Kirsten Swinth: Ann Romney-Hilary Rosen Dust-up Can't Be Reduced to a Question of "Choice"

Roundup: Historians' Take

Kirsten Swinth is an associate professor of history at Fordham University. Her work focuses on women, work, and culture. She is working on a book about care and competition in postindustrial America and the making of the working family. This op-ed was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.

Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s declaration a few weeks ago that Republican first lady hopeful Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life” has played out in the media as another politically charged spat in the perpetual mommy wars about women’s choice between paid labor or at-home family care.

It turns out though that the idea of “choice,” whether invoked by left or right, doesn’t even begin to describe the real dilemmas of work and family. Seeing the decision as a choice women make between two options may feel like a happy compromise in the culture wars, but the language of choice has helped obscure the role that business practices, economic pressures, and government policies play in shaping the possibilities that any individual family might choose among.

To see our way forward, we would all do better to remember that the birth of choice came at a particular political and historical moment.

The idea of choosing to stay at home or to work for wages emerged in the 1970s out of a debate that raged across the country over the fate of the housewife. Women’s movement activists claimed victory in widening choices for women’s lives. But, the then-brand-new “pro-family” movement accused feminists of denigrating the role of housewife and mother....

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