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A friend was interviewed once for a magazine and asked what she did. “Oh,” she said, “I’m just a mom.” A second later, she corrected herself. “I’m not just a mom,” she declared. “I’m a mom. Full stop.”
It’s a sad fact that women themselves have, for centuries, been downgrading their own status as stay-at-home mothers as being “just” that, i.e., not that remarkable an occupation or profession in the scheme of things, less significant in value than, say, a banker, or a teacher, or the husband with a real job.
I’ve been guilty myself of downplaying my being a stay-at-home mother at some point in my life, qualifying the demotion from gainful corporate employment to what amounted to unpaid domestic childcare as “freelancing,” doing projects here and there (which I was, sporadically) so that people wouldn’t think I was letting myself go, at least intellectually. As a delightfully bitchy gay friend said to me the first time I traveled to Paris as a mother, first-born in tow, “Are you going to be boring like all the other mothers and just talk about your children?”
When I did resume corporate work after my second baby had turned two months, I ran myself ragged trying to “do it all”—to be the fashion executive with a glamorous job who still managed to be the kind of supermom who took one child to school every morning, rushed back at lunch to breastfeed, and took Wednesday afternoons off to take both kids to swimming lessons at the country club. Of course I wouldn’t have been able to do even half of “all” without domestic workers at home providing backup, helping with the school runs, putting my kids to sleep on the nights I got home late, feeding them and making sure they were healthy, happy and cared for when I had to travel overseas for work.
Choosing to be a stay-at-home mother after a respectable amount of time has passed giving birth to and rearing little children implied a host of things—a lack of job skills, a lack of ambition, a lack of intelligence, even, considering the widely held notion that staying at home to look after the children was not something that required the exercise of the intellect. Like housework, it was assumed to be a mindless endeavor since a mother’s reading was reduced to The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the like, and her television fare courtesy of Barney and Disney. And then, at the end of the day, she was expected to be bright and cheerful and ready to welcome her tired, overworked husband at home, and perhaps show him just how happy she was to see him later that night in bed.
Historically, men—naturally—had a lot to do with the relegation of the work mothers do to merely domestic, and therefore inconsequential. Men, the conventional wisdom went, were busy fighting wars and heading governments and running corporations and saving the world—doing “important” work, in other words—while women stayed home to care for the children and run the house, providing nothing more than “support” services so that men could go on with the business of being their awesome selves. And get paid handsomely for doing so.
Even as women began to join the workforce in increasing numbers after World War II, their contributions to the economy were still trivialized, if not completely overlooked. A woman’s work, whether in the field, the office or the home, was valued less than a man’s, and the gender pay gap that continues to exist is proof of that. Women in the United States, for instance, receive 80 cents to every dollar a man in similar employment makes. The Joint Economic Committee of the US Senate even noted that “Although the gender pay gap has narrowed over time, at the current rate of change, it will not close until 2059.”
Certainly, some appallingly antiquated sexist attitudes remain. A 74-year-old Polish parliamentarian in Brussels had the gall to insist last week that the gender pay gap was justified because of the inherent inferiority of women. Janusz Korwin-Mikke’s proof lay in his assertion that there were no women among the top 100 chess players in the world. He challenged his colleague, Spanish MEP Iratxe Garcia-Perez as she made her speech highlighting the gender pay gap in the European Union. With all the arrogance of the deluded, unenlightened chauvinist, Korwin-Mikke said, “Of course, women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent. They must earn less, that’s all.”
To which Garcia-Perez angrily responded, “Well, according to what you’re saying and according to your theory I wouldn’t have the right to be here as a member of parliament. I know that you’re very upset and you’re very concerned about the fact that we women can represent citizens on an equal footing with you. Now I think I need to defend European women against men like you.”
And men continue to wonder where that tired, outdated trope of angry feminist came from.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published earlier this year by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
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Art by Dorothy Guya