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Book Review

Workplace Disparity Is Home-Grown

THE PRICE OF MOTHERHOOD Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Va lued By Ann Crittenden Metropolitan Books $25, 320 pages

February 15, 2001|SUSAN STRAIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What would happen if no one cut a child's fingernails? As I sat on the porch this Sunday trimming 10 times three, then the toenails, I couldn't help but ask this question. For 12 years, I have cut fingernails. Mothers, whether they work or stay at home, are, it seems, always the ones to cut them. Can you count how many times you have cut them? Or how many times you have taught your children to tie their shoes? Can society count the pounds of dirt mothers have washed from jeans? Or how many times they've said, "You hold your pencil this way"?

Ann Crittenden in "The Price of Motherhood" tries to put a value on those things, and her book shows how women, once they have children, find their very being devalued in society. She sees it everywhere: from casual comments at work and in the park to tax documents and paychecks. It is fascinating and frightening at the same time.

Crittenden is an economics journalist, a former reporter for the New York Times and a Pulitzer-Prize nominee, who isn't afraid to ask the most obvious and difficult question of all: Why, when mothers perform the most vital task to the American economy, raising its future workers, consumers and citizens, is their work so devalued?

Her research takes her back to the historical roots of inequality, tracing how the colonial "goodwife," the woman who made candles, soap, clothes and raised and cooked food for her family, turned into the modern "housewife." In her chapter titled "How Mothers' Work Was Disappeared," Crittenden uses historical records, pamphlets and even personal letters to show how women were consistently denied social and, more importantly, monetary equality for raising their families.

In the 1700s, as subsistence-level existence gave way to a cash economy, men worked and owned their wages while their wives' labors at home disappeared as a viable economic asset. Wives became "supported." Early feminists agitated for joint property, but they were answered by men like economist Francis Walker, head of the United States Census, who decreed in 1870 that housekeepers had to be people receiving wages for that work.

"Women keeping house for their own families--without any other gainful employment, will be entered as 'keeping house. . . .' " Crittenden writes, "Thus the work of family maintenance--all of the gardening and canning and cooking and cleaning, the animal raising, the sewing and mending, the care of the sick and the elderly--not to mention the task of rearing the next generation of productive workers, was stricken from the list of productive employments."

As a result, housework quickly became unequally divided. As Crittenden notes, "In 1994, 73% of men and women polled said taking care of the kids was the woman's primary responsibility, along with cooking (80%), the grocery shopping (79%), the laundry (80%), the housecleaning (76%), and the dishes (73%). Of all the household chores, men took primary responsibility for only one: deciding how the money would be spent (55%)."

Women who work still do far more housework than their spouses, and single mothers make up a huge percentage of the work force. Even in this age of takeout dinners and dry-cleaning, mothers like me and my neighbors do almost all our own work, mostly out of economic necessity. And that's where Crittenden's book makes invaluable points: Nannies and housecleaners are paid, and register Social Security benefits. Doing taxes and keeping books count when done by an accountant, but what about my neighbors who, after a full day at their own jobs, do the books for their husbands' pool-cleaning and car repair businesses and are not compensated for their labors? (I will never forget a woman I knew who kept her husband's books and cleaned his office for 30 years, until he dumped her for another woman. Then, according to Social Security, that all-powerful arbiter of our lives, she was a zero. Let's not even bring up the three kids she'd raised.)

Divorce is a major factor in Crittenden's assessment of motherhood. In case after case, she recounts the lives of women and children whose economic fates are shattered when the husband leaves. With the trend toward "compensation" rather than alimony, women are actually worse off when a marriage ends, whether they worked or not.

Crittenden's argument is strengthened by the economic analyses she provides for the many social issues people typically identify as "women's problems." Human capital--you, me and all grown children--in the most developed countries accounts for 75% of the producible forms of wealth. One would assume someone taught us how to tie our shoes, hold a fork and gave us clean clothes, along with helping us at homework and driving us to the doctor. That's what mothers do.

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