Skip to main content

Phony "mommy wars" avoid real issues for women

By Barbara J. Risman, Special to CNN
updated 10:59 AM EDT, Fri April 20, 2012
Barbara Risman says American culture is filled with contradictions over mothers and the value of their work.
Barbara Risman says American culture is filled with contradictions over mothers and the value of their work.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Barbara Risman: "Mommy wars" are cooked up by politicians and media, not everyday women
  • She says women know well the conflicts society presents them over value of their work
  • She says women told job of mothering is valued, so why don't dads make it a "career?"
  • Women face discrimination over mother choices, Risman says; workplaces must catch up

Editor's note: Barbara Risman is a professor and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families. She is the author of "Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition" (Yale, 1998) and editor of "Families as They Really Are" (Norton, 2010). She is also executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families.

(CNN) -- The "mommy wars" that have cropped up repeatedly this campaign season are a figment of political pundits' imagination. The most recent example, of course, was the political and media tempest that followed Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen's comment that Ann Romney, Mitt Romney's wife and a mother of five, had not "worked a day in her life." Many made political hay with the remark.

The truth is most women aren't fighting about this. They know that work is involved to make everyday life happen: the feeding, and clothing and caring for oneself and one's family, whether earning the money to buy the clothes and food, or being at home, washing those clothes or cooking dinner. All mothers work, nearly all of the time. And so do many fathers.

Barbara Risman
Barbara Risman

But there is a serious issue hidden in the silliness of the alleged mommy wars, and it is the contradictory, conflicting beliefs we have about the value of taking time to care for other people. Who should take care of young people and their grandparents, and how should they be rewarded? We claim to value families, but we don't really value what it takes to care for them. Let me give you some examples:

Contradiction #1: Everyone seems to agree that women and men should have equal rights. But when was the last time you heard someone say that a man should make fatherhood a "career"? It is true today that sometimes, men do become stay-at-home dads, but even in the consciously feminist families I wrote about in my book, "Gender Vertigo," men share the "work" of raising their children; I didn't interview one man who described fatherhood as a career. And it took me a long time to find couples that really shared the work equally.

Rosen comments spark flood of backlash
Buchanan: Response to Rosen 'despicable'
Ann Romney's 'mom power' displayed

There are blogs to help parents equally share the work (like Marc and Amy Vachon's blog), but if parenting is truly the socially valued career choice that politicians on both sides of the political spectrum claim, why do so few men identify fatherhood as their primary career?

Contradiction #2: Everyone seems to agree that parenting involves sophisticated emotional and psychological skills and not merely grunt work. But if people truly believe that, why does Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll and her colleagues find time and time again that mothers are discriminated against in hiring and promotions?

Contradiction #3: Everyone seems to agree that America supports "family values." But research published in this month's American Sociological Review shows that women who breast-feed for six months or more pay a mommy penalty in wages for the rest of their lives because of the lack of work policies that protect employed women's right to breast-feed on the job. Why doesn't the U.S. institute the same protections for women's right to breast-feed as other Western industrial countries?

Contradiction #4: Everyone seems to agree that when women married to men of means choose to be stay-at-home moms, they are doing so for the good of their children. But when poor women, without access to first-rate child care, choose to stay home with their babies, we tend to call them lazy welfare mothers. Our social policy of providing only very "temporary assistance to needy families" comes with the built-in insistence that they take personal responsibility for their children, meaning they should get themselves a low-wage job, often with no choice but to leave their children in less than optimal child care.

Sociologist Mirra Komarovsky pointed out these contradictions back in 1953. She argued back then that if society truly believed caretaking was an important and difficult job, nursery school teachers would rate a salary at least equal to the beginning salary of a street cleaner. Not much has changed since then. As Stephanie Coontz, a historian and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, told me: "It's time for politicians to stop competing over the women's votes and start competing over who has the best programs to support all parents, whatever their employment status or their gender."

Why all these contradictions? Because we have a society in flux. We have inherited both workplace cultures and beliefs from a time in our past when successful men had wives to take care of their homes and children. Workplaces got two employees for the price of one, the husband and his domestic wife. Unions fought for "family wages" so working-class men could benefit from women's household work as well.

That's not the world we live in today. Now, for better or worse, most mothers of young children -- married and single -- work both inside and outside their homes. Their workplaces, and our cultural conversation full of contradictions, has lagged far behind.

Let's call a truce on the fictional mommy wars and start a war on workplaces that don't allow mommies and daddies to live full lives, on the job and at home.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barbara J. Risman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:30 PM EST, Sun December 28, 2014
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT