Celebrating Motherhood — and Reproductive Freedom

mother babyTwo months ago, a single mother’s ordeal was grabbing headlines. Shanesha Taylor, homeless and desperate for a job, landed an interview at a Scottsdale insurance office. But the 35-year-old mother of two faced a difficult dilemma when she went to her interview on March 21. She couldn’t find child care, but she also couldn’t afford to cancel.

Short on options, Taylor let her two boys, ages 6 months and 2 years, wait alone in her car for 45 minutes while she tried to secure a source of income for her family. Taylor was subsequently arrested for child abuse for leaving her sons unattended in a hot car. Her children were examined at an area hospital and released as uninjured, but Taylor nevertheless faced two felony counts.

The best gift to mothers would be the ability to choose motherhood without suffering tremendous financial blows.

Taylor endangered her children, but she did it because she faced a tough dilemma — a choice between what was best for them in the short term and what was best for them in the long term. She faced this dilemma in the richest nation in the world — a nation that is nonetheless the worst among rich nations in terms of family-friendly policies. Taylor’s unemployment didn’t help matters, but even for the employed, social programs are lacking. As Stephanie Coontz summarized in her interview with us last year, “We are the only rich, industrial country in the world that doesn’t have subsidized parental leave, limits on the work week, some form of national health insurance, and/or strong investments in child care and preschool.”

Consequently, parenting is an almost insurmountable expense for many. In the last 20 years, the cost of maternity care and delivery has swelled in the United States — in fact, tripling in the case of delivery. Pregnancy, delivery, and newborn care now come to $30,000 on average. Add another $20,000 if the delivery is by C-section. It’s far more than what people in other developed nations pay. Americans pay more than twice what people in Switzerland pay for childbirth, and more than three time what people in Britain pay. Continue reading

The Family Revolution and the Egalitarian Tradition in Black History

Sadie T. Alexander

In the interview with Stephanie Coontz featured earlier this month, we discussed the many changes in American households that have occurred in the 50 years since Betty Friedan published her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s book was a literary catalyst that helped usher in a family revolution, in which the norm of one-earner households was replaced by the norm of the two-earner households we know today; a change that gave many women more equality in their marriages.

A strong egalitarian tradition has long been a part of black history.

What might surprise some readers is that we could have also discussed the many changes that had occurred already, even as Friedan was still writing her manuscript. Among black Americans, much of what Friedan wrote was not prescient, but dated. As Coontz wrote in A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, “Long before Betty Friedan insisted that meaningful work would not only fulfill women as individuals but also strengthen their marriages, many African-American women shared the views of Sadie T. Alexander, an influential political leader in Philadelphia, who argued in 1930 that working for wages gave women the ‘peace and happiness’ essential to a good home life.”

While sorting out the book’s legacy, Coontz wanted to explain what The Feminine Mystique had gotten right and wrong about American families and women’s domestic roles in the 1960s. A particular problem Coontz addressed was how The Feminine Mystique ignored the experiences of black and other minority women — an omission cited by many critics since the book’s publication. A book Coontz found invaluable in addressing that omission was Bart Landry’s Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution (University of California Press, 2002). Landry did not write his book as a critique of The Feminine Mystique. Rather, it was while looking at historical statistics on wives’ employment that he decided to write in greater detail about an intriguing difference he noticed between black and white wives: “the employment rates of black wives were about ten years ahead of those of white wives.” Continue reading