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Sharing the Burden

A Response to Can Working Families Ever Win?

Myra Marx Ferree

8 Are you as tired as I am of hearing how all the problems of America's families—and especially those of American children—can be traced back to women entering the labor force? Even more tiresome is the customary conclusion that this one change in women's typical life-course is responsible for putting stress on husbands and children, even leading to a supposed breakdown of the family. Implicit in this view, of course, is the idea that because women "caused" the problems of the two-job family, it is now women's obligation to solve them, whether by retreating to the home, restricting themselves to underpaid part-time jobs in order to better balance their "traditional" home and family responsibilities, or rising to the task of being superwomen who can carry the burdens of a full-time job and a family life.

Jody Heymann offers a welcome respite from such women-blaming. She points out that transformations in the economy drew both men and women into the industrial labor force at different times and speeds, while the stereotypical picture of men out "at work" and women "at home" (and implicitly not working) is simply wrong. It is worth repeating her point, that over the past 150 years farm families turned into wage-earning families, as both women and men sought out new and better ways to provide what their households needed, both to survive and to get ahead.

But in fact the transformation is not only in adult lives, but in children's. As the much lower high-school graduation rates before World War II suggest, and as many people still alive today remember, children were not so long ago active members in the family economy. For many families struggling to get by in the first half of the twentieth century, the preferred method of supplementing income was to pull children out of school and send them to work, whether in factories or as messengers, vendors, or as workers in the earliest service industries (from shoe-shining to domestic service).1 Almost twenty years ago, historian Mary Ryan's study of nineteenth-century New York showed how the shift toward an economy in which children required more education to succeed precipitated new demands on women to provide it, whether by tutoring their youngest children or by paying high-school fees and college tuitions for their older ones.2

Long before married women's work began to shift towards paid labor, it had already changed dramatically, from providing the physical labor and material goods that early twentieth-century households required to providing the educational and developmental support that modern children need. Academic achievement, not inheritance of a share in the family farm or business, is the means by which nearly all middle class families expect their children to equal or surpass their own standard of living. Fostering children's academic achievement is therefore the strategy modern families follow to push them ahead in life, and only the poorest and most desperate families are tempted to pull their children out of school. Married women work to support their children's schooling and future achievements, no less than children once labored for pay so that their mothers could stay home and do the arduous labor required to keep the household running.

In other words, except for the brief interlude between about 1945 and 1960—when men's wages were exceptionally high, income inequality unusually low, when most men were already absorbed into the paid economy and most married mothers not yet there— "the past" and "the traditional family" look nothing at all like our customary picture of it. Women, men and children worked. Beaver Cleaver is an historical anomaly. By pointing to the costs that inflexible jobs and agricultural-era school patterns impose on children's ability to learn and succeed in school, Heymann mobilizes the real essence of contemporary family values: get the kids the best education you can. It is also a challenge to the pseudo-family-values discourse that is one of the greatest obstacles to creating the changes she calls for.

In fact, blaming women, feminism, or the decline in patriarchal authority for the problems families face is the favorite tactic of those who do not want states to spend a nickel to help them out. On this view, if women take responsibility in a new economy and "choose" to work, then women should somehow, personally and privately, find solutions to every new problem the family faces. In reality, women are indeed taking up the lion's share of the day-to-day personal and economic burden of "juggling" responsibilities that are still so often described as theirs alone. By casting women and choice as the root of the problem, the blame for society's failure to address family needs can be shifted to the women's movement, and away from the political parties, interest groups and voters who have failed to demand the kinds of sensible mediating mechanisms that Heymann calls for.3

The missing link in Heymann's argument is the political one. The flexibility and social support that she calls on public bureaucracies, schools and workplaces to offer are not free, even if they are more affordable than most Americans assume. But then, in the 1920s and 1930s, the introduction of such measures as social security, unemployment insurance, and job-based health insurance did not fall from the sky either. There were active social movements campaigning for government to provide "mother's pensions" and pensions for the elderly. Only after years of struggle, including confrontational "movement" politics, lobbying, and get-out-the-vote drives, were these demands answered with policy concessions.4 The women's movement had a role to play then, as it did in winning the FMLA and as it still does today. But any serious hope of achieving these reasonable accommodations to the modern realities of our families, our economy, and our educational system demands that we stop viewing women as the sole bearers of responsibility for caregiving in the family and for social progress in our institutions.<


Myra Marx Ferree teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin and is co-author of Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States.

Return to the forum on Caregiving, with Jody Heymann and respondents.

Notes

1 Christine Bose, Women in 1900: Gateway to the Political Economy of the 20th Century (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

2 Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County NY, 1790–1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

3 An excellent example of both calling for social support and explicitly blaming feminists for failing to have obtained it can be seen in Sylvia Hewlett, A Lesser Life: the Myth of Women's Liberation in America (New York: Warner Books, 1987).

4 See for example Elisabeth Clemens, The People's Lobby: Organizational Innovation and the Rise of Interest Group Politics in the United States, 1890–1925 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). For analysis of why the U.S. lacks the social supports that families in Europe enjoy see Gwendolyn Mink, The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917–1942 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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