As we approach our annual Labor Day celebration, we prepare to honor the contributions workers have made to the social, political, cultural and economic strength of the United States.
For many women, of course, “labor” has a dual meaning . . . and these dual meanings are a source of endless debate, handwringing, scrutiny and guilt-inducing diatribes as we (“we” meaning women in general, and our society as a whole) collectively agonize over the role of women (especially women who are mothers) as workers in and out of the home. Often, it is no longer the issue of “choice” to work outside of the home (and the reality is that for many women of color, and women of marginal economic status, it NEVER was a choice), as recession and the increase in households headed by women, or in which women are the primary breadwinners, make such work a necessity. But the conversations with respect to the intersection of women’s work as mothers and household managers, and women’s work as doctors/lawyers/journalists/ teachers/nurses/engineers/servers/managers/and so on continue to rage (and enrage) many of us.
The fact is, women’s place in the workforce outside of their home-work is not going to change. The genie’s out of the bottle . . .the horse is out of the barn . . .you can’t unring that bell . . . pick your cliché. The real challenge is the ongoing work of recognizing the social and institutional barriers to balancing work and family (rather than making individuals feel it’s simply their personal failure), undoing essentialist ideas of what constitutes “men’s” work and “women’s” work, of the artificial division of labor by gender, of ideas such as dads are “babysitting” their children when left alone with them, while moms are . . . doing what they are supposed to be doing—being moms.
There is a reason that across cultures, across space and time, that formal education has excluded or been withheld from the marginalized—the poor, the dark-skinned, the female: it is the recognition of the powerful and transformative qualities and the significant economic, social, and political opportunities that education offers. Ursuline College was founded on and dedicated to the proposition that the access to education is the best way to empower women and encourage their growth as leaders.
Sheryl Sandberg’s observations in Lean In about the need for women to develop skills of advocacy, voice, and negotiation— which includes ability to problem solve, to analyze and synthesize information, and to communicate effectively—aligns well with the learning outcomes of our curriculum. But our institution takes that one better—we inculcate a sense of social responsibility and examination of values as essential to producing truly well-educated graduates, ones prepared to take their place in the world not just as workers, but workers who make a difference. And while some may be reluctant to acknowledge it, the “f” word is applicable here . . .yes, feminist values have been, are, and always will be aligned with justice, equality, and advocacy—for self and for others, for all workers and for all those who seek work and cannot secure it. And commitment to and action informed by those values will ultimately make the question “Should women work outside the home?” as incomprehensible as “Are you sure the earth is round?”
This post was written by Mary Frances Pipino, Ph.D., Director of the Ursuline Studies Program.