Some leading women thinkers from the political right gathered recently at the Heritage Foundation to offer a blistering criticism of the mainstream media’s coverage of so-called breadwinner moms. The media — with its triumphal, “You Go Girl!” tone — got the story wrong, they said. And you know what? In some ways, they were right.
The report by the Pew Research Center, which documented that 40 percent of mothers in households with children under 18 are now the sole or primary breadwinners, captured two very different trends.
The first is the rise of women — in education, in the workplace, as a force in the economy — and shifting gender roles, a trend quickened by the Great Recession, in which men lost twice as many jobs as women. In 1960, married breadwinner mothers accounted for 3.5 percent of all mothers in households with children under 18. They now make up 15 percent of all such mothers.
The second trend is the rapid increase of largely young, poor, uneducated single mothers. In fact, 63 percent of the breadwinner mothers documented in the Pew Research report are single mothers. They made up 7.3 percent of all mothers of children under 18 in 1960, and now account for 25.3 percent.
The conservative and libertarian women argued that the media wrongly focused on the former, “congratulatory” trend of married mothers on the way up, and largely ignored the latter trend of the growing number of single mothers who are more likely to stay down, struggling in a life of poverty.
In fairness, many mainstream stories did note the surge in single motherhood, including the one that I wrote, which had this segment, featuring an interview with Pew researcher Wendy Wang:
Single-mother breadwinners are at a severe disadvantage, the report found.
Compared with their married peers, they earn an average of $23,000 and are more likely to be younger, black or Hispanic and have less education than a college degree.
“The makeup of single mothers has changed dramatically,” said Wendy Wang, one of the report’s authors. “In 1960, the vast majority of single mothers were divorced, separated or widowed. Only 4 percent were never married. But now, it’s 44 percent.”
And K.J. Dell’Antonia, in her Motherlode blog in the New York Times, wrote about the “baffling insistence” of lumping all working mothers — low-income single mothers and high earning married mothers — into a single category. The Huffington Post, for its part, posted a story with the headline “False Dawn for Mother Breadwinners.”
But poor, single mothers were far from the main focus in most of the coverage, an imbalance that resulted in the panel and a public “spanking,” as she called it, by Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute, author of “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Is Turning Men Into Boys.”
At one point, the panel veered into the predictable conservative trope of blaming “liberal feminists” for destroying the family. But then Cathy Reisenwitz, a libertarian blogger at Reason.com, said it was time that the political right stopped using feminism as a catch-all “straw man” for society’s ills.
“Women are stepping up, and it’s a great thing that they can,” said Reisenwitz, herself the daughter of a single mother. “We shouldn’t try to blame women for the fall of men.”
Look instead at how manufacturing jobs have disappeared, she said, in a soft, yet assured tone. Look at poverty. Look at an education system producing so many drop outs. Look at prisons crowded with young black and Hispanic men. There are bigger forces at work pushing mothers — single or married — into breadwinning roles than an ideology that has as its goal “gender equity and ending sexism.”
I caught up with Reisenwitz after the panel. Conservatives, she said, don’t talk about feminism. Or when they do, it’s through an outdated, “schizophrenic lens,” which says that men belong in the public sphere, at work, and women are in charge of the private sphere, at home.
“The message conservatives are telling women is to stay in their sphere. And that’s extremely dangerous,” Reisenwitz said. (Largest gender gap in history in the 2012 presidential election anyone?)
“When conservatives talk about the traditional family, what does that mean? That women should step back? That men should step up? That women should stop getting educated?” she mused. “If conservatives want women to stay in their sphere, but if marriage isn’t the safety net that it used to be, what happens to women if the marriage ends?”
Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, said that feminism is a “loaded’ word for fiscal and social conservatives because they associate it with a progressive agenda. Still, she said, she tells women not to run away from its “good message and important history.”
And she has written articles urging conservatives to do the same — to take women’s issues seriously, instead of as “a distracting side show” for “the Ladies Auxiliary.”
“I think conservatives and Republicans have a long way to go in demonstrating that they do, in fact, embrace contemporary gender roles and a more modern American family,” Schaeffer told me. “Clearly, vestiges of that 1950s-style ‘Leave it to Beaver’ lifestyle is alienating to young, professional educated women. No question.”
Toward the end of the Heritage panel, during the Q and A session, one such young professional woman lamented that she and her friends feel compelled to climb the professional ladder ever higher and are torn by the competing demands of work and home. “What were the feminists doing?” she said she and her equally frazzled professional friends ask each other. “This is terrible.”
It is terrible. Time studies show mothers, breadwinners or not, and single mothers in particular, are stretched almost to the breaking point.
But it’s time to stop blaming feminism.
Instead, as Reisenwitz suggested, let’s acknowledge that there are larger forces at work.
Rather than pointing fingers, let’s look at why people are so stretched. Because fathers are beginning to feel the same way. Let’s ‘s try to re-imagine the way we work and our workplace cultures in a way that promotes productivity and innovation and, at the same time, enables both men and women to live full lives. Let’s acknowledge shifting gender roles, and accept that studies are finding that men can and want to do more than kill spiders at home, and that both mothers and fathers, regardless of their work demands, want to put children more at the center of their lives.
And, as the conservative women charged, it’s time to pay full attention to the growing ranks of impoverished, single mothers and find real solutions for better lives for them and their children – not solely admonishments to get married, as some conservatives argue, or calls to re-stigmatize unwed motherhood.
But at least we’re all beginning to talk. Left and right.
“This is a really important discussion,” Charlotte Hays, with the Independent Women’s Forum, said at the close of the panel. “If conservatives don’t learn to talk about women’s issues, and to women, better than we have in the past, we are doomed. If you doubt my word, call the White House and ask President Romney.”
Brigid Schulte is a reporter for The Washington Post who writes about work-life issues and poverty. Her book, “Overwhelmed, Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” will be published next spring.