Why the "opt-out revolution" is a comforting lie

Family-studies professor takes on the myth of mothers forsaking the workforce in droves.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
April 1, 2006 6:24AM (UTC)
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The slightest show of disunity among women -- especially feminists -- seems to reliably generate dramatic headlines with the word "war" or "revolution" tacked on the end. Take, for instance, "The Mommy Wars" or "The Opt-Out Revolution." Well, Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family studies at Evergreen State College, says to get the hell over it, already -- mothers are not opting-out. In an article in "The Christian Science Monitor, Coontz argues that the opt-out movement is a myth, just as others have argued about the mommy-wars. It's a myth that has flourished because of one underlying, no-brainer nugget of truth: mixing a career with motherhood is difficult. Worse yet, this myth is "a comforting lie that relieves social anxieties without solving them." In other words, don't worry about the conflict between work and family -- a woman's desire to stay home barefoot and have lots of babies trumps all.

Coontz points to statistics which show that mothers are increasingly joining the workforce: "In 1993, the labor force participation of mothers aged 25 to 54 was 14 percent lower than that of childless women in the same age group. By 2000 it was 10 percent lower. By 2004 it was just 8 percent lower." What's more, Coontz says that most mothers with the financial flexibility to "opt-out" do so for only a period of time and soon return to the workplace. As for women who chose to leave the workforce for longer periods of time, they can be divided into two converse groups: "One is women in the richest 5 percent of the population. The other group is women with a high school education or less, who married and had children at an early age." The wages the latter would make simply cannot cover the cost of "child care or the additional expenses of transportation and work clothes."


Coontz essentially concludes that -- face-it --women are now a permanent part of the workforce. "Pro-family" advocates should fight for legislation that supports women and men to balance parenthood with work, she says. "This includes subsidized parental leaves, quality child care and preschool, and options to cut back on work without losing medical benefits or seniority," Coontz writes. "Mothers are not opting out of work responsibilities, and it is time for employers and legislators to stop opting out of their responsibilities to families." Are you cheering Coontz on for that zinger, or is it just me?

Tracy Clark-Flory

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