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Ann Romney-Hilary Rosen dust-up can't be reduced to a question of 'choice'

The Ann Romney-Hilary Rosen clash presented more than another mommy-wars episode. Calling the decision to parent at home or pursue outside paid labor a ‘choice’ obscures the role that businesses, the economy, and government play in shaping the possibilities that families have.

By Kirsten Swinth / May 3, 2012

Ann Romney speaks at the Connecticut GOP Prescott Bush Awards dinner in Stamford, Conn. April 23. Op-ed contributor Kirsten Swinth says using the language of 'choice' to talk about the decision between paid labor or at-home family care 'may feel like a happy compromise in the culture wars,' but it 'doesn’t even begin to describe the real dilemmas of work and family.'

Jessica Hill/AP

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Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s declaration a few weeks ago that Republican first lady hopeful Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life” has played out in the media as another politically charged spat in the perpetual mommy wars about women’s choice between paid labor or at-home family care.

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It turns out though that the idea of “choice,” whether invoked by left or right, doesn’t even begin to describe the real dilemmas of work and family. Seeing the decision as a choice women make between two options may feel like a happy compromise in the culture wars, but the language of choice has helped obscure the role that business practices, economic pressures, and government policies play in shaping the possibilities that any individual family might choose among.

To see our way forward, we would all do better to remember that the birth of choice came at a particular political and historical moment.

The idea of choosing to stay at home or to work for wages emerged in the 1970s out of a debate that raged across the country over the fate of the housewife. Women’s movement activists claimed victory in widening choices for women’s lives. But, the then-brand-new “pro-family” movement accused feminists of denigrating the role of housewife and mother.

To begin to talk of choice was a break from that debate, a position taken to signal respect for women’s unpaid labor in the home as a choice among the many that women might make.

In the context of the more conservative 1980s, the language of choice took off. The very first mommy wars stories appeared in the early years of the 1980s. These stories popularized the idea of choice as a kind of demilitarized zone between the two sides. By February 1987, Working Mother magazine urged women not to “occupy opposing camps” but “to work together to make it possible for each woman to make choices from an array of options.”

Choice fit the privatizing impulses of the age, too. Problems of work and family became individual dilemmas of choice, handed over to individual families to resolve.  Families now struggled with the “balancing act,” picking and choosing from a hodge-podge of benefits – an employer’s child-care subsidy here, a job lost to pregnancy there.

At the same time, the decade’s self-help manuals incessantly counseled mothers to manage their guilt and feel positive about whatever choice they made. Women were busy managing their emotions and their families, looking for how to make “the right decisions,” rather than looking at the ways social and economic forces constrained their choices.

Choice was in; structure was out.

More recently, liberals have adopted the same pragmatic frame that Hilary Rosen has responded with: Choice should, of course, be respected, but it is meaningless for most women. The reality, they say, is few mothers have any real choice to be out of the paid workforce. And Ms. Rosen is correct. The statistics and the economics are on her side.

The problem with the “this is the reality” response though is that it dismisses another reality: the deep ambivalence in our society about paid labor for mothers, especially of young children. A Pew Center Research Report in 2009 showed 42 percent of Americans still believe it is best for young children when mothers are at home. Another 40 percent saw part-time maternal wage earning as ideal.

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