The latest uproar
in the gender politics of Campaign 2012 - Hilary Rosen's unfortunate comment that Ann Romney "hasn't worked a day in her life" - is a perfect example of how liberals often miss the boat when criticizing the right.
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Liberal feminism - or what Hester Eisenstein calls "hegemonic feminism" - has often straddled the fence between a call for women to realize their full potential through a career, and a full chip-on-shoulder reminder that most women do not have the "luxury" of staying home full time with their children. But we can't have it both ways. Yes, of course, we need to move away from policies that allow blatant discrimination against women in the workforce. But when the message to women who work full time in the home is a mixture of pity and envy, the policy message gets hopelessly muddled.
Like most ideal images of women's lives, the myth of the pampered housewife, as well as that of the "self-actualized" professional, leave out a lot of reality. Rosy rhetoric about reaching for the highest achievement level possible in the world of paid work leaves out women for whom the dream of truly satisfying work is out of reach. While there are surely some women who cannot afford to stay home with their children and want to, there are others whose potential earnings don't outweigh the costs of child care. And there are others who are forced to forego both the economic and intrinsic rewards of career to take care of other dependents, such as elderly parents and disabled relatives.
For their part, the Right tries to have it both ways on issues of women and work, as well. As a recent tweet from Matt Yglesias
-- points out,
"Do Mitt & Ann Romney think unemployed single moms have a full-time job? Do such moms deserve a living wage?"
In other words, if Romeny et al, believe that all women who care for children are doing honest work, then shouldn't that attitude extend to all mothers, regardless of whether the fathers involved are contributing? The Right has a long history of venerating women such as Ann Romney and Karen Santorum, while excoriating poor, single moms as being a drain on society.
Hester Eisenstein uses the lens of history to bring perspective to the politics and economics of the women's movement, in her brilliant book Feminism Seduced. Among other things, she chronicles the lack of relevance the early women's movement had for minority women, for whom work was neither a choice nor a creative outlet:
"If many white women were eager to get out of their kitchens into the paid workforce, many black women wanted nothing more than the opportunity to leave the workforce and raise their own children, rather than the children of white mothers..."
Eisenstein also points to the confluence of the influx of women into the workforce with the depression of wages brought about by globalization - raising the issue of whether feminism was, in some ways, "seduced" by the forces toward globalization.
Further, if the economic feasibility of mothers working outside the home is predicated on the depressed wages of an army
of undocumented nannies, then the women's movement has not come as far as we may pretend.
Liberals, feminists and Democrats need to push for policies that allow both men and women to enjoy the "luxury" of quantities of "quality time" with their children, the freedom from worry about basic necessities, and the privilege to find expression through work.
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