In their book The Mommy Myth, authors Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels point out that mothers on opposite ends of the earning spectrum are often sent vastly different cultural messages.
Middle class mothers are encouraged to postpone or forego their professional development and told that doing otherwise is selfish and damaging to their children, while poor mothers are told that they’re lazy for even thinking about staying home with their children, continually being stereotyped as welfare queens. For middle and upper class women, motherhood is glamorized as the ultimate feminine endeavor, the one pursuit that proves your womanhood. While for poor women, motherhood is classified as something they’ve “gotten themselves into” and must endure as punishment.
Douglas and Michaels show that in the late ’90’s, as the obsession with wealthy celebrity moms exploded (a trend that certainly hasn’t waned over a decade later), the portrait of the welfare mother surged alongside it, always described as “trapped in a cycle of dependency,” relying on government assistance to support her children and constantly portrayed as lazy, un-feeling, and promiscuous.
The result of these contradictory arguments is twofold: Not only are poor mothers vilified as the dangerous outcome of the rejection of traditional marriage and motherhood, but women are also pitted against each other. In the words of Douglas and Michael: “These media depictions reinforced the divisions between ‘us’ (minivan moms) and ‘them’ (welfare mothers, working-class mothers, and teenage mothers).”
This theme came up again and again during discussions at the Shriver Report Live, a recent event hosted by The Atlantic Media Company that promoted the newly released Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink. The Shriver Report shows the stunning rates of financial insecurity among American women and the children they care for and examines the effects of that insecurity on the national economy. A great deal of the book is dedicated to profiles of women “living on the brink,” and the live event featured speeches from and conversations with women facing some of these economic crises.
After hearing their stories (in their own words—one thing mainstream media often fails to provide) one thing is clear: Women at the lower end of the earning spectrum have exactly the same goals as those on the higher end: They want to earn enough money to support their families, want to spend time with their children, and want to maintain a sense of self. (You can follow the continuing conversation on Twitter with hashtag #WhatWomenNeed.)
Yes, there are differences in our lives. Like many of the other women in the room at The Shriver Report Live, I am not one of the 70 million women living in or on the brink of poverty. I can’t imagine the stress some of the women and men profiled in the report experience every day. Like Maria Shriver writes in her essay in the collection, “I’m not thrown into crisis mode if I have to pay a parking ticket, or if the rent goes up. If my car breaks down, my life doesn’t descend into chaos.” As a woman with the privilege (and the luxury) of writing about the challenges of developing professionally while raising children, the difficulties I contemplate each week are far removed from the painful realities that women lower in the earning spectrum face each day. If I miss a week of work because my son is sick, for example, I may be tacitly penalized by my higher-ups, but a woman making minimum wage could lose her job outright. To compare these scenarios would be insulting.
But while the issues are certainly different, after listening to the men and women involved with the Shriver Report, I realize that to categorize them as belonging to two groups of people is wrong. In fact, women in the middle-to-high income brackets can’t turn a blind eye to the challenges women on the lower end of the earning spectrum face, because the glass ceiling and the inadequate support originate from the same problem: a stubborn disregard for women’s needs in the workplace.
For one example, Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of New America and author of the groundbreaking article "Why Women Still Can’t Have it All," aptly points out that the root of the problem for working mothers of all income groups is that our culture doesn’t value childcare. Unlike many of our counterparts in Europe, we don’t have any type of organized public early childhood education program. Our maternity leave—those precious first few weeks of caring for a newborn—is dismally short and not guaranteed. And though for women like me it can seem like childcare swallows up such a large percentage of our earnings, the women who provide childcare are frequently underpaid or paid under the table with no legal protection and no paid sick days. (For more examples, Jennifer Barrett’s recent article on the issues facing working parents is a great read.)
Even if you don’t have the time or resources to march to the Capitol, you can start advocating for women on the brink immediately by making impactful changes in your personal and professional life.
1. Value Your Care
For an in-depth look at our cultural views of childcare, you can read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay in the Shriver Report, but the bottom line is that you should re-think how you think about care. You should hold your employer accountable for providing you with the paid sick leave you need to take care of your children and parents—and if you are an employer, you should hold yourself accountable by both legally employing childcare and providing fair, reasonable leave. If you have the resources to privately employ a caregiver, make accommodations to offer her the same type of flexibility you expect from your employer.
By valuing both caregiving and breadwinning equally, we can create a culture that allows women to grow professionally without being penalized for periodically providing care in all income brackets. This type of cultural change has to start with women like me who have professional and personal relationships with caregivers and who will likely be caregivers at some point in our lives.
2. If You’re Not Vulnerable, Be an Advocate for Those Who Are
If you’re a salaried employee with adequate benefits and leave, learn about how your organization treats hourly or part-time workers. Do they have benefit options, paid sick leave, and safe working conditions? Do their managers offer them opportunities to learn and grow?
While speaking out against unfair treatment could cost minimum-wage earners their jobs, salaried employees aren’t as vulnerable and have freer access to human resources and upper management. If you do, ensure that those employees are treated with respect, and leverage your position to affect change if necessary.
3. Learn, Share, Repeat
While we still have a long way to go, everyday stories of women living on the brink, of the continuing gap in wages paid to men and women, and of the inadequate safety net and dismal opportunities for people trying to clamber out of poverty pop up in the media. Efforts by contributors to the Shriver Report— including pop-culture royalty like Beyonce Knowles, Eva Longoria, Jennifer Garner, and Lebron James—are helping the cause. But you may be reluctant to chat about these issues at the water cooler. Maybe you’re worried that you’ll meet eye-rolls or awkward shuffling for bringing up these “women’s issues.” Maybe you’re still reluctant to call yourself of a feminist. Maybe you’re worried that someone else will call you one.
But let’s be clear about something: Women make up half of the workforce, half of the voting population. We are more than two-thirds of the breadwinners or co-breadwinners in American households. These aren’t women’s issues—these are the issues of all people that work in the United States. And if you are invested in your own professional development, you should be invested in learning about the economic landscape for women and men in all earning brackets.
Moreover, it is the responsibility of those of us in stable jobs who aren’t at risk of being fired for sharing our opinion to push these conversations into their rightful place in the mainstream. Read about them, tweet about them, and talk about them with your peers, colleagues, and family members. We can’t continue to divide the culture into us and them, their problems and ours. #WhatWomenNeed is each other.