The Myth of Independence
If paid employment does not confer happiness on many mothers, or at best offers no more happiness than they might experience investing their labor at home with their children, it is at least supposed to make them independent. Feminist ideology conveys the popular expectation that liberated women achieve independence through work in the marketplace. Independence is a highly valued attribute. But what exactly does it mean in the context of family relations? Mothers and fathers want their children to grow up to be independent in the sense that they should be able to think for themselves, act autonomously, and eventually move out of the house, set up their own home, and take care of themselves. But do mothers and fathers want the same kind of independence in relation to each other? They may want their partners to be people who think for themselves and are able to act autonomously, but do they want partners who are preparing to eventually move out of the house, set up their own home, and take care of themselves?
Family life has been displaced by work because feminist expectations have framed the idea of a liberated, independent woman as one who is not economically dependent on her spouse. A psychological distinction can be made, however, between the capacity to manage what comes our way in life, which I think of as self-sufficiency, and the desire to be economically independent of one’s partner. Self-sufficiency involves the ability to take care of oneself, not in the narrow sense of economic self-support but in dealing with the contingencies of daily existence. Self-sufficiency is a human quality that speaks to a much broader and deeper set of competencies than independence, which conveys merely an autonomous state of being—or not being controlled by others. A personal sense of self-sufficiency frees one psychologically from concerns about being controlled by others. In contrast to independence, which emphasizes freedom from control, self-sufficiency is more amenable to interdependent relationships, in which family members may feel confident dividing social powers and responsibilities.
Going to work confers independence in a particular sense for married mothers: their financial reliance on their husbands is diminished. This is liberating to the extent that they are married to men who want to or try to rule the roost through control of the purse strings. But even in these homes the economic independence gained through employment is in a larger sense paradoxical. At the same time that the employed wife’s paycheck liberates her from financial dependence within the family, it heightens her vulnerability to interpersonal constraints imposed by strangers—bosses, customers, and clients—and to the vagaries of the marketplace. She may encounter the same subjugation experienced by the typical “independent” male breadwinner, including bullying, which has become so widespread in the workplace that Robert Sutton’s book on building a civilized workplace, The No Asshole Rule, jumped to number ten in the Amazon. com sales ranking within a month of publication (the unconventional title might have lent a boost).65
For most men and women working for a wage, the independence that comes with a paycheck is accompanied by obedience to the daily authority of supervisors, submission to the schedule and discipline of the work environment, deference to customers, and susceptibility to the mounting insecurities of modern-day employment. Indeed, as the person who cares for his children, prepares his meals, and bestows physical warmth and affection, the dependent mother has much greater power in her relationship with her husband, on whom she relies for economic support, than the average independent mother has in her relationships with her boss and customers, on whom she relies for her paycheck. There are exceptions, of course, as already noted. Those at the top of the pyramid in business, politics, arts, and academic and professional life—the occupational elite who trumpet the empowerment of work—experience a degree of independence; those employed lower down the scale experience supervision, repetition, daily regimentation, and exposure to consumer demands.
In two-earner families, the spouses’ economic independence from one another is acquired at the cost of the family’s increased dependence on the market economy to meet many of the needs previously satisfied by the family members for reasons of mutual obligation and personal affection. When mothers of young children join the paid labor force, the caring, nurturing, and home management functions of family life are typically outsourced to day-care centers, cleaning services, and fast-food chains and local restaurants. As the work of unpaid household labor is transformed to paid employment, scenarios such as the following become increasingly common: Parents with two young children rise at six in the morning; prepare breakfast; wash, feed, and clothe the kids; and drop them off at day care, which might be subsidized by the state as much as $10,000 to $12,000 per child. The mother then heads off to her job—perhaps at another day-care center, where she is employed to look after other peoples’ children. One could draw a similar scenario involving a woman who works in a nursing home for the elderly instead of staying home to care for her disabled mother. Both cases involve a shift from voluntarily caring for children and elderly kin out of a sense of devotion and commitment to performing caring services for strangers for pay.
