What Katha Said

Katha Pollitt writing in the Nation about the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney fracas:

But the brouhaha over Hilary Rosen’s injudicious remarks is not really about whether what stay-home mothers do is work. Because we know the answer to that: it depends. When performed by married women in their own homes, domestic labor is work—difficult, sacred, noble work. Ann says Mitt called it more important work than his own, which does make you wonder why he didn’t stay home with the boys himself. When performed for pay, however, this supremely important, difficult job becomes low-wage labor that almost anyone can do—teenagers, elderly women, even despised illegal immigrants. But here’s the real magic: when performed by low-income single mothers in their own homes, those same exact tasks—changing diapers, going to the playground and the store, making dinner, washing the dishes, giving a bath—are not only not work; they are idleness itself.

So there it is: the difference between a stay-home mother and a welfare mother is money and a wedding ring. Unlike any other kind of labor I can think of, domestic labor is productive or not, depending on who performs it.



  1. Gabriel Noah Brahm April 19, 2012 at 4:08 pm | #

    Yes, a remarkably incisive, brilliant point from Pollit on this. Although, I always kind of thought work — or is it labor — was when you could at least potentially get fired, and so had to put up with the unreasonable demands of insane bosses and nagging customers (in retail for example) while fearing for your livelihood. I realize not all work is in retail or something comparable (factory work is comparable in this one way at least, and not only this one), but being subject to possibly losing your job still seems like one of the main bad points of having one (and explains why what what we tenured faculty do is not real work either).

  2. ojmo April 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm | #

    Reblogged this on Whatever Works and commented:

  3. Elyse April 19, 2012 at 4:34 pm | #

    Well said.

  4. MarinCoUSA April 19, 2012 at 7:04 pm | #

    Also lost in this vast right-wing crap storm is the fact that the singular and simple charge Rosen made about Ann Romney is ABSOLUTELY CORRECT. It was Romney who first pushed his wife into the campaign spotlight as his response to the Republican War on Women. Out sourcing his defence to the lady’s axillary, his wife -this new Eleanor Roosevelt -now spoke for all women about the new economic hard times in the new Great Recession. OK. So the crap storm has raged for eternal news cycles now and as a former high GOP military official and war criminal would say, “the absence of evidence, is evidence of absence”. We can honestly and fairly conclude that the words Rosen spoke -in their obvious context – were absolutely correct: Ann Romney has NEVER earned monetary compensation from gainful employment a single day in her life. If this were not so, surely proof of her employment would have flown out of the gigantic right-wing Wurlitzer by now.

    And amazing too is that so vast a crap storm has raged across the whole country but was whipped up over a small single patch of truth.

  5. Gabe Thompson April 19, 2012 at 8:09 pm | #

    Remember Bill Donahue has already made these types of points evident and even adds that it’s not just low-wage single moms, but upper income lesbian moms whose motherly effort is meaningless.

    That makes 2 archangels on this post who actually understands what’s going on here!!

  6. simondosovitz April 19, 2012 at 8:44 pm | #

    Isn’t the difference really that in the one case the government (IE the taxpayer) is acting as a surrogate father where in the other there is a REAL father? Whether this is correct or not, your inability to see that this was the right is thinking is inane.

  7. smd341 April 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm | #

    Isn’t the difference that in the one case the government is acting as a surrogate father while in the other the father is a committed partner in the workforce? Whether this is right or not, your inability to see that this is what the right is thinking is not very bright.

    • ojmo April 20, 2012 at 12:49 am | #

      So the fact that one woman has a “committed partner” and the other a “surrogate” husband literally metamorphoses the child rearing of one into a sublime, mystical experience — the most important work one can do — while the (identical) child rearing by the other doesn’t qualify as “work”, or even an activity capable of conferring “self-respect;” she needs to “work” in addition to caring for her children just to experience it; then her “self-respect” will be transmitted to all her progeny, ensuring their names will never sully the welfare rolls again? Is that what the right is thinking?

      • Gabe Thompson April 20, 2012 at 1:02 am | #

        Conservatism, just like liberalism, is not really an ideology anymore. It’s just a heuristic, something easily accessible to help align your new ideas with your closely held beliefs. These tags have lost their ideological meaning a long time ago: http://thri.ca/archives/602

  8. TC April 19, 2012 at 10:49 pm | #

    How do you think her comments make a stay at home dad feel? Especially one who volunteers as a local government official (all without pay) when not looking after the kids. At least I can’t be fired from either position. What would Mitt say?

  9. zenner41 April 19, 2012 at 11:48 pm | #

    As in so many other aspects of economic life, Marx pointed this out very penetratingly somewhere or other (or perhaps it is implied in much of what he wrote): “work” (Arbeit) is not a Platonic essence floating up in Heaven or somewhere. What activities are “work” and what are not “work” are defined by the economic system we presently have, “wage labor.” So what is considered “work” varies considerably over various times, places, groups, and situations, depending on how the system functions.

