Full-time mom a myth


Once again, Mr. Keisling ("Motherhood vital, full-time job," Nov. 15) is simply wrong on the facts. Full-time motherhood is not an ancient and honorable profession. For most of the human race, it's a myth.

As far as can be determined from historical and ethnographic records, women have always provided a major portion, many times all, of a household's income. That income may not be monetary, but nonetheless it keeps the household fed, clothed and sheltered. In many hunter-gatherer societies today, women's gathering activities provide well over half, sometimes up to 80 percent, of the food eaten by the community. Women do these activities in addition to assuming almost exclusive care of the female and younger male children, and in addition to providing clothing manufacture and shelter construction. In primarily agrarian societies, farmwives, in addition to child care duties, are responsible for "kitchen gardens" and small animal care (e.g. poultry) which provide the bulk of the family's daily food. Each fall, enormous quantities of food are preserved through canning, salting, drying or pickling to enable the family to make it through the winter and spring. These activities do not represent cash income and have not, to my knowledge, been very well quantified, but nonetheless provide a major portion of a family's income.

In urban societies, women have many times had to supplement cash income with their own at-home income-producing activities: baking and selling baked goods from their own kitchens, providing child care, music lessons, or even complete schooling, for other children in their own homes, taking in laundry, running their own homes as boarding houses. Perusal of any of several compendia of 19th century American women's diaries will convince Mr. Keisling that these activities were necessary to provide subsistence income; they were not "self-fulfillment" activities. And, of course, for women in lower economic strata, work outside the home has always been mandatory: as textile workers, seamstresses, laundresses, waitresses or as servants in other women's homes.

Due to the experience of World War II, women moved out of home-based jobs and into the cash economy in vast numbers. It was the end of the war, and the need to get women out of the work force so jobs could be given to returning soldiers, combined with a period of unprecedented prosperity during the 1950s and early 1960s which actually created the myth of the full-time mother. For a very brief period, it was possible for one wage earner to support a family.

But that was not the case earlier, and it is not the case now. Women have always been a major part of the production system. Now, however, the items traditionally produced (food and clothing, primarily) are all mass produced and available only to those with cash to buy them. So, the nature of women's work has changed drastically. The real issue Mr. Keisling should be addressing is how to best care for the children, given this change in the structure of women's work.

Beth Grindell

Anthropology Graduate Student

Read Next Article