Frederick official's comment that a woman's place is in the home creates uproar

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 10:15 PM

The first thing Frederick County Commissioner Paul Smith does when explaining his controversial views about a woman's proper place is to hand out a pamphlet from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families," the pamphlet reads. "Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children."

In other words, just as he told a TV station and intimated at a public hearing before voting to slash half the funding for the county's Head Start program, a woman's place is in the home.

Smith (R), a 60-year-old lawyer and devout Mormon, insists he wasn't trying to stir anything up in making his views public. "But I hit a hot button or something."

Indeed. Local newspapers and TV and radio stations have had a field day in recent weeks, heralding the "battle of the sexes" and the "gender showdown" in the county. The community has been abuzz with talk about the role of women and mothers in society, culminating in a candlelight vigil sponsored by the Commission for Women.

Some have hailed Smith for giving voice to "good old-fashioned family values." Others have angrily posted on Facebook pages and e-mail lists wondering why people are arguing about an issue they thought was resolved decades ago.

"Welcome to the 1950s," wrote one.

The realities of family life have changed dramatically since then. Yet polls show that many Americans still struggle with it. Most people say they find egalitarian marriages more satisfying and accept the reality of working mothers - 71 percent of all mothers work for pay outside the home. Three-fourths of all Americans disagree that women should return to their traditional roles in society, compared to the 17 percent who think they should. People remain deeply ambivalent about whether the mothers of very young children should work at all, with older men showing the greatest unease.

"I feel that wherever possible, mothers should be home with small children," Smith says at his dining room table.

He knows the working family statistics but waves them off as a reflection of how materialistic people have become: "Everyone feels they have to have a standard of living that is so high that it does create more financial pressure."

"You didn't used to have to move into a mansion after you got married," adds Terry Smith, his wife of 37 years and the mother of his 12 children.

She sits next to him around the large family dining room table in their modest, five-bedroom ranch house in Frederick. A stroller, for one of their 16 grandchildren, is parked on the front porch. A swing set sits in the back yard.

This has been Terry Smith's domain throughout their marriage; she always stayed home to care for their children, and that suited her just fine.

And if a mother wants to work?

Paul Smith pauses. "Well, I think of Barbra Streisand. Boy, has she got a great voice, and I'm glad she shared that," he says. "So, for someone with that talent, I would hope they would do both. But the singing can wait a little bit. You've got a very narrow time when the children are young."

Smith's youngest daughter, Christine, 14, sits at the table, her geometry book open, doing her homework. Christine wants to go to college and become an elementary school teacher, she says. "Then I would like to find a husband, have a big family and stay home and take care of them, like my mom did."

Amanda Haddaway, a member of the county's Commission for Women who has debated Smith on the airwaves, says that the commission respects the choices the Smith family has made about work and child rearing. But in intimating that mothers staying home is the best option for everyone, Smith crossed a line, she says.

"There was no framing of his comment to say that 'this is what worked for my family.' It was more of a blanket statement that 'this should work for everyone,' " Haddaway says.

The furor started when Smith sought to explain his vote to cut $2.3 million out of the county's Head Start program for nearly 300 toddlers in low-income families. At a public hearing last month, he told a group of tearful Head Start parents that marriage and staying home with children was not only the best option for raising them well but would also "decrease" the number of kids that the government would need to provide for.

Another commissioner, Kirby Delauter (R), chimed in that his college-educated wife, who could have gone out and gotten a good job, "gave that up for 18 years so she could stay home with our kids."

The Head Start parents felt they were being chastised and quickly vented their outrage on social media and over backyard fences.

"They were sitting up there telling parents, 'This is what I did, and I turned out great, so this is what you should do,' " said Head Start social worker Trista McAleavy, who testified at the hearing and has since lost her position because of the cutbacks.

Elizabeth Sprague, 31, is one of those Head Start mothers. She lives down the highway from Smith in a townhouse crammed with pink Barbie houses, balls and plastic toys. She has four children ranging in age from 2 to 11. She is married - but one day her husband, a disabled Army veteran, decided to leave and go back to Texas. He visits once a year.

Sprague, whose dream is to be a college English professor and teach the classics, has found herself variously on welfare, working at a cosmetics counter and as a bank teller to try to make ends meet.

But when the cost of child care quickly outstripped her earnings, and the heartbreak of never seeing her children sank in, she quit and has been struggling to make it on food stamps and the $1,700 a month she gets in child support. When the children are asleep, she works at an "Internet marketing job" trying to place click-on ads on social media sites. It nets her a few hundred dollars a month.

For Sprague, who is, in a manner of speaking, Smith's ideal of a married mother staying home with her young children, Smith's comments were beyond frustrating - not because she disagrees with him, but because he is disconnected from the reality of her life. "I wish it were as simple as, 'Go get married,' " she said. "But it's not."

As the sky darkens, Sprague calls out to her 8-year-old daughter, Collette. "Jelly bean! Come in the house!" Collette wants to be a vet when she grows up. She also wants to be a mommy, Sprague says, and the girl is matter-of-fact that she'll be able to do both.

And marriage?

Collette, huffing from a long afternoon playing out in the cold, wrinkles her nose. "Marriage," she says, "is gross."

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