“We Need the Women Back at Work”

// 18 April 2010

David Cameron’s tax break for married couples idea is pushing the idea that it’s better for one parent to stay at home full-time to look after the kids (hm, I wonder which parent that would be?).

This of course, ignores the diverse nature of modern families (if you agree, check out the Don’t Judge My Family campaign).

But we’re probably going to experience quite a lot more of the old “well all our problems would be fixed if women didn’t work” argument over the next few years, what with the recession and all that. And of course, people will ignore the fact that women have always had to work and it was only ever the privileged few who had the choice to opt into the 1950s housewife stereotype.

So I thought it was timely to post up this interesting advertisement from 1947 Wife and Home magazine to remind us just exactly how things change. How soon before we see adverts telling us ‘we need the women back at home’?

We NEED the women back at work again


We can’t get on without the women

And that means YOU…

We can’t win back prosperity without the women’s help. Our manpower is not sufficient. Britain is up against it. Try and free yourself for work, whole-time or part-time. In the next big effort, you can be one of the women who turn the tide of recovery.

Help to make the goods we want – Join your friends at work – Put more money in your bag

There are vacancies in important industries in most districts – Go, phone or write to your nearest ministry of labour office.

We NEED the women back at work again.

Photo by me

Comments From You

rox // Posted 18 April 2010 at 6:44 pm

You know I sit on the fence with this one. No one should be judged. Some mothers have to work. Period. But I do think kids do better when one parent can stay at home with them the first few years.

I am single and poor as all heck, but I made the decision to be a nanny and bring my child with me to work so that I could spend the time with him.

I wish that all mothers could have the opportunity to stay at home with their kids if they want to, especially in the first few years.

I often watch these debates between the stay at home/extended nursing vs work and formula feed… and I think there is no way for the camps to not be at odds with each other somewhat.

When it comes to our kids people have beliefs about “what is better” for kids in general. Some people feel that 50 hours of day care starting at 6 weeks of age is hard for kids and others think it doesn’t matter. Some people feel that nursing until a year and beyond is important for kids and others claim that believing nursing is important is hurting them by “judging” their decisions.

If simply believing that day care and formula aren’t healthy for kids you are automatically judging everyone who is unable to stay at home and nurse, then there will never be peace among the two camps.

Most people I know (or at least am willing to associate with) who believing in nursing and staying home with kids if possible don’t have any judgement about people who aren’t able to do that.

Sometimes nursing doesn’t work out or it doesn’t fit with a work schedule and sometimes mothers have to work. Is it a terrible tragedy? No. If there is a difference it’s a slight difference and it’s the over-all family life that makes the hugest difference.

All that being said, man I wish that mothers were given a year to stay at home with their children, and YES I think it should be an option for the father to be the stay at home parent.

My father stayed at home with my brother for the first three years and my mother was the “breadwinner” and I think it worked out quite well.

All of us that are trying to make the best decisions for our children and our families should be given support. Whatever individual decisions those are, do one should be judged about how they do what they need to to provide for their families.

But personally the idea of staying home and taking care of the kids all day sounds great to me! And sometimes I feel like I am judged by people who think staying at home with kids and extended breastfeeding is “nonsense”.

In the case you are pointing out there very well may be judging. But I don’t think saying that you think 50 hours of day care is not the ideal situation for a 6 week old infant, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re judging people who need to use day care and go back to work right away. If I hadn’t found the opportunity to take my son to work with me, I would have had to do the same.

Ally // Posted 18 April 2010 at 6:59 pm

Yep, scary stuff.

Horry // Posted 18 April 2010 at 9:38 pm

The “Don’t judge my family” campaign looks great – I will be signing up (up until now, I actually thought I’d misunderstood what the Tory proposals were, as they’re so blatantly inequitable I couldn’t believe I’d got it right).