As mothers have entered the labor force, families have become more dependent on the state and market to supply the care work once performed for free—and throughout the industrialized world most of this paid care work is still carried out by women. This is the case especially in the Scandinavian countries, despite their reputation for promoting gender equality and liberating women from the confines of domesticity. In Sweden, 75 percent of the jobs created from 1970 to 1990 provided social welfare services in the public sector; almost all these jobs were filled by women.66 In Denmark, 64 percent of women’s contributions to labor-force growth between 1960 and 1981 took place in day-care centers, nursing homes, and schools. Similarly, in Norway, women staff the vast majority of civil-service jobs that carry out functions once performed privately, within the household. Thus, as Alan Wolfe makes clear, “The distribution of sex roles has not greatly changed in Scandinavia (gender-defined work has probably been more thoroughly transformed in the United States), but their character has changed greatly: they have become ‘nationalized,’ in the sense that the Scandinavian welfare states organize through taxation and public services activities for all of society that were once undertaken more intimately and privately.”67 The taxes that support these services come in large part from the paychecks of families, including the very wives and mothers who perform the work. For a large proportion of women, the sense of independence gained from paid employment comes with all sorts of strings attached.
Although feminist expectations about the social benefits of work do resonate with the ambitions and experiences of some women, they ignore the interests of many women, particularly those in the middle and working classes. Even among the upper tier of professional elites, some women with young children appear to be having second thoughts about the levels of personal enjoyment and independence that are actually derived from paid employment. If I maintain that many mothers have been oversold on the economic and social benefits of continuous labor-force participation, it is not to argue for a return to the traditional view that women belong barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Rather, it is to suggest that public discourse on work-family choices give voice to a balanced perspective, one that lends due consideration to women’s diverse interests and values and to the full range of options for managing work and family responsibilities over the course of an eighty-five-year lifespan.
The idea of a more balanced assessment of work-family choices has not been received with universal enthusiasm. When Betty Friedan suggested that women should have the choice to stay home and raise kids if they wished, Simone de Beauvoir responded, “We don’t believe that any woman should have this choice.” She believed that “no woman should be authorized to stay home to raise her children . . . because if there is such a choice too many women will make that one.”68 That was thirty years ago, but those sentiments continue to resonate among some high-profile feminists. In 2006, for example, Linda Hirsh – man argued that because housekeeping and childrearing offer fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than working for business or government, assigning family work to women is unjust. Moreover, she writes, “women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, ‘A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.’” In a not-too-deft shuffle, Hirshman moves from declaring a woman’s choice to invest her labor in family life “unjust” to equating it with “ignorance.”
What young women need, according to Hirshman, is not choice, but guidance from their elders on how to gain access to money, power, and honor. To this end she offers a recipe for independence. First, young women should prepare for work by studying liberal arts less, instead taking courses more likely to lead to good jobs and working after graduation with an eye to the future. Second, they should treat work seriously. The best way to do that, she suggests, is to find the money. Third, to ensure that their spouse will do an equal share of housework, they should either marry down—younger, poorer men— or marry much older, well-established men who have enough money to pay for household help. Finally, they should not have more than one child.69
Hirshman’s advice was delivered not on an obscure feminist weblog or in an alternative newsletter but in the American Prospect, a well-circulated and highly regarded journal of liberal persuasion, thus signifying that in some quarters de Beauvoir’s resistance to choice still animates an influential strain of feminist thinking. At the same time, among the current generation of well-educated women there are signs of change in the rise of care feminism and hints of an opt-out revolution, which challenge prevailing assumptions and kindle public discourse about how much to invest in motherhood and in the paid labor force—and about how individual women may value the intrinsic worth of these endeavors. This fresh outlook not only examines the impact of earlier feminist expectations about work but also questions the extent to which these expectations are reinforced by the role of the state in advancing family – friendly policies.