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Ann Romney flap highlights two clichés about women

The Ann Romney-Hillary Rosen flap over working moms points to two clichés about women that are worth exploring in the presidential campaign. One is that most moms have no choice but to work full time. The other is the pay gap between women and men. Both are not what they seem.

By Amy E. Black / April 26, 2012

Would-be first lady Ann Romney speaks at the Connecticut GOP Prescott Bush Awards dinner in Stamford, Conn., on April 23. She went into detail about her life as a mother, a counter to comments made by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. Op-ed contributor Amy E. Black writes that the Romney-Rosen flap over working moms is partially fake, 'but issues concerning women, work, and family are far from settled.'

Jessica Hill/AP

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Wheaton, Ill.

The latest battle in the ongoing war over the women’s vote occurred Monday evening as Ann Romney spoke extensively about her choice to be a stay-at-home mom and the hard work it involved. She was countering Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, who described the would-be first lady as out of touch with women voters because she “has actually never worked a day in her life.” This, according to Ms. Rosen, disqualifies her from giving advice on women’s economic issues.

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As Rosen herself noted, the latest fight is partially fake – no one disputes that raising children is incredibly hard work, and everyone recognizes that a range of factors weigh in a parent’s decision about whether and how much to work for pay.

But issues concerning women, work, and family are far from settled. Consider the summary results of a recent Pew Research Center report:

“The American public is sharply divided in its judgments about the sweeping changes in the structure of the American family that have unfolded over the past half century,” – changes such as more mothers of young children working outside the home. “About a third generally accepts the changes; a third is tolerant but skeptical; and a third considers them bad for society,” the report says.

Simplistic typecasting from both sides of the aisle frustrates the search for meaningful solutions. Let’s reexamine two of the common clichés that distort the public debate over women in the workforce.

Cliché No. 1: A vast majority of mothers have no choice but to work full time.

Of course many American women have little choice but to seek full-time employment. Single mothers, for example, have few viable alternatives. And 3 of 5 mothers who work full time would prefer a part-time job, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey.

But many parents do have choices, albeit complicated ones. Foregoing a paycheck or moving from full to part time is an agonizing choice involving many variables such as the high cost of childcare. But it is a decision that millions of Americans have made. For some parents it is a luxury, for some it is a sacrifice, and for others it ironically may even be a necessity.

Low-wage workers, for instance, may have little choice but to stay at home with young children. With the average cost of childcare hovering around $7,000 a year per child, such expenses quickly eat away the income that low earners might otherwise bring home.

Perhaps that explains, in part, why more than twice as many women living below the poverty line stay at home with their children than do not.

Employment numbers alone can’t explain the reasons behind these complicated choices, but the available data do reveal unexpected patterns that challenge simplistic assumptions. According to 2007 Census data, a parent stayed home full time in 34 percent of married couple households with children under 18. One in 4 mothers with children works part time.

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