Rox, I do think stating that “kids do better when one parent can stay at home” sounds judgemental, and also that it’s incorrect. It’s not just a question of practicalities, but of individual relationships. Day care and formula are only less healthy than staying at home and nursing if doing the latter isn’t having a detrimental effect on how you operate as a parent overall. And it can do, and that doesn’t mean that your children are necessarily losing out, just that parenthood isn’t some great leveller which makes everyone have the same interest, abilities and passions to bring to their parenting. And yes, you may suggest that if there’s a difference it’s only a “slight difference”, but even that’s a kind of generosity which isn’t yours to graciously bestow. I agree with you that financial and time constraints mean people can’t make the choices which are right for them and their children on an individual level. Moreover, I wouldn’t judge or feel judged by anyone who wants to stay at home with their children for an extended period; on the contrary, it’s what my partner would do if the time and money practicalities were in place for us too. Even so, I do feel judged by people who don’t seem to understand that even if every parent had all the time and money in the world, it still wouldn’t mean that staying at home was the most beneficial option for everyone. I need to work, but even if I didn’t, I would want to, both for me and for my family. This difference matters to me and to many other women – why are “The Feminine Mystique” and “The Women’s Room” still so popular today? (despite the fact that they’re endlessly belittled as portraying the middle-class feminist’s indulgence position because obviously women who like to work just haven’t found a crap enough job yet… try selling a similar line to an unemployed man of any class). In short, we don’t need people appearing to excuse our actions on the basis of us not having had “the opportunity” to do otherwise (especially when “otherwise” is basically “the same as I did”). Give us the choices, sure, but don’t pre-judge what the right choice for each parent and child should be.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 18 April 2010 at 10:02 pm

Amongst historians, some people argue that the ‘return’ of women to work from the 1950s (as suggested by that image above) was not a ‘victory for feminists’ but in fact a demand of the economy for more workers.

Even today, we can fantasise about women not working, but the economy couldn’t survive without us. 50% of Scotland’s workforce is female. 72% of the (working age) female population in Scotland works, compared to 77% of men. Roughly 44% of the working female population have dependent children. The labour market would collapse if women stopped working; it would even collapse if only mothers stopped working.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 18 April 2010 at 10:09 pm

Just a moderator’s note, it’s likely I won’t be able to approve comments very quickly. It’s normally the case that there is a delay of course, but there’s likely to be more of a delay in my case! Thought I’d mention it now anyway.

FertileFem // Posted 19 April 2010 at 9:29 am

I have to say, it can be a bit tiresome hearing all about how incredibly privileged and wealthy those who stay home, even part of the time, must be — I stay home with my children and work a part-time job from home (as do many of the working and middle class women in my area who can’t afford full-time child care but must work to some extent, though not many do theirs from home and instead work nights or weekends) and while there are undoubtedly some privileges in that, they certainly aren’t economic. My caring labour is worth absolutely nothing in economic or social terms because what I do is supposed to be a ‘labour of love,’ not worthy of compensation. There’s an awful lot of talk about how important raising children is and how motherhood is so great, blah blah blah, but talk is cheap when actions belie the opposite.

When I do re-enter the ‘proper’ workforce my skills will be considered outdated, unpolished and worth even less than they were before. I will earn much less over my lifetime than a man, a woman without children and those mothers who returned to work when their paid maternity leaves (if they got one) were up. I’ll be much more at risk for poverty when I’m older as I will have forgone the fully paid-up state pension that other workers have. While I might be privileged in staying home with my children now, I am paying a ‘mummy tax’ that will have a knock-on effect for the rest of my life. Again, that’s not to say I’ve got it so rough because lord knows I’ve got it easy compared to so many women working their fingers to the bone night and day, but merely to point out that even those of us ‘privileged’ enough to stay at home are paying for it one way or another.

One can’t put raising children or managing a household on one’s CV as it is seen as irrelevant. And it will continue to be viewed as irrelevant, even undesirable, as long as only labour that falls outside of the domestic sphere is treated as “real” work. Women who stay at home ARE working. It’s just that our contributions to society aren’t counted in economic terms, even though they are great.

Saying that a child would be better off with one-to-one or small group care (which doesn’t have to be a parent) isn’t judgmental, it’s a pretty indisputable fact. That so many families are forced to put their children into cheap, large-group care where they aren’t given the individual attention they deserve (even though the care may be adequate for its purposes) is not acceptable or desirable to most. If women are expected to be proficient consumers and workers as well as primary caregivers, we need much better caring systems, heavily subsidised by the state, and with much better-paid and trained workers. Don’t forget that one of the demands of the second wave movement was free 24/7 child care. We seem to have let that one fall by the wayside, leaving individual mothers in the lurch to fight that battle on our own.

