Working Moms under Attack

Working Moms under Attack

American mothers are under attack again. The new attack is not like that of the 1950s and 1960s, which faulted stay-at-home mothers for “smother love,” “momism,” and schizophrenogenic behavior that turned their sons psychotic. It is aimed instead at women who hire other women as household help and child-care surrogates, so that the mothers are free to pursue demanding professional and managerial careers. These working moms have been denounced as the new exploiters. Caitlin Flanagan, for example, writing in the March 2004 Atlantic, maintains that middle-class women have moved from the steno pool to corner offices on the backs of women who live in “serfdom” as their household helpers.

Some mature women of the left, as well as a younger generation of highly educated women who have opted out of the 9-to-5 (or 6 or 7) rat race, have supported this idea: that women professionals and executives break through the glass ceiling only at the peril of the women they employ at home (and of their own children). An edited volume by the respected social commentators Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild lumps together Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers, claiming that they face similar exploitation. Flanagan picks up this theme in her Atlantic article to argue that “so many middle-class American women went from not wanting to oppress other women to viewing that oppression as a central part of their own liberation.” Whew! Even the media critics who once judged all women with “careers” beyond the acceptable 9-to-5 jobs as selfish, unfulfilled, and unhappy, didn’t accuse them of oppressing others.

This perspective suggests that an energetic and educated woman should not be able to choose the life pattern of men of similar temperament and ability. She should not try to work very hard at her craft or exploit her talent-and she certainly should not engage in demanding work that can’t be fitted into a “normal” work day or the time her children are in school. Her employment of surrogates in the household is reprehensible.

These writers assert that women in high-demand careers are shortchanging their children. They are working for the “wrong reasons”-consumption, greed, ambition; or, they are selfishly “fulfilling themselves.” And they are doing this by exploiting women immigrants from the third world who have left their own children in order to work under harsh conditions in the households of American wage-earning women. The critics describe cases of exploitation of low-wage immigrant workers by professional and managerial women and argue that these women ought to be doing their housework themselves. Of course, the critics hope that husbands will share the work, but this “solution” does not acknowledge the work demands that husbands also face.

Immigrant workers who come to the United States in t...

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