Today, some women are more subject to certain forms of misogyny than they have ever been. Because in the post-World War II period, as competent Rosie the Riveters were being shoehorned into suburban domesticity by the G.I. Bill and the ideology of the nuclear family über alles, they were at least told, in so many ways, that their work in the home was important. The flourishing of home-economics courses, with their whiff of pre-professionalization, suggested that being a homemaker was a practice and an identity that mattered, something to learn and to be, proudly. If you did it right, you could save the family unit money. You could contribute, without participating in the labor force for paid work, to the financial health and well being of your household. There was a certain respect for the housewife, even as the very moniker relegated her to a second-class sphere: Her husband couldn’t do it without her.
And not infrequently, this led to a version—albeit a compromised one, easily eroded by forces outside the home—of equality under one roof. As Marlo Thomas told me when I appeared on her AOL webcast Mondays With Marlo, “I knew men who just handed their whole paychecks over to their wives. Their husbands might earn the money, but their wives were in charge of it.” It was a partnership of sorts.
And now? As I prepared to write a book about privileged motherhood and childhood on the Upper East Side, I came to think of the women I’d spoken with and befriended and mothered alongside—the ones I’d had access to because they didn’t go to offices after school drop off—as Glam-SAHMs, for Glamorous Stay at Home Moms. Like their ’50s and early ’60s counterparts, they live in a culture with relentlessly high standards of female beauty, and tend to their bodies, faces, and overall appearances carefully, frequently with stunning results. This is made easier by the fact that, unlike Johnson’s peers, many have delegated much of the domestic work—household management, organizing, cleaning, and cooking—to hired help.
The one thing the privileged mommies I studied were not willing to delegate completely was childcare. Often cut off from extended families, most depend at least in part on nannies to help them with the heavy lifting of motherhood, the schlepping across town, the playdate scheduling and supervising, the nose-blowing and the puzzle playing. And yet they stay home.
“I was offered my dream job. It really was perfect,” said more than one mother, telling me about her decision to stay home with her children. “I asked if I could do it part time and the answer was no. I asked if I could do part of the hours from home and they said no. I asked about flex time—some weekend hours, something—and the answer was no. So I decided to stay home with the baby.”
These women described their shift to stay-at-home motherhood as a choice, but a choice implies options. Work flexible hours while your child is in the care of loving, trusted caretakers—ideally in onsite daycare—or stay home with your baby and don’t work. That is a choice. No, the women I wrote about had been given what was clearly a false choice, even though the culture at large and even the women themselves often insist on believing otherwise. What kind of choice is it when your career as an attorney or investment banker demands that you stay at the office 60 hours a week or opt out of the workforce altogether? When a husband’s significant income gives a woman the “luxury” to stay home with her children, she’ll often feel compelled to choose that option.
As when Johnson penned her essay, we are in an interlude where our lack of vocabulary confounds us. If the wealthiest Glam-SAHMs still haven’t freed themselves from the captivity Johnson described, what does that say about everybody else? Perhaps, that women are as deceived today as we have ever been.