fields like the skilled trades, engineering, and science.
  • The history that explains why women in almost every occupation still earn less than men in the same occupation.
  • The history that dictates that women still do the bulk of the work at home, limiting their ability to work for pay. 

“It’s their own choice” rhetoric also leaves out power:

  • The power to dictate the rules of work. Women don’t.
  • The power to decide who does most of the menial housework.
  • The power to legislate working conditions that fit women’s lives, like the right to paid sick days and paid maternity leaves, the right to refuse to work overtime, and the right to work part-time. We have none of these rights. Is that women’s choice? 

The major point here is that women’s choices are not made in a vacuum. They are made in a world that women did not create, according to rules they didn’t write. For many women with children, choice is all about bad options and difficult decisions: your child or success in your profession; taking on most of the domestic chores or marital strife; food on the table or your baby’s safety; your right arm or your left.

If we have to talk about choice, let’s broaden the conversation. Let’s start talking about employers’ choices and politicians’ choices and husbands’ choices to perpetuate a system that keeps women earning less than men, more economically vulnerable than men, and more susceptible to poverty the minute they have a child.

It’s other people’s choices, not ours, that things are still this way.

Ann Crittenden: Crittenden’s ground-breaking book The Price of Motherhood has just been re-issued in a 10th anniversary edition, with a new preface. She concludes that while mothers’ attitudes have changed, not much else has.

About Valerie Young

Valerie Young is a public policy analyst who focuses on the economic status of mothers and other family caregivers. She promotes social justice by arming mothers with information and a healthy dose of outrage. She is the Advocacy Coordinator at the National Association of Mothers' Centers, and is a reporter for The Shriver Report and contributor to Brain/Child Magazine. Follow her blog, Your (Wo)Man in Washington, on Twitter @WomanInDC and on Facebook as Valerie Young and Your (Wo)Man in Washington.
  • goodreason

    "If we have to talk about choice, let’s broaden the conversation. Let’s start talking about employers’ choices and politicians’ choices and husbands’ choices to perpetuate a system that keeps women earning less than men, more economically vulnerable than men, and more susceptible to poverty the minute they have a child."

    Bravo! So well said! It's time we asked what is an economy for–and have that question answered by the mothers!! An economy is for keeping reproduction rational–and increasingly, it's becoming irrational for American women. That means our economy has failed in its primary purpose.

  • That’s

    The only people who determine who is doing the bulk of work in a particular household are the members of that household. If a husband is not willing to do anything at home, the wife has to blame only herself for her poor choice. When she was dating, she was looking for a breadwinner, not a guy who'll share with her both the housework and the burden of providing for the family, right?

    Oh, and no wonder that women who work 40 hours per week earn 86% of what men earn for a full time job because those full time jobs are 50+ hrs per week.

  • Joannie

    Hi,

    yer – choice – sure – as if …

    I have recently completed a PhD at the Australian National University which I called Maternal Ambivalence in contemporary Australia: navigating equity and care.

    In chapter one I reference a series of empirical studies from the USA, some European countries, the UK and a little research in Australia that shows high levels of depression, high levels of marital dissatisfaction, and common issues to do with identity after women have a baby. These conclusions are drawn from both qualitative (some with large numbers of participants) and quantitive studies generally in the early years after the birth of an infant. These is a gap between the expectations and the experience of women after the birth that this rhetoric of choice is trying to cover over.

    In the thesis I set out ways of thinking about what women are doing when they are mothing firstly in terms of capitals: economic, social and cultural (chapter four) and meanings (chapter five). I am arguing that what it means to be both a mother and a family has changed while often the services and family policies are trying to put the genie back into the box. These are often focusing on keeping families together in, what is argued to be, the best interest of the infant/child. This is an agenda that is missing the point – yer sure – we all need families to work better but not at the cost of the health and wellbeing of our primary caregivers. There is a call for transformational change to our institutional framework in order to account for care.

    Chapter six looks at significant attempts to reconceptualize how we, as a society, care for dependents (infants, the infirm aged, the ill and the disabled).

    I am currently talking with a publisher to try and get my argument out there into the mainstream. An argument that is gaining momentum within feminist movements. So take some heart, you, or we, aren't lone voices in the wilderness – we are a part of a gowing movement calling for CHANGE.

    Best and Seasons Greetings.

    Joannie

    for the thesis online see:

    http://dspace.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/49388

  • Olah Momma!

    No wonder all presidents in the U.S are men. It seems to be a culture.

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