Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Emily Bazelon at Slate today tries to look at the notion of the "opt out" revolution through the lens of the economic crisis. She relies on some anecdotal evidence (as almost all contributions to this debate do) to illustrate a telling point:

I got e-mails from a man and a woman from opposite sides of a different gender divide. In both of their (separate) marriages, it was the woman who'd lost her job. Paul reported that his wife "refers to herself as a 'freeloader' and makes remarks that she is 'worthless' because she is not bringing in an income." His reassurance, he says, doesn't seem to help. The laid-off wife who wrote in, Beth, said that since she was laid off in December, her husband "has become increasingly distant, almost resentful." He's under pressure at work—additional pressure, since all the earning responsibility is his now—and he misses spending time, which Beth now has more of, with their daughter. "Because the present is so bleak, it is hard to be optimistic about the future," she concludes.

This is a reminder that women's work is already integral to the lives of many families. If their jobs have been secondary, it doesn't mean that either half of the couple wants that work, and the income it brings in, to disappear. So to recap, the recession is increasing the number of couples in which a man's layoff underscores the importance of his wife's job—and, secondarily, the number of couples in which a woman's job loss makes the same point.

To go back to the silver lining, at least for feminists, economist Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress points out that these trends "confirm that the opt-out story"—the notion that educated women were voluntarily abandoning their careers in droves—"turns out to be a non-story."
While media is busy pointing to feminists and conservatives fighting over women who stay at home, it's important to note that women's wages are an important part of your average American household. Women aren't choosing to work or not work, they work because they have to, except when they get laid off. Then they can't work and it's a problem.

This isn't to say that there aren't a lot of issues to be worked out with responsibility of child care and domestic chores (women almost always end up doing the greater proportion of them), but the whole idea of the single breadwinner is pretty much dead in modern America. Few families can afford to only have one parent work. Single mothers make this point obvious. It seems clear that the stay-at-home mom stereotype has always been just that: a stereotype.

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