Thanks to some spirited recent exchanges between bloggers, I've been thinking about the nature of the "Mommy War" between working mothers and homemakers. Skirmishes in this war typically play out something like this:
Someone writes or says something about the advantages to society/families conferred by SAHMs ---> Working mothers object to the implication (or outright statement) that society in general or their family in particular are disadvantaged because of their work outside the home ---> Someone suggests that if working mothers feel defensive, maybe it is their conscience telling them they need to rethink their priorities ---> Everyone feels hurt, defensive, and unappreciated/unseen.
Someone writes or says something about the importance to society/families that women work outside the home, talks about how women working is a good thing and a sign of progress, or makes a comment about the "bad old days" when women were expected to play "Suzy Homemaker" ---> SAHMs object to the implication (or outright statement) that they are hampering women's progress, hurting the economy, or oppressed ---> Someone suggests that children were better cared for and marriages stronger when more women stayed in the home ---> Everyone feels hurt, defensive, and unappreciated/unseen.
And around and around we go, without end.
But there's an error common in both camps that both underlies and exacerbates the divide.
First, a little historical background: the history of women and work is complicated, in part because the history of the division of work and home is complicated. In agrarian societies, both men and women would have contributed to the home directly and economically, even in societies which limited women's place in the public sphere. Even the Victorian era, which glorified the "domestic angel" and originated the term "homemaker" to describe this domestic role, the reality for working families was very different than we commonly imagine:
For most women, the luxury of being a housewife, simply caring for children, cooking and cleaning and creating a peaceful haven for the hard-worked husband who brought home the bread at the end of the day, was only ever an illusion created by the middle classes. Economics dictated that not only both parents but in most cases the children as well needed to work.
As late 19th and early 20th century labour reform brought new stability to men's work and legislation limiting the hours children (and, in some places, women) could be hired for, more women were able to devote time to their own homes. The middle-class ideal of the domestic manager acting as chatelaine of her home spread further down the economic ladder, and "homemaking" courses were frequently offered in highschools and colleges to teach women the skills they would need to take on this role.
Then came the '60s, and the '70s, and the Quiet Revolution, and barriers to women's higher education and white-collar workplace participation fell like dominoes. The Marxist theory underlying the feminism of the time emphasised the need for women to trail-blaze for the sake of future generations...and, following Marx, undervalued unpaid labour. My mother, who began her family during this era, still talks defensively about feeling like women who chose to stay home to raise their children, as she did, were in some way traitors to their fellow women and to the cause of women's rights.
I think the homemaker-as-valid-career-choice mentality developed as this previous generation felt they needed to justify their choices. There was a pushback which sought to prove that women's work in the home is both materially advantageous to the family and useful to society--reinforcing the idea that our worth lies in what we do and accomplish.
Did these "defenders of the home" realise they had let economic materialists set the terms of the discussion? I'm not sure. But the idea of productivity and usefulness (to society, community, etc) continues to drive the discussion.