    • Jeremy April 20, 2012 at 10:31 pm | #

      On my long list of books I swear I’m actually going to get around to reading is Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, which I understand discusses the origins of the divide between men’s work being part of the economy while women’s work isn’t using the framework of Marx’s ideas of primitive accumulation. She argues that the witch hunts in Europe were part of the effort to keep women from engaging in what could be considered wage labor.

  10. zenner41 April 19, 2012 at 11:53 pm | #

    As Marx so penetratingly noted somewhere or other (or perhaps it is implied in much of what he wrote), what is “work” (Arbeit) and what is not are not Platonic forms floating up in Heaven somewhere, but categories which are determined by the operation of the economic system we are in, which functions by “wage labor.” Thus, “work” and “non-work” vary by time, place, situation, etc.

  11. Jonny Butter April 20, 2012 at 10:14 am | #

    Because our fabulous US press corp has pimped the story so hard, this has surely been mentioned plenty of times elsewhere; but since the relevant chunk of the country’s intellectual dignity is already dead, it won’t hurt anything to mention it in this context too: does anyone think Ann R. even did very much of the actual work of raising her children? I’m not at all suggesting that she was negligent or didn’t love them. But of COURSE she had tons of ‘help’. So, even if she hired people to do most of the work for her, her status as Executive Mom is still [what Katha said]

  12. doloyeung April 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm | #

    So, I take it when she refers to “teenagers” et al Katha Pollit is referring to baby sitting. I from this take it that she considers babysitting a kind of salaried motherhood and is of the belief that it doesn’t enjoy the same position of reverence in society as actual motherhood due to, I guess, class bigotry. I take it that you see no problem with this.

    I’m sorry, but I cannot take any more.

    Kathy Pollit is stupid wrong. The most concise explanation of why is along the lines of “shut up, stupid”, but I will endeavour to deliver you and her from error. Dear Kath and Cor, the immense difference between attitudes toward babysitting and motherhood arises from the immense difference between motherhood and babysitting. Mainly because motherhood comes with different goals and a far larger series of obligations that society expects you to meet.

    No-one expects a babysitter to love the child in their care. No-one expects a babysitter to put the interests of the child before their own. No-one expects that the baby sitter take an active interest in the child’s schoolwork. That they worry if they’re getting bullied, that they impart strong moral values, that they try to build the best future that they can for the child. In short, no-one expects a babysitter to be a mother.

    All anyone really asks of a babysitter is that they ensure the dumb kid doesn’t kill itself whilst you’re at the movies and to not totally empty the fridge. If the conditions a) child is alive and b) there are some snickers left are met then, congratulations, you are well on your way to being a fine baby sitter. Perhaps one of the best.

    I hope the above has been enlightening and I further hope that your mother forgives you for implying that she was just an amateur babysitter.

    • Jonny Butter April 20, 2012 at 3:47 pm | #

      wow, settle down, dude. I don’t know what country you live in, but her point was that childcare as a profession is an extremely low status, extremely low paying job in the US, which de facto requires little/no training. Childcare is ‘the most important job in the country’ so long as it doesn’t cost us money to say so. When it’s time to pay for child nutrition or other care, different values supersede. Teaching is similar, but childcare is even worse.

      All the rightwing bloviating about Family is more of the same. ‘Family is the most important thing’. Family Values. ‘There is no such thing as society; there are only persons and families’. All that crap. These sentiments are all endorsed until the adults who support low-middle and low income families decide they need to make a living wage, rather than the $7/hr (and of course zero health care or other benefits)* they actually make. At that point, as before, other values always trump the Family ones. My my.

      *As a service to our non-US and/or atomized readers: to help put the US minimum wage in perspective, a few points. An inflation calculation for you: $7 in 2012 is the same value as $4.63 in 1995 dollars. Most of the min. wage jobs are less than 40 hrs per week, so that benefits don’t have to be offered, so 35 hours a week at 7/hr is $12,495 per year (51 weeks), which is just over the US poverty line for a single person and slightly more than half the poverty line for a family of four [this is where a conservative will say that the poverty line is wrong, or not meaningful, or not about poverty, or something. To any national lawmaker – hell, any LAWYER: go out and live anywhere in the country on $7/hr for a year or two, and then we’ll talk]. The lawmakers who pretend to care about family values (not only the GOP btw) like to complain that poor people don’t pay federal tax. But of course poor people do pay lots of other taxes, many of them rather regressive; they pay FICA, and state taxes, and local taxes and lots of sales tax, and gasoline tax. And property tax if they, by some weird stroke of luck own property (unlikely).

      Bottom line: we care deeply about women and children and families in the US so long as it’s cheap to do so.

    • Donald Pruden a/k/a The Enemy Combatant April 23, 2012 at 5:45 pm | #

      No, Jerkoff, Ms. Pollitt is referring to the labor we call “childcare” in its varied manifestations, and how such care/labor is socially understood (by whom) and compensated (or, not) depending on who does it and under what conditions.

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