A Womans Place and Other Thoughts from my Nasty Snake-Filled Head
Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell, 1943
Published in ChicagoNow,. January 29, 2018
Courtland Sykes, a Republican running for Senate against Democrat Claire McCaskill in Missouri, just called me a “she devil.” He wants me to know that, in 2018, “Men and women are different and gender-bending word games by a goofy nest of drugstore academics aren’t going to change anything — except the fantasy life of those confused people in ivory towers.” Yep, he’s talking about me, and he has a pretty dated notion of a woman’s place these days.
Mr. Sykes went on to state that he expects his fiancé to prepare a home cooked meal for him precisely at 6:00 p.m. every night. His views about a woman’s place date back to ancient Greek times when Aeschylus, in 467 B.C., wrote: “Let women stay at home and hold their peace.” Or perhaps his ideas agree with Thomas Fuller, who stated in 1732, “A Woman is to be from her House three times: when she is Christened, Married and Buried.” As a woman who, like her mother before her, did produce those 6:00 p.m. meals, I feel I have the street creds to respond to Sykes’s expectations that a woman’s place is in the home in 2018.
Clearly, Sykes lives in a world best captured in Norman Rockwell paintings from the 1940s and 1950s. I remember Rockwell’s covers for the Saturday Evening Post that depicted good old American values of decency, hard work, and idealized family life. The illustration featured in this post, Freedom from Want, is part of Rockwell’s series based on FDR’s Four Freedoms speech. Like most of his illustrations, it depicts a white, middle class America from an era in which it was possible for families like this one to do just fine on one income (the man’s), while the woman kept the house, took care of the kids, and produced that home-cooked dinner every night.
Sykes expects his future wife and daughters to “become traditional homemakers and family wives.” He doesn’t welcome the notion that his mythical future daughters would have meaningful careers. Rather, he expects them to have “home life and children and the happiness of family” rather than to become “nail-biting manophobic [sic] hell-bent feminist she devils.”
Although Sykes makes exceptions for “amazing women with amazing careers” like Kellyanne Conway (four children under age 12) and Sarah Huckabee Sanders (three children under age 6), the rest of us should stop doing what we are doing and get with the program. But wait. Many women these days don’t want to toss their educations and careers aside when they marry and have children. And even if they did, they could not afford to give up the income they contribute to keep their families afloat.
The days of a single-income family being financially comfortable are long gone. According to the Center for American Progress, in 2015, “42 percent of mothers were sole or primary breadwinners, bringing in at least half of family earnings. Nearly another one-quarter of mothers—22.4 percent—were co-breadwinners, bringing home from 25 percent to 49 percent of earnings for their families.”
When my first child was born in 1971, I took a ten-year leave (LOL) from the work force to stay home with him and his two little sisters. That’s what most of my friends did back then. I returned to work when my youngest was in kindergarten, but only part-time for the first few years. We were lucky. Whatever I earned was extra income. And because I was an early childhood educator, I had enough personal days to be home with sick children or attend the occasional school event scheduled during the day.
This is not true for my daughters, and it was never true for many American women, especially women of color. Despite the gender and opportunity gaps that still exist in the workplace, most mothers have to work in 2018 to make ends meet. Changing family and economic dynamics make it a necessity for women to balance having a job and raising their children.
Here are a few sobering facts. In 2015, the number of families headed by single mothers, the majority of whom are white, was 26.4 percent. And almost 70 percent of married mother work for pay. Women of color are still more likely to be juggling working outside of the home to support their families while also being responsible for all of the family caregiving.
Because most mothers with children under age six as well as those of school age children need to work to support their families, Sykes would be hard pressed to find those home-cooked 6:00 p.m. dinners he expects on America’s dinner tables. Today’s mothers work hard for the money in a country that shamefully does little to support the family life he craves. Ours is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave after the birth of a baby. We don’t have universal paid family and medical leave or paid sick days, or workplace flexibility that might enable mothers to be there when their children need them.
I don’t regret the ten years I spent at home with my kids serving up that 6:00 p.m. dinner. But I understand that is not the reality for my daughters or other women struggling with that work-family balance. Most contemporary families are doing the best they can to provide for their kids. If Sykes and others of his ilk think they can end what he calls “the Femimarxian era,” maybe they should take cooking lessons. A woman’s place in 2018 is in the House… of Representatives.