Counting on men to step up the plate and start doing an equal amount of childrearing and housework hasn’t worked so far and, short of an economic and social revolution, doesn’t look likely any time soon, no matter how many baby steps have been made. Men are also constrained by long-established economic pressures and gender stereotypes. I fear that placing all of our hopes for change on fathers’ ability to break though rigid societal structures is going to leave us, and our children, waiting in the wings for a very long time. We can and should work towards a more equitable division of household and caring labour, not to mention an overhaul of gender stereotypes, but it’s proved to be a slow, arduous process. In the meantime and in concert with those efforts, we should be working to value (both societally and economically) women’s work as primary caregivers and essential parts of our communities. We should make it easier for women to work, yes, but we should also make it easier for them (or their partners) to stay at home when their children are young if that’s what they want. And there’s nothing ‘1950s housewife’ (read: derisory) about that.

Troon // Posted 19 April 2010 at 12:35 pm

I like the ‘Don’t judge’ campaign very much for highlighting the moral judgements inherent in the married tax break policy. The same judgements are there across a huge range of other tweaks in the way couples with children are treated too-not least a much clearer focus on total household income for tax credits and Child Trust Funds-as if the practical income of a couple lucky enough to have children and each earning 17,000 was equivalent to that in which one of them earned 34,000 and the other provided free childcare. Perhaps the site’s organisers could also link to Feminist Avatar’s earlier discussion on her blog, in which she points out (among other things) the contradictions of promoting income disparity to keep couples together, given it correlates closely with relationship breakdown.

I fear falling into Conservative rhetorical hands by talking about childcare here, because most married couples are not looking after dependent children, but it is frightening how far their plans generally are so centred on making ‘stay-at-home’ a literal term, and how damaging that is. In a world in which the very language (‘stay-at-home Mum’) is indicative of idealised yet practically crushing isolation; in which women get so much criticism for simply being out of the house (in the shops, on the school run, or, horror of horrors, in being ‘both visible and poor); and in which young mothers need new support groups because they get given huge responsibilities as soon as their child is born, with none of the cosy run-in that men like me who eventually take full-time responsibility get; the Conservative plan is to pull the state back from providing education, support and help on an extra-household drop-in basis, and substitute instead house visits by health visitors (intrusive, potentially judgemental and confining). My partner and I have been well served by HVs since we had children, and indeed may not have coped without them at some points, but confining ourselves to the house (rather than having the OPTION of a home visit) is a way of cutting critical support networks away, not promoting them. The vision is absolutely of a household, with a male earner, and it underlines everything the Conservatives propose.

And, for me, it is that isolation that creates the judgmental culture which surrounds parenting. During some of my spells as full-time carer I find the lack of contact with others made me fish around for help from books or on the net, advice which is intrinsically generalised. I find myself forced to give significance to tiny decisions in order to feel remotely in control of my own life, and then to fail to understand that what to me seems important and sensible would be utterly wrong for someone else. If deprived of being around women who parent, being with them as they make the practical compromises of a day with kids, and getting to know them as women who are also mothers, then the world becomes a neat stereotyped pigeonhole room, in which I identify myself according to crappy categories which have no real meaning, best guesses at a false identity which need defending because otherwise there is simply nothing which makes me me other than ‘parenting’ (no stereotypes of ‘Dad’ fit-another small mercy for me in all this which women don’t get granted, everything, even that which is utterly unrelated to biology, is wrapped up as inappropriate-since nothing’s ever good enough-‘mothering’). So, yes, don’t judge my family, but also don’t isolate it and centre it on the home so I have to fight so hard against judging others and being judged by them.

Jilly // Posted 19 April 2010 at 12:57 pm

I love that advert.

As others have already said, the economy would collapse if all women – or even all women with children – gave up work.

I always think it odd that some men think women working are taking jobs away from them. But it’s still the case that a large number of women work in what are traditonally female areas of work so if they gave up these jobs – would men be able and willing to do them?

