At the conclusion of the third presidential debate, Bob Schieffer mentioned that all three men on stage — Schieffer, George W. Bush and John Kerry — were married to strong women and were the fathers of daughters.
Of course, it was the men, not the strong women, who were asking and answering the questions about U.S. domestic policy. With a few exceptions, men continue to dominate business and politics.
At the heart of this reality is the deep cultural schism between domesticity and professional success. We need policies that make it easier for both men and women to reconcile their domestic and professional lives.
The absence of women with high influence has more to do with practicality than ideology. While fatherhood need not impede high professional advancement, motherhood often does. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that women remain a minority in positions of power not because men are opposed to their leadership, but because tending children is incompatible with the intense demands of such jobs.
It is not coincidental that one of the most powerful women in America, Condoleezza Rice, is childless.
Despite the rising numbers of men involved in child rearing, far more women remain the primary caregivers of young children. The most recent census reports that among stay-at-home parents there are 5.2 million mothers versus 105,000 fathers.
The number of parents sharing the role is more difficult to tabulate, but the research of Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, authors of “The Mommy Myth,” as well as Judith Stadtman Tucker, editor of The Mothers Movement Online, suggests that even in these joint arrangements women consistently assume greater child-care responsibilities.
As a result, many of the 81 percent of women who become mothers reduce their work time, or leave or put on hold their careers. This is true even for America’s most successful and well-paid female professionals, as revealed in a recent “60 Minutes.”
The consequences of such decisions can be significant and long lasting.
Two hundred years ago, when approximately 90 percent of Americans were farmers, domesticity was integral to the lives of men as well as women. Because home and work were the same, both parents were with their children throughout the day. Men and women were partners in child rearing. Moreover, the very nature of farming, which requires the care of animals and plants, further encouraged men to develop their skills as nurturers. Domesticity was valued, regardless of sex.
Shared domesticity has gone the way of the family farm. Men are now measured by different standards.
The devaluation of domesticity, a result of the industrial revolution, hurts us all. It reduces the number of smart, capable women moving into positions of social and economic influence, and it discourages men from more fully participating in their children’s upbringing.
A good way to begin rehabilitating domesticity is to legislate paid paternal leave. The United States is one of only two industrial countries that do not guarantee paid leave for at least one parent.
Increased job flexibility as well as pay parity and benefits for part-time work would make creative alternatives economically feasible for both parents. We also need substantial subsidies or tax breaks for businesses that provide day care on location for their employees, which would not only reduce stress for parents and children, but let working parents see their children during the day.
Finally, we must start respecting domestic work as an important national resource, with the kind of monetary value that could be figured into the gross domestic product and, more radically, count toward Social Security.
All of these policies would go a long way in renewing the prestige of child rearing and improving equal access to positions of power.
Unfortunately, such changes remain unlikely as long as the men and women firmly committed to domesticity are absent from the policy-setting arena. As a result, we will continue to have campaigns like our current one — where the issues most challenging to parents are not even being discussed.
KRISTIN VAN TASSEL is a mother and teaches English at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas.