Have you ever noticed that conservative American media and politicians are fond of painting women working outside the home as some new development that women have “chosen” to do for personal fulfillment and, presumably, enjoyment? The reality is, excepting royalty and a few others of great wealth, women have always worked to feed their families. This ideal of the middle class white woman sitting around in the suburbs is a recent phenomenon, and, really, it’s not a very attractive one.
For that matter, the notion that children shouldn’t work is a recent development too. Prior to the industrial revolution, children worked on their parents’ farm or in their shops. Our school calendar still acknowledges that children are needed at home in the summer to help on the farm. After the industrial revolution, children went to the factories right along with their parents.
Before the enactment of child labor laws, children were with their parents helping them do their work. The first change that challenged parenthood was the shift from working at home to working outside the home. When the solution to that problem (children working there too) was no longer viable, the “ideal” became that a woman should no longer contribute to the economic well-being of her family. She should “just” be at home and tend to them.
Now we’ve created an economy in which women are nearly half the work force. And it typically takes two incomes to keep families fed and clothed (or to keep up with the Joneses, depending on one's income level). Not to mention, we have many households headed by only a woman, and I have to assume these mothers aren’t “choosing” to go to work for their “pleasure and fulfillment.”
Men and women both used to work in or close to their home. Now women and men both have to work outside the home, in most cases. The question should not be, how can we guilt women into giving up economic independence. The question should be, how, in our modern society, do we best support parents, male and female , in their dual roles as caregivers and breadwinners? It’s going to take a dramatic cultural shift to accommodate this evolution in the view of work and family.