Gov. Jane Swift Mirrors Our Doubts About Mothering

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Commentator Caryl Rivers

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–When 36-year-old Jane Swift takes over as governor of Massachusetts, she will be the first expectant mother of twins to run a state. Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci has been nominated as ambassador to Canada by President Bush and is expected to be confirmed. Swift is his lieutenant governor.

When Swift gets the top job, the reaction from many quarters will be predictable: She’s a bad mommy. How can the mother of twins hold down a serious job at the same time she has young babies? She also has a toddler daughter. As one letter writer to the Boston Globe put it, “There’s no way, despite the amount of help she has, that Jane Swift can be both a competent governor and an adequate mother. One (the state) or the other (the babies) will get the short end of the stick.”

Swift will be walking into a hail of contradictions in our society’s attitudes about parenting. She will be confronting what might be called “the hyperinflation of motherhood.” A normal part of a woman’s life, rearing children, has come to be seen as both a sacred duty and a process more complicated than putting a man on the moon.

Throughout most of our history, mothers did a lot of things while giving birth to–and caring for–children, including hard physical labor. The Pulitzer Prize-winning history, “The Midwife’s Tale” by Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, vividly illustrates women’s lives in 16th-century Maine. The diary of Martha Ballard, a mother of five, shows her as a weaver, a healer, a farmer, a trader and a midwife who would regularly climb on her horse and ride miles through the night to deliver babies.

But in the 19th century, the stories of these hardy women were largely forgotten, replaced by the popular image of women as “angels of the home,” so fragile and dependent they couldn’t be trusted to vote, much less engage in strenuous activity. (This idea only applied to upper-class women, of course. Poor and immigrant women scrubbed floors, lugged wash around and engaged in trade, as always.)

The late 20th century gave us women astronauts, mountain climbers, gold medal-winning soccer players and Supreme Court justices. At the same time, we are still very ambivalent. While we cheer a woman for piloting the space shuttle, we worry that women just can’t get the motherhood thing right unless they are spending 24-7 at cribside.

Some Americans Think Mothering Incompatible With Holding Office

A recent national survey by Deloitte and Touche, entitled “Women in Leadership,” found that 17 percent of 1,500 Americans would be “less likely” to vote for a woman with a child under age 6 compared with just 6 percent of the public declaring itself “less likely” to vote for a male candidate in the same family situation.

This worry persists despite the fact that over half the mothers of toddlers are now in the workforce and that all the scientific evidence available says that the children of working mothers are just as healthy emotionally and physically as those of at-home mothers. Even infants in day care are firmly attached to their mothers, according to a massive federal study.

Part of the problem can be laid at the door of some “experts” who present mothering as an exact science. They suggest that if you don’t hold up exactly the right-colored block at exactly the right time, your kid won’t get into Harvard–and might just wind up in Sing-Sing.

We worry, because women are our barometers for change, and change is unsettling. Our society shuttles back and forth between applause and backlash. We want our daughters to have as many opportunities as our sons. On the other hand, we laud “Dr. Laura” when she says working mothers are bad mothers. This is a tradition as old as the republic. The pilgrims had barely stepped off the Mayflower when preachers began to deliver impassioned sermons saying that parents were selfish and were ruining the next generation.

Will Jane Swift’s children be in jeopardy? Hardly. She has a husband who is doing full-time child care while she carries out her official duties and, on her new governor’s salary, she can afford as much help as she needs.

Swift Bashed for State Helicopter Ride to Her Ailing Baby

But Swift has already run into problems on the mommy score. As lieutenant governor, she was roundly criticized when she used a state helicopter to rush home to her ailing 14-month-old daughter. Some said that if it had been a male governor who commandeered the chopper, he would have been labeled a hero.

“Imagine the headlines,” Martha Ackermann, a professor of women’s studies at Mt. Holyoke College, told the Boston Herald, ” ‘Caring Father Rushes to Bedside of Sick Toddler.’ There is a double standard in how women in politics are treated. The issue is not the abuse of the perquisites of office, but the cultural attitude that suggests a woman with a little child is not suited for politics.”

Some insist, in fact, that ambition should be foreign to mothers of babies. Not so, according to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of the University of California at Davis, the author of “Mother Nature,” a sweeping history of motherhood. Hrdy says that ambition may well be programmed into a mother’s genes–because, throughout history, the more dominant and powerful the woman, the greater her reproductive success. There is no natural divide between motherhood and the wish to succeed, Hrdy says.

In fact, for much of history, mothers did not spend all their time doting on their children. Our ancestors farmed, they ranched, they threw the kids on a buckboard and headed west when opportunity knocked. Women were too busy to spend most of their time relating to their kids. They often used what Hrdy calls “allomothers”–other women, related or not, to help them rear children.

Caring, dedicated allomothers, such as day care workers and nannies who treat their charges like kin, are very good for children. And husbands can be as good at mothering as women, research finds.

So Jane Swift should be judged on her political abilities and her leadership, just as a man would be. Don’t worry about her kids. They’ll be fine.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.


WEnews Brief

N.Y. Governor Vows to Make Sweatshops ‘Thing of the Past’

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, Gov. George E. Pataki announced anti-sweatshop measures that would increase the number of state investigators from 30 to 40 in an effort “to make sweatshops a thing of the past.”

“On the anniversary of one of the great workplace tragedies in history, we pledge to learn from the mistakes of the past and build on our successes in protecting working men and women,” Pataki said.

Pataki made the announcement at the site of the March 25, 1911, fire, which killed 146 female garment workers who were locked inside the factory, now the location of a New York University building.

This fire revealed the dangerous working conditions of garment workers and pushed women to join unions to get better safety and working conditions. The majority of garment workers were then and still are female.

But to this day, sweatshops, with long hours and dangerous conditions, persist. Though it is difficult to estimate the extent of the problem, the Department of Labor reported that last year it found that more than 50 percent of the shops it visited were in violation of the law. Of a total of 120 investigated manufacturers nationwide, 64 were found to violate the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In the United States, Los Angeles has the largest number of garment workers working in sweatshop conditions, with an estimated 140,000. Robert Lillpopp, spokesperson for the New York State Department of Labor, said his department doesn’t speculate on how many workers might be in sweatshops. He said the state counts more than 4,000 registered apparel manufacturers, which undergo regular inspections.

Pataki said he had directed the State Labor Department’s Apparel Industry Task Force to hire 10 new investigators, who speak Spanish, Chinese or Korean, acknowledging that many garment workers are immigrants who are not always fluent in English.

“We have had thousands of immigrants who have worked in the garment industry who come to our country in order to try and achieve a better life and provide for their family and pursue the American Dream,” said Joe Conway, spokesperson for the governor, adding that “far too often, they have been forced to toil in workplaces that do not provide adequate safeguards for the workers’ health and safety.”

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