Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Wolf at the Door

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There has been a lot of chatter recently about Alison Wolf's Working Girls piece published in Prospect. So I was not at all surprised to see the article reprinted in the Toronto Star. The Star is renowned for its liberal point of view, as outlined in the famed Atkinson Principles to which the paper continues to adhere today. Its editors would know that an article about the negative repercussions of women in the workforce would be of interest to its readership, if only to give us the opportunity to say "Can you believe this article?" in an informed way.

What is interesting is that The Star chose to change the article's title from "Working Girls" to "Working Girls, Broken Society". And the little introduction provided by the editors reads as follows:

"While the benefits of career equality are axiomatic, its negative repercussions are wilfully ignored. In a contentious essay that is sparking fierce debate in Britain, a King's College professor argues that we must confront the losses to society when women choose work over family."

Choose work over family.

My, my.

The article continues on another page and the headline they have chosen is "The downside to equality" in bold one and a half inch font.

And the accompanying photo -- three bob-haired, power-suited, faceless business women, one with her fingers crossed behind her back as if she is lying.

It is a rather loaded way to present a contentious article, no?

The article itself argues how "women, at least in developed societies, have virtually no career or occupation barred to them." Now the author, Alison Wolf, does state right upfront that this has brought "enormous benefits." But she goes on to argue that there have been negative consequences including: "the death of sisterhood" or the division of women among class lines to a greater extent than in the past, the "erosion of "female altruism"" whereby women are not so willing to provide caregiving without remuneration, and how we "ignore -- sometimes [note: not always as The Star's preamble implies] wilfully -- the extent to which educated women bear disincentives to bear children."

Some of Wolf's arguments are compelling although I disagree with most of her conclusions. Interesting was her discussion of how the divide between rich and poor becomes more pronounced after bearing children, as the women with high-paying careers tend to return to work immediately after maternity leave (making 88% of her spouse's earnings over a lifetime) whereas women in lower paying jobs tend to work part time or leave the work force altogether (making as little as 34% of her spouse's income over a lifetime). I would have liked to have seen discussion of how state-subsidized daycare might alter this figure.

Some of her arguments were, in my opinion, just plain wrong. She distinguished between the minority of ambitious, well-educated women who have "careers" and the majority of women whose "families are top priority" as though ambition and motherhood are somehow mutually exclusive. Her discussion of how at "the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, some women can even be "married" to the state and live on benefits in a way no previous society could have imagined" feeds into the myth of the 'welfare moms' living the high life.

And her argument that society is worse off today because women are working instead of providing unpaid caregiving services out of the goodness of their hearts and a sense of religious duty is a little scary. She writes that the average amount of time "today's British citizen, male or female, devotes to volunteer activity is four minutes a day." Male or female. So it's not necessarily that women are doing too little volunteering these days; perhaps it's that men -- who have had the burden of being the sole income provider lifted from their shoulders and should therefore have ample capacity for altruistic endeavors -- are not doing enough. And she touches on the role of capitalism (which for me is the true bad guy) in all this but only in her discussion of how second wave feminism seemingly embraced capitalist values.

Her conclusion that "families remain central to the care of the old and sick, as well as raising the next generation, and yet our economy and society steer ever more educated women away from marriage or childbearing" is troubling since it places the erosion of our society's moral fabric squarely on the shoulders of women working outside the home. And though she is clear in stating that she has no desire to return to the "kitchen sink," her conclusions support the Good Housewife crowd that believes that there is something morally superior about staying at home with one's children.

Because if a left-leaning newspaper like The Star can read this piece and conclude that it is all about the "losses to society when women choose work over family," then, my god, what fuel is she giving to the conservatives who have been trying to prove this sort of thing all along.


Jen Lawrence is an MBA and former banker who left the world of finance for the world of sippy cups and goldfish crackers. She writes about her experiences on her blog MUBAR (Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition). She is an Editorial Assistant for Literary Mama’s Reviews section and also contributes to the Literary Mama blog. Her work has appeared in The Philosophical Mother. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two children.


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The Star article is sitting on my kitchen floor with a rainbow of colours scribbled from margin to margin by my 20 month old. Almost poetic, don't you think?
I need to ask you a favour. Please read my last post and tell me what you think about public childcare. I need to hear it first hand from women who are trying to balance family and career.
The conclusion of "losses to society when women choose work over family" should really be "losses to women when society chooses work over family". The way society is structured denies women the ability to work part-time and have a secure retirement, or give-up (paid) work for a time without slipping down the rungs of the corporate ladder. Society also frowns on men who choose to do anything but pull in a paycheque, full-time of course, and work exceedingly longer hours in the pursuit of "success". Meanwhile the educated upper class mommies are slinging mud back and forth over whether to stay home (lazy!) or plow through with a career (selfish!). Is this what has become of feminism? Thanks for the insightful deconstruction, Jen. If only I had known becoming a mommy would be such a politically contentious move...
Her conclusions - which definitely point in the clear direction of SAHM-as-morally-superior - do provide fodder for the social conservative. But they also exascerbate liberal guilt (which is probably why the Star liked it), and the gut-wrenching conflict that most working mothers experience *as* working mothers (leaving baby! oh god! am bad mother! enjoy leaving baby to work! am worse mother!) Like we need more rope to whip ourselves with. I'm only working part-time, but I like it. Part of me wants to be at home with Baby full-time - to nurture and tend our family, because, yes, family *is* the cornerstone of society. But another part me believes that I contribute more meaningfully to that family - the nurturing of which Husband shares responsibility for - by fully flexing *all* of my muscles: maternal *and* professional. But, then, still - the voices - we have the means, shouldn't I just be at home...? If that is the better choice, doesn't Baby deserve that...? Whip, whip, whip.
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