March 27, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, March 27, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Should it be illegal to be a stay-at-home mom? Why feminists want to take this choice away from women
Should it be illegal for women to choose to be stay-at-home moms? If that sounds like an absolutely outlandish question—and it should—just keep in mind that it is a question now being asked in public in the nation of Australia. Behind this is the larger pattern of social and moral change within a society. It follows a predictable pattern. Something is proposed as a moral or social change that sounds absolutely unthinkable, then it becomes thinkable. It was implausible, but it gains in plausibility. Once it gains in plausibility, it becomes policy, and behind that policy is a form of political legal and social coercion. That kind of pattern is what should have our attention as we consider the controversy that has recently emerged in Australia, and of course it will not stay there.
Behind all of this is a report recently released by an organization that usually doesn’t garner a great deal of controversy. That’s the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD. That international organization is actually a legacy of the United States and the Marshall Plan. That was the plan whereby the United States brought economic assistance to much of war-torn Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was an effort to reach out and to rebuild, economically speaking, Germany and its allies as well as much of the rest of Europe. In the aftermath of World War II, that was necessary. But the OECD has continued in more recent decades, especially since 1960, as an organization that unites nations in the development of international trade and economic development.Show Full Transcript
The OECD recently released a report having to do with the relative employment rates and advanced economies. And in particular, the worldview of the OECD is that every single able-bodied adult should be a wage earner in the workforce. And that includes, of course, those who would otherwise be stay-at-home moms. This controversy emerged in Australia, but given the issues, it could’ve emerged in many other nations as well, including the United States. It came with a recent headline,
“Moms are economy’s greatest untapped resource, and we need to fix that.”
The reporter in this case was Liz Burke and as she wrote,
“Australia, we have a problem, and we’re not going to get away with it.”
“Away with it” had to do with Australia’s ranking in this particular study as relatively low in terms of the workforce engagement and, in particular, the large number of adults, in particular in this case, women who are stay-at-home moms who are not engaged in the wage-earning workforce. As she wrote,
“The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found the employment rate of women aged 25-54 years was in the lower third of OECD countries at 72.5 per cent. Australia’s employment rate of single mothers, 50.8 per cent was among the lowest in the developed world, with only Ireland and Turkey doing worse.”
Now before we go on, just consider that usage of words here “doing worse,” which indicates that doing better would mean fewer women staying at home with their children. She went on to report,
“Stay-at-home mothers were singled out as the ‘greatest untapped potential’ for Australia’s workforce and were creating ‘potentially large losses to the economy’, as were moms who worked part time.
“The provocative report,” she says, follows the fact that a major labor politician, Kate Ellis, “exited from politics, with the longtime politician citing difficulties reflected in the research.”
Now, again, this is the word “difficulties,” but notice how the politician herself described the situation.
“This had been a really hard decision for me … in the end it is a decision that I have made for only one simple reason.
“Whilst my son could travel with me as a baby, during the next term of parliament he will start school and have to stay in Adelaide. The simple truth is that I just cannot bear the thought of spending at least 20 weeks of every year away from him and the rest of my family.”
Now notice her decision it is presumed here is a problem, and a problem not just for the society in general, but very specifically for Australia’s economy. Just in a footnote to the larger story, the response to this particular politician deciding to stay home with her family was responded to with one columnist writing this:
“The parliament is still structured the way it was back in 1901 when the Australian states federated. That is, the parliament was designed for men and by men. Men who assumed parenting was the job of someone else. Modern public life remains utterly inconsistent with the realities of new motherhood and our country is the poorer for it.”
There’s no mention here of exactly what proposal this columnist made for making the Australian Parliament less by men and for men, it seems that nature more than anything else is the real enemy here. But that report was followed by an even more provocative proposal. In this case Sarrah Le Marquand wrote,
“It should be illegal to be a stay-at-home mom.”
Marquand, writing at The Daily Telegraph there in Australia, says that if there is any issue that is sure to gain controversy, it is going to be the topic of stay-at-home moms. She said,
“More specifically, the release of any data or analysis that dares recommend Australian women should get out of the living room/kitchen/nursery and back into the workforce.”
