Women who opt-out of the workforce: non-contributors?

I read Katrina Onstad’s column in the Globe and Mail each week.  I find her social commentary to be witty, encapsulating and at times, provoking.  Which is exactly what her column titled, Kate Middleton Quits Her Job proved to be.

I expected more from a Katrina Onstad article than snide and judgmental comments directed at Kate Middleton for choosing to quit her job to plan her and Prince William’s royal wedding.  I was willing to ignore Onstad’s sneers about “giving it all up” for a man until she flung Kate into the epicenter of the mommy-wars, and the poor woman doesn’t even have children!

To support her argument, Onstad quotes noted philosopher Linda Hirshman:

“Philosopher Linda Hirshman took them on in her 2006 “manifesto” Get to Work. Her argument was only partially about how work can provide “human flourishing” or personal fulfillment (the usual reasons mothers work or don’t, after finances). Her real assertion was that a culture where women aren’t working sets back women as a group, reinforcing a dangerous social imbalance. Women remain financial dependents and unpaid labourers, while men earn cash and respect. Hirshman scorned “choice feminism” as a watery cop-out: Women unquestioningly supporting each other’s choices isn’t feminism; women working together for better social conditions for all women is.”

Well Ms. Hirshman and Ms. Onstad, I couldn’t disagree with you more and by calling women out who choose a different path than you as anti-feminist is frankly, oppressive.  Isn’t that what “choice” is about?  The freedom to choose for yourself what shape your life will take?

Suggesting that women who opt-out of the workforce by choice are non-contributors and setting back the entire feminist movement is asinine.  In fact, in my opinion such comments do nothing but stack insurmountable pressure on both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers.  In addition to bringing home the bacon and frying it up, don’t forget to swing by the local farmer’s market, pound the treadmill, toss in a load of laundry, recall the exact steps of long division, reply to that birthday party invitation and don’t forget that tomorrow is purple shirt day.

Why is it that Hirshman and Onstad have strongly tied work with contribution and contribution with compensation?  I don’t see a dime for the hours upon hours I log on the home front, but to imply that I am not contributing?  Contributing to what exactly?

I see my contribution everyday.  I see my son reach out to help up a fallen friend on the playground.  I see my son enthusiastically separate the recyclables from the garbage.  I see my son neatly fold his outgrown clothes to donate to a family in need.

It is true that there is not a chorus of people telling me what a great job I am doing.  It is true that I don’t see my bank balance increasing.  It is true that there are days I think that there has to be more to my life than snow pants, potty breaks and trips to the doctor.

But who is Hirshman to put a value on my day?  Why are Katrina Onstad’s musings worth more than my walks to the schoolyard?

When I think of a woman like Michelle Obama who has put her law career on hold to focus on being the First Lady, opting-out is the last thought that comes to mind.  I view her as someone who is opting-in.  She is opting-in (for a short time) to be present in her life and do something that she is passionate about.

And that is what feminism means to me.

At this point in my life, I have decided to opt-out of the work force but don’t ever suggest that I am not contributing to our society.

photo credit: http://www.heligirl.com


16 thoughts on “Women who opt-out of the workforce: non-contributors?

  1. Amen! As a fellow SAHM, I couldn’t agree more. “Work” and “contribution” come in many forms, but what that author is suggesting is that the only work that is *worthwhile* is the stereotypical ‘men’s’ work – outside the home, and with a paycheck accompanying it. I can’t buy into her version of ‘feminism.’

    And just as a sidenote, did you detect just the faintest whiff of jealousy blowing through that article?? So much for this ‘sisterhood’ of which she speaks.

    • Hi Christy:

      I thought much of the argument reeked of stereotypical. To be very honest, I am also sick of men being grossly stereotyped as the archaic male. Many men are supportive of their partners choosing to work or contribute to the family in a non-compensatory way. I think that comments like Hirshman’s devalues men as well as women and suggests that we have not evolved at all as a society.

      Ps . . . I couldn’t even start on the whole jealousy tone! I sensed it too. And to suggest that Kate Middleton will not be contributing! Ha! I wager that her charitable contributions will draw not only huge financial gains to the causes she supports but will also greatly increase their profile.

