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Real choice comes with real equality

By Monica Dux - posted Thursday, 25 June 2009

It seems Tammy Wynette got it right after all. In a new twist to the so-called "mummy wars", conservative US journalist Megan Basham has released a book titled Beside Every Successful Man: a woman's guide to having it all. In it she not only claims that most women would be happier if they stayed at home with their children, but also that they should stand by their man by focusing on his career rather than their own.

Typical of those who employ mummy wars logic, Basham emphasises the differences between "stay-at-home" and "career" mothers, implicitly treating them as if they are in two opposing camps. And it is feminism and feminists that are evoked as being responsible for creating and perpetuating this discord.

Basham's logic is simple. She cites a US survey showing that 80 per cent of women polled would prefer to work less to spend more time with their families. This statistic is coupled with figures indicating that men enjoy a "marriage premium", in that they tend to earn more if their wives work less.


To Basham the conclusion is clear. If a women puts her energy into promoting her husband's career instead of her own, then his earnings will typically increase, which will free her of the need to work, allowing her to fulfil her real ambition of spending more time with the children.

It would be easy to dismiss Basham's book as a work of pulp non-fiction, trading on clichés and generalisations supported by slippery statistics and cherry-picked "anecdotal evidence".

And yet her sort of argument does appear to have popular resonance. Check the relevant online chat sites and you'll find an ample serving of impassioned, often defensive, responses. Just last Sunday Channel Nine's 60 Minutes led with an archetypal mummy wars story, featuring happy young stay-at-home mothers juxtaposed against corporate success story and mother-of-four Janine Allis.

Part of the appeal of mummy wars rhetoric is that it is black and white. It is easier to take sides with one team and point a finger of blame at the other than it is to acknowledge the deep-seated imbalances and injustices that working women still face when they become mothers.

Instead, we are told that there are good mothers and bad mothers; satisfied mothers and dissatisfied mothers. Which group you belong to is simply a matter of making the right choices.

Yet, as any new parent knows, what one would like to do and what one is practically able to do are often quite a few degrees apart.


In advocating that working mothers simply "jump camps" and become stay-at-home mothers instead, Basham trades on the common assumption that mothers are playing on a level field, with real and equal choices available to them. Of course the reality is far more complex.

The "choices" mothers make in attempting to balance paid work and domestic responsibilities are in fact constrained by a wide range of considerations including financial pressures, inflexible workplace culture and their partners' circumstances (assuming they even have partners).

In this respect, the survey Basham relies on does reflect a widespread dissatisfaction. The vast majority of mothers do want more flexible work arrangements (as do many fathers). But this doesn't mean they really want to abandon their careers, or their connection to the workplace.

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First published in The Age on June 17, 2009.

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About the Author

Monica Dux is the co-author of The Great Feminist Denial published by Melbourne University Press

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Monica Dux

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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