Marquand makes the argument that Australia’s economy depends upon an expanding workforce and stay-at-home moms are the largest identifiable problem in terms of full employment in that nation. Therefore, she goes on to make this analysis,
“So it’s not as simple as suggesting that the OECD’s rallying call to utilize the potential of stay-at-home mums is an insult to mothers — on the contrary, it is the desperately needed voice of reason that Australians cannot afford to ignore.”
Then the following paragraph,
“Rather than wail about the supposed liberation in a woman’s right to choose to shun paid employment, we should make it a legal requirement that all parents of children of school-age or older are gainfully employed.”
That is a very straightforward statement. She is stating that it should be a legal requirement that all parents, both mothers and fathers of children of school age or older must be employed. It would be a legal requirement; it would thus be illegal for a woman to choose to be a stay-at-home mom. Marquand simply dismisses the argument that women should be free to make this choice for themselves in terms of whether or not it’s liberating that a woman could decide to stay home. She described instead “the supposed liberation in a woman’s right to choose to shun paid employment.”
Now, again, you’ll notice the default is a woman being a wage earner in the workforce. The exception, the exception she wants to eliminate even as a possibility, is a woman who decides not to be in the wage earning workforce, but rather to invest her energies and her calling in her home, particularly in the raising of children.
We have seen several twists and turns in the development of the feminist argument and ideology, but here you have an author who calls for “a serious rethink of this kid-glove approach to women of child-bearing and child-rearing age. Holding us less accountable when it comes to our employment responsibilities is not doing anyone any favors. Not children, not fathers, not bosses — and certainly not women.”
But then she says,
“Only when the female half of the population is expected to hold down a job and earn money to pay the bills in the same way that men are routinely expected to do will we see things change for the better for either gender.”
“Only when it becomes the norm for all families to have both parents in paid employment, and sharing the stress of the work-home juggle, will we finally have a serious conversation about how to achieve a more balanced modern workplace.”
One of the most influential feminist ideologues of the second half of the 20th century was Simone de Beauvoir. She was the unmarried partner of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. And it was de Beauvoir who argued back in 1976,
“No woman should be authorized to stay home to raise her children. Women should not have that choice, because if there is such a choice too many women will make that one.”
That’s one of the most amazing and indeed spectacularly revealing statements ever made by an ideologue. In this case, she said women should not be free to make this choice, because if they have the freedom to make this choice, too many women will make it, that is the choice to stay at home with their children. In the view of the feminist ideologues, that would be an absolute disaster. Women choosing to stay home with their children would be the repudiation of the very ideology that supposedly was to liberate women to make their own choices in the first place.
The current controversy in Australia has to do with this report from the OECD and it is indeed the topic of a great deal of conversation. It’s a very serious issue, according to the OECD, that so many women are at home with their children rather than being deployed in the wage earning workforce. And we need to note that in terms of the unfolding moral revolution around us, this is a significant new turn, this is an economic argument that is now coming behind the moral argument.
That moral argument was made quite famously in the second half of the last century by figures such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. It was Betty Friedan who wrote about the woman in the home as being in a domestic concentration camp in so far she served as wife and mother to children. Friedan and her allies, also known of course for being advocates for legalized abortion in the name of feminism, argued that women should not be trapped in the role of being stay-at-home moms. But now you’ll notice that the argument has taken an entirely new turn. Now it’s not that women should not be trapped into staying home with their children, but rather they should not be free to make the choice to stay at home with their children.
As we look at this from across the Pacific Ocean, one of the things we need to note is that even if this controversy does not get transported to our shores in exactly these terms, the OECD report points to a new kind of argument we’re going to face, and that is the argument that women who are staying at home to raise their children are actually a drain on the workforce, a drain on the economy, an untapped asset for which there is moral responsibility. That’s something we need to note, because we can expect that this very same report is going to land in this country with some of the very same conclusions. One of the interesting things about Australia is that it, like Canada, amongst the dominion nations of the former British Empire had followed the British and European example in secularization more than has the United States, at least to date. Australia is a far more secular society. Even though there is a Christian tradition there and even though there’s a vital evangelical tradition, Australia never had the kind of generalized culture-shaping influence of Christianity that was the case in most of the United States throughout most of our history.