It’s always a vexed question about whether one parent stays at home with young children or whether they both work. I do admire couples who think up imaginative ways of dealing with the problem.

Juliet // Posted 19 April 2010 at 1:42 pm

Yes, the whole point is that a misogynist society wants women in the home having kids and doing domestic stuff, but when there’s some kind of national crisis (like a world war) it’s suddenly, Hey! of course you wimmin can do all the jobs men do. We need you!

Then when the crisis is over, it’s back to kinder, kirche and of course kuche.

rox // Posted 19 April 2010 at 10:08 pm

Horry, I agree with you that decisions like this have a case by case bases. I really don’t think it’s judgmental to say that I feel like 50 hours of day care a week is hard for kids especially starting at 6 weeks. I’ve worked in high end day cares and Montessori pre-schools, and I’ve been the one whose with the kids when they ache for their parents towards the end of the day.

The research is of course very hard to interpret because there is always a bias i.e. “See day care is terrible!” Or “See! Day care has NO EFFECT!”

But saying that I think 50 hours of day care a week is hard for kids isn’t a judgment any more than saying that I think MSG is bad for you or that GMO’s are concerning….

Somewhere we all have these kinds of beliefs and I hope there can be a space to have different beliefs about what is healthy for human beings “in general” while understanding that everyone else in the world has to make their own decisions.

Like I bet you would hate to see a three year old chugging an entire Jolt Cola. That much caffeine would be awful for a child. Right?

Does everything have to be subjective, or is it ok to look to science and do as much research as we can as to the best way to create a healthy environment for our kids?

Are we not allowed to say, “High levels of caffeine given to kids all day long seems like it would have a huge affect of kids from all that I’ve read about caffeine and child development?”

No where in saying that does it mean you’re judging the parent that gave it to them. That parent might be right, maybe caffeine has no affect. Or maybe their child has a condition that caffeine is good for. Who knows?

Is there a way to talk about what we think is good for children without it meaning that we think badly about people who feel differently than we do?

I am asking because I’ve seen these conversations come up and they get so impassioned. I understand why.

There is little in the world that captures our hearts as human beings as deeply as our children.

I don’t think that ritalin is good for kids in almost all cases. That’s just my own personal feeling.. i.e. I would choose all other options and probably wouldn’t ever use such drugs for my children.

But I really genuinely don’t judge people who would. I understand the thought that “if it helps my child function right now than it’s worth it, and it hasn’t been proven exactly what the long term affects so we’re just going to hope they aren’t too bad”. I really do.

polly // Posted 21 April 2010 at 8:00 am

What feminist avatar said. Marx’s theory of “the reserve army of labour” – a floating population of workers who can be brought in or out of work to suit a capitalist economy – puts a less rosy view on the arguments about women working. In twentieth century capitalist societies this army of labour is largely female – very convenient in the 1940’s, as they can be paid lower wages and will accept temporary work, as they are portrayed as only working for ‘pin money’, not economic survival.

As feminist avatar also points out, women HAVE always particpated

in waged labour as long as waged labour has existed – the idea of the nuclear family with stay at home mum is largely a late twentieth century, middle class western confection. It’s certainly not a typical family model among my own family and never has been.

I think it’s a great pity that the debate on women and work has always to take place in a simplistic “careers v childcare” way. For starters not all women are mothers, and secondly not everyone who works has a “career”. Personally I consider myself very much to have a job, not a career. I turn up for the money. I don’t think of it as a way of saving my soul or gaining personal fulfilment, and if I won the lottery I’d resign tomorrow. Work life balance applies to everyone, not just to parents.

Jezebella // Posted 22 April 2010 at 8:26 am

I agree with Feminist_Avatar. If it comes to a time when not so many workers are required, I’m sure women would be shoved right back to “where they belong” – the home.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 26 April 2010 at 10:32 pm

Thanks for your patience regarding comments! As a few came in over the last few days I’ve refrained from publishing a couple which make points which have already been addressed, to avoid duplication. Due to general busyness, I’ll probably only be able to publish one more round of comments on this, in the next few days or so, and then close comments. Thanks for your understanding.

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