      PPs . . . I guess I shouldn’t tell Onstad that I quit my job (was going to anyway) to plan my wedding!

  2. I have SO many thoughts on this:

    1. Our society needs to VALUE the work of raising children and not just measure “work” by the numbers on a paycheque.

    2. As educated women we need to learn how to value work that doesn’t have a dollar amount attached to it (it’s hard when we get educated in order to get a job to be “successful”).

    3. The “choice” to work, or not to, is only for the privileged few who can afford to make that “choice”.

    4. Respect for all the different situations is key. The negative judgement before you have walked in someone else’s shoes should stop.

    5. All women are amazing!

    • Hi Sandy:
      It is a topic that I have SO many thoughts on too but with limited space I had to edit down my rant. I agree whole heartedly with all of our comments.

      I was going to name the article: You Know You Live In a Utopia When People Spend Time and Energy Devaluing Each Other’s Contributions To Society. But that seemed a little long 🙂

      In all seriousness, it is a shame that western culture places such an emphasis on paid work as being a contribution. In many other places on earth, parents are far too concerned with where their child’s meal is going to come from or how to keep them safe from war.

      In addition, what does this say about what value our culture assigns elderly people. They are no longer working, so are they non-contributors? Pretty sad when you are only worth your last dollar.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. Damn, I forgot about pink shirt day yesterday…and I totally agree with your post.
    I mostly love my job but I can assure you that what I do every day at the office in no ways contributes to society in the same way that staying home with my kids (despite my wonderful and loving caregiver) would.
    I just don’t have a choice right now…and I don’t think that anyone should judge anyone else for the “choice” they make.
    Loved your post as always!

    • It’s true that it is not a “choice” for so many and that is why I feel that working mothers are also often subject to a different kind of “judgement”. Working moms are expected to somehow juggle all the balls – effortlessly.

      I am just so tired of these mommy-wars. To be honest, I don’t actually see a lot of this (as the media would lead you to believe) in my neighbourhood at least. For the most part, people are respectful of each other and their choices. I think that book writers like Hirshman need to make big waves to sell books (I guess so she can contribute?) and make big dollars.

      Thanks for your comments 🙂

  4. It never seems to end. The justification of one choice versus another. You can’t be a real contributor unless you are earning the big bucks. You can’t be a real woman unless you are working. What about the support we give friends who are working and friends who are not working? Sometimes I think some feminists are short sighted and don’t get what having that choice or ability to work if you need to really means.

    • I completely agree with you! Maybe I am just really lucky, but I find that my mom-friends support each other in many ways (both working and non-working).

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. 🙂

  5. Feminism is about the right to choose and I’m shocked at how many women forget this. Is making women feel guilty about choosing to put their family first really a step in the right direction?

    Before I had children it would have been hard for me to imagine putting my career on hold, but I never would have judged anyone who did. Don’t judge others until you can walk in their shoes.

    I feel honoured that I have the option to choose to stay home. (But have never had one day where I felt like I was taking the “easy way out.”)

    • Great points, Nancy.

      It really is an honor just to have the choice. The reality is that most women (and men) don’t have a choice whether to return to the workforce after having children.

  6. I have been both a stay-at-home mom, and a working mom. Since the 1970s I have seen a slow decline in our society. Could it possibly mean that staying at home and raising children to be well-mannered, considerate, confident, and well-adjusted adults be a better contribution to society, than working outside the home? Where at best you earn a title that is replaced by the next up and coming executive, when you retire or get laid-off. The title of “Mom’ is never replaced.

    Managing a home, and raising my children was a job full-time was a job I wish I had never left. I unfortunately had to work outside the home in order to help put a roof over my family.

    When couples decide to have a family, they owe to their children to be within reach, I could move further up the ladder, but for my real desire to have a family to be proud of I “opted” to stay at a level which allowed me the choice to be a mother first, and an employee second. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child. It takes only the parents that want to raise their family to the best of their ability, and if that means staying at home and being a mom, I say, ” good for you”. You will get more rewards in the end then you would have imagined!

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