Here in the United States, the fact that this kind of story has not yet emerged with any kind of serious policy proposal almost surely has to do with the lingering influence of the Christian worldview. There is still a moral instinct, a reflex in this country amongst many people to respect the decision made by many moms to stay at home with their children.
Studies show most women with young children don't want to try to "lean in" and "have it all"
But next this takes us to another article that appeared at almost the same time. This was published in National Review, one of the most important journals of conservative intellectual discussion in the United States. The author was Stephen E. Rhoads, Professor of Politics Emeritus at the University of Virginia. The title of this article,
“Lean In’s Biggest Hurdle: What Most Moms Want.”
Now in the background of this article, Rhoads writes about the fact that academics and policy makers are perplexed by the fact that so many mothers decide either to stay at home with their children or they are engaged in something like part-time employment, or at any rate they are engaged with the workplace less than a man of a similar age. His opening illustration has to do with American academia and the regularly published complaint that there are too many men and too few women in advanced professorial roles. But as it turns out, men tend to continue in terms of their tenure-track, whereas many women do not. He then summarizes research findings and says this,
“One explanation for these findings could be that in the parental leave study, the female professors reported that they enjoyed doing most of these tasks, and they enjoyed them more than their male counterparts.”
That’s research language for the fact that study after study has indicated that women gain more in terms of self-satisfaction from being at home with children in the context of the home than do fathers. Then—and the background of this of course is the argument made in the 2013 book, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg—behind this is the argument that we have heard often in recent years that women who are not fully engaged in the workforce and furthermore making progress towards senior executive positions are letting down the team. Now Rhoads writes,
“Ignoring the stronger female inclination to nurture seems certain to thwart feminist efforts well beyond academia.”
Rhoads cites ample research indicating that,
“Most women who have dependent children don’t want to work full-time, much less to put in the hours required of corporate titans. We should listen to these women, too.”
In a very strategic series of sentences, Rhoads makes this argument,
“Initiatives aimed at changing historic male and female parenting and work patterns are based on the view that these historic patterns are socially constructed. But pregnancy and childbirth are not gender-neutral activities. They are biologically constructed and can be exhausting. Pregnancy is often accompanied by nausea and fatigue, and two different studies found that six months after giving birth, more than 75 percent of mothers have not achieved full functional status.”
“Even the roots of gender differences in parenting run deeper than societal norms and go beyond the simple fact that it is women who [nurse children]. Women’s greater inclination to nurture infants and toddlers is also rooted in hormones and in brain structure.”
He says this,
“Women’s bodies have more receptors for the nurturing hormone oxytocin than men’s, especially in pregnancy and during breastfeeding.”
At this point, the important thing to recognize is that Rhoads is arguing that being a mother versus a father is not just socially constructed reality, as the postmodernists and the feminist have been claiming for years, but rather it is, in his words, “biologically constructed.” There are very real differences. He goes on to make the argument that evolution too helps to explain the sex differences in nurturing inclination.
Now I cite Rhoads’ use of the arguments concerning biology and even evolution here to make a point. Here you have one of most important conservative intellectual journals in the United States, and even when it deals with this issue, debunking feminist ideology and so many contemporary arguments, you’ll notice that this author stays far, far away from anything that might remotely have to do with an argument that there is a Creator whose intention is reflected in his creation and in the fact that he created male and female as distinctly different complementary, one for the other, and that he created us with different roles, and that fatherhood and motherhood are not merely matters that aren’t just socially constructed, but also are not merely biologically constructed either—they are indeed divinely designed.
I appreciate the fact that Rhoads cites the 2012 Atlantic article by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled,
“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
As he says,
“After its publication, according to one official biography, it ‘quickly became the most-read article in the history of the magazine and helped spark a renewed national debate on the continued obstacles to genuine full male-female equality.’”
He then continues,
“A year later, dismayed by the increasing numbers of highly educated women in their twenties who were declaring that they never wanted to have children, Slaughter took to The Atlantic again to emphasize the ‘sheer delight, pleasure, and wonder that child-rearing often affords.’”
