BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

Nothing Like a Media Guilt Trip

Posted by ywmguest on April 15, 2009

We love our friends. YWM encourages you to speak out about media stereotypes. Today’s guest blogger is Chleio.

A friend at work pointed out a news story by the Associated Press, that ran in mid-March and, frankly, made me (and her) mad. “Laid-Off Moms Rediscover Joy of Motherhood” was the headline my local paper, The Tennessean, put on it. The same article ran in the Boston Globe, claiming: “New Job for Laid-Off Moms: Stay-at-Home Motherhood.”

momguilt1The story is about women who had lost their jobs during the recession and are now at home during their normal work hours. It begins with an anecdote about a New York mother who, after losing her job in television, took her 2-year-old son to the playroom of their apartment building for the first time. Later, the story says, she had to ask the little boy himself for directions to his play group, and the nurses in his pediatrician’s office didn’t recognize her–they were used to seeing his nanny.

Nothing like a media guilt trip! I don’t have kids, so some people may criticize me for being in this conversation at all, but I used to work as a journalist, and I’ve done a lot of historical research for a book I’ve been writing on how media portray employed women, so I saw a pattern immediately.

This is a trend story. Trend stories are supposedly about widespread social change. They sometimes cite statistics, but mostly they rely on anecdotal evidence to make change seem more widespread than it is. They also rely on stereotypes. In this case, the story stereotypes employed mothers as bad mothers. The woman from New York, the story stresses, didn’t even know the rules in her building’s playroom!

What’s interesting to me is that the same trend stories appeared during the Great Depression. “One wholesome result of the Depression is the tightening of family ties. . .young women who in 1929 would have been studying for careers are now studying how to run efficient, pleasant homes,” the popular magazine Literary Digest said in its November 11, 1933 issue.

Women with jobs were called “two-job wives” back then. Some people even blamed them for causing the Depression, and a law passed in 1932 said that if both members of a married couple were working for the federal government, one had to quit. Usually it was the wife, since it was legal (and customary) to pay women less.

There are also other parallels between the Depression and the current situation. Back then, a lot of women kept their families clothed and fed because they could get low-paying jobs often reserved for women, such as waitressing, when men could get nothing at all. The current recession has also hit men and women differently, because whether we want to think about it or not, the work force is highly gendered.

The good news is that people who wrote in about the laid-off mom story saw the stereotype:

“I think the article is pretty balanced, but the headline writer fans the flames of the ‘mommy wars’ because it sounds as if only stay-at-home moms know the ‘joys of motherhood,” one person wrote to The Tennessean.

Another said she didn’t find staying at home stimulating, and didn’t want her daughter to grow up to think she could not be independent. Besides, she asked, what about men who are laid off and discovering the joys of staying home with kids?

The media stereotypes working women in all sorts of ways. A lot of them are old ideas that get recycled. But the more we’re aware of that, the better off we’ll all be–no matter what our life choices are.

Chleio (Jane Marcellus) is a writer and journalism professor who currently lives in Tennessee. Her book, “Business Girls and Two-Job Wives: Emerging Media Stereotypes of Women Who Work for Pay” (Hampton Press), will be out later this year.

photo credit

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3 Responses to “Nothing Like a Media Guilt Trip”

  1. How about another article. Call it:

    “Laid-Off Dads Rediscover Joy of Fatherhood”

    That’s what I did. My self-employed DW could support our family a lot better if I was a SAHD than if I got a job at Starbucks. But we were horrified how many people said openly that I should “get a job, any job” even if we would have been worse off. Hate to think how many thought it but didn’t say.

    Did I enjoy aspects of being a SAH parent? You bet! But if it is not their choice, don’t wag your finger at someone and say it just shows that’s what they should have been doing all along.

    Great post. Thanks for bringing this to light, especially the parallels to the Great Depression.

  2. Kent Flanagan said

    This may be a bit off topic, but I have often wondered how history might have been altered if the United States had had through its history a truly level playing field in terms of gender. A true meritocracy, we’re not — not even close.

  3. S said

    There are plenty of articles circulating about both of these “trends,” but it seems what you’re objecting to here are the sources included within the stories. The journalist did not concoct the characters out of thin air. They may not represent the ideal (certainly not mine) of formerly employed women/mothers, but they are who they are. You may also want to consider the newspaper’s customer base – are the readers wealthier than most? Might explain the sources consulted. I agree with some of your criticisms, but it’s unfair to say the newspaper “stereotyped” employed women as bad mothers. That source exists, doesn’t she?

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