She also said that “having children is the best thing I’ve ever done, by a mile.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, of course, is one of the most accomplished women in contemporary America in professional terms. A professor of law at Harvard University, she has also been a very important foreign-policy figure in the United States State Department, and more recently she has been CEO of the organization New America. Rhoads writes,
“Slaughter’s thinking has continued to evolve. Just last year, the Washington Post reported that she has had ‘some pretty significant changes of heart.’”
In her words,
“When people say, ‘I’m home with my kids,’ I say, ‘You’re doing really important work,’ and I mean it. Whereas before, I was the classic woman that said, ‘Oh, what a pity.’ Like, ‘You’re not doing the real thing.’”
“One can’t read this interview without seeing how hard it has been for Slaughter to have spent so little time with her children. She vividly remembers the ‘deep dismay’ she felt the first time her child woke up at night and called for daddy, not mommy. Her sons are more likely to call her husband rather than her for advice or to share some good news.”
Looking back, Slaughter writes,
“Knowing what I know now, I wish I had taken one day a week when they were between 0 and 5 to be with them. I could have said, ‘Every Friday, instead of daycare, every Friday is a mom day.’ We would have done fun things. It would have mattered. And it would have been a pleasure for me.”
By the time you get to the end of Rhoads’ article he writes this,
“To help women thrive and achieve happiness as they see it, we must first acknowledge that most mothers — inside or outside academia — want to avoid full-time work, at least while their children are young. Proponents of ‘leaning in’ have no reason to believe they speak for most women or that they have a better understanding than women themselves of what’s good for them.”
He then asked the question,
“Why not try to accommodate the life preferences women in fact have?”
And of course the response to that comes from none other than Simone de Beauvoir, who argued that women should not be given this choice because if they have the choice too many will make this choice.
Just very recently on The Briefing we looked at the argument that was made that women with a college education and choose to stay at home with their children are wasting that college education. That’s one form of the new argument we are facing. We also looked then at the continuing subversion of the idea that it can be meaningful for a mother to stay at home with their children and to devote herself primarily, especially while her children are young, to the raising of those children.
But here you also see the next stage in the argument, and what’s truly alarming is just how fast this next stage has arrived. We’re looking at several arguments coming from different directions and they are coming consecutively and they’re coming at us fast. We need to note a couple things very quickly. We need to note the relative absence of any kind of explicit Christian worldview engagement with these issues; primarily it’s currently being discussed in the society entirely in terms of policy and economics and employment, or as we saw even in the article from National Review, biology. All of that is important, of course, but to the Christian it’s not nearly as important as understanding God’s purpose in marriage and the family and reproduction and in child rearing.
One of the other things we need to recognize is the constriction of autonomy and choice, this is a society that actually worships personal autonomy, but it worships choice only to the extent that people make the right choices in the view of the cultural elites. Christians will understand any number of factors may come into play in determining whether or not a mother is at home with their children or is engaged to one degree or another part-time or full-time in the wage earning workforce. Christians come to understand, however, that the most important issue is that there is a distinction between the roles of men and women, of mothers and fathers, and there is a distinction in terms of how we are engaged in the process of raising our children, and in the nurture of those children.
This is where Christians understand that the society around us appears to worship autonomy and choice, but the coercion that is coming at us means that what is really being worshiped is not choice and is not autonomy, not when people make the wrong choices, but is rather their own vision for the future good of human society. And that, as we now see, is a vision that requires all women to be actively in the workforce for the entirety of their adult lives. And of course, it’s expected the same of men and that also is just pointing to the fact that, increasingly, the creature that is made in God’s image is being reduced by policy makers and ideologues to nothing more than a cog in an economic machine.
There will be much more to talk about this week, there already is, but when it comes to the Christian worldview it’s hard to imagine any issue of greater importance than this or of greater relevance when it comes to understanding just what’s happening in the collision between the modern secular worldview and the Christian worldview. When an argument is made in public that it should be illegal for women to choose to be stay-at-home moms, we have transcended a cultural boundary that should have our attention and in a hurry. The greater likelihood is not that there will be a law making such a choice illegal, the fact is that other forms of coercion are probably even more powerful, including what we now see as the looming moral argument that women who stay at home with their children are a drain on the economy, because they are absent from the paid workforce. Expect that now to become rather standard cultural fare.