I first met Ann Crittenden on a rainy spring night at the Center for New Words bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was 2001, and I was serving as the Senior Manager of national advocacy for Mothers & More, a 7,500 member organization with hundreds of local chapters nationwide. In the previous weeks and months, our advocacy workgroup had been struggling to articulate what happens to women in their intimate partnerships and the workplace when they become mothers, and how the popular discourse of "choice" conceals the cultural forces and structural conditions that marginalize mothers and obscure the full value of non-market caring work. In October 2000, we'd hosted an online discussion with legal scholar Joan Williams, author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It. By the end of the year we were searching for other books, web sites, reports, media stories -- anything -- that would help us help mothers give voice to their palpable discontent.
Then in late January2001, an excerpt from the first chapter of The Price of Motherhood appeared on the web site Feminist.com. I don't even remember what I was looking for when I discovered it, but I do recall that I stumbled across it in a moment of semi-random web surfing. I immediately emailed the link to my colleagues at Mothers & More with a one-line message: "This is what we've been waiting for."
By daring to assign a dollar value to maternal sacrifice, Ann's provocative book on the economics of gender and care leaves a lasting impression on every almost every mother who reads it. The "mommy tax" or "motherhood penalty," readers learn, can add up to over a million dollars in lost earnings and benefits for college-educated women, and between $600, 000 and $700,000 for others. The Price of Motherhood meticulously documents the economic risks associated with motherhood in the United States and sketches an outline of public policies to reduce the occupational costs and economic insecurity related to unpaid caregiving. But policy initiatives such as paid parental leave and Social Security benefits for non-employed mothers will remain politically impossible, Crittenden warns, unless Americans challenge the empty rhetoric of family values and hold lawmakers accountable for supporting real, rather than ideal, families.
Since Ann and I met on that damp night five years ago (I asked her to inscribe my copy of the book: For Judy -- Good Luck!), we've had several opportunities to work together on organizing projects. In 2002, Ann co-founded Mothers Ought To Have Equal Rights (MOTHERS) in collaboration with the National Association of Mothers Centers. Predictions that a national, grass-roots mothers' movement would spontaneously materialize turned out to be premature, but Ann's clarity and outspokenness have been instrumental in keeping the motherhood debate focused on impediments to mothers' economic well-being. She has also worked closely with Take Back Your Time and continues to speak publicly about the unconscionably high price of motherhood and what to do about it.
I'm an obsessive collector of books on women, work and family from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, so I can say with authority that books on the motherhood problem come and go. Few are as clearheaded, as compelling, or as accessible as The Price of Motherhood. While Ann Crittenden may not have set the world on fire the way Betty Friedan did with The Feminine Mystique, she definitely struck a chord -- and the message of The Price of Motherhood is as urgent and as relevant today as it was when the book first hit the shelves. The cadre of women who've been working to move the mothers' movement to the next level will remember the publication of The Price of Motherhood as a turning point in the movement's formation -- and with a little luck, history will, too.
The MMO is delighted to present this original interview with Ann Crittenden.
MMO: When the Price of Motherhood was first published, were you
surprised by the reader response?
Ann Crittenden: I was surprised by the reader response to TPM when it came out. I had dreamed of such a response, but one never knows if a book is going to touch a nerve. All along, while writing it, I thought of myself as a craftsman working away on a part of a Gothic cathedral. I knew the work was important, I was determined to do the very best job I possibly could, but I was prepared for anonymity. I think the moment I realized that the book was going to take off was at my reading here in Washington, D.C. at the leading independent bookstore Politics and Prose. The audience was excited and afterwards, people were buying three of four or more copies each. That night the store sold more books than it had ever sold at a reading before.
MMO: Have your views about the potential of a grass roots mothers' movement changed since you co-founded MOTHERS (Mothers Ought To Have Equal Rights) in 2002? Do you feel the movement has made any progress in the last four years?
Ann Crittenden: My views about the potential of a grass roots mothers' movement have gone through several stages. At first I was eager to try to enlist the support of existing women's organizations behind a mothers' movement, which I believed could revitalize the somewhat stalled and defensive women's movement. When this proved tough going, I decided that what was needed was a new organization, specifically devoted to a caregivers' agenda. The established groups already had their own focus, and were unlikely to alter course because of one book, despite evidence that the book was reaching a new and potentially broader base of support for change.
Then gradually I began to think that the most effective thing to do would be to work to change attitudes and ideas. Once heads change, then all else falls into place. And I do think that there has been tremendous progress since 2002 on that score. One constantly hears about "the price of motherhood," or the disadvantages faced by mothers per se, in the work place in particular. The stage is being set for legislative and other changes, which I believe will come sooner rather than later. There has been movement on paid parental leave, which has passed in California. And now the major women's organizations and elements of the progressive political community are hopping on the bandwagon.
MMO: The public policies outlined in The Price of Motherhood would not only reduce the "motherhood penalty" for educated, middle-class mothers -- since mothers' and caregivers' access to public and private resources is influenced by race and class, programs like universal health care, paid family leave, excellent, affordable child care, and worker- and family-friendly working time regulations clearly fit into a broader economic and social justice agenda. Why do you think leaders of the progressive movement have been so slow to embrace a pro-family policy agenda?
Ann Crittenden: I'm not sure why the progressive movement has been somewhat slow to "get" it, except for the fact -- and I hate to say it -- that it is still dominated by an old boys' network. Almost none of the progressive leaders have personally been in the trenches and served as the primary caregiver of a child. The issue is not their lived experience. But they are getting the message now! From almost no mention a couple of years ago, this year's progressive coalition gathering in Washington, D.C. in June, sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future, is going to feature numerous panels and discussions of family issues. And Joan Blades, one of the co-founders of MoveOn, is releasing a book [The Motherhood Manifesto] and a video on a mothers' action agenda, which will be distributed and shown all over the country by progressive organizations and the unions SEIU and AFSME. So there is suddenly tremendous movement.
MMO: You were recently featured in a point-counterpoint with Warren Farrell (author of Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap) in Glamour Magazine. Farrell argues that the wage gap can be attributed to women's preference for shorter, flexible work hours. From your perspective, what are some of the problems with framing women's work-life arrangements as a matter of personal "choice"?
Ann Crittenden: Farrell argues essentially that there's no problematic wage gap because women who want to work all the time can do as well as men financially. Duh! He completely fails to note that women who don't want to work 50 or more hours a week (in other words, the great majority of those who are mothers, meaning the great majority of women) have almost no choice in finding decent, fair-paying jobs with shorter hours. Professional jobs like that hardly exist. And if they do, they pay unequal wages for the same kind of work, offer few if any benefits, and hold out little or no chance of advancement. So the only choice many educated mothers face is: work brutal hours that keep you away from your family, or work less on exploitative terms, or quit work altogether. I don't call that much of a choice! As for less educated women, they have the least flexibility at work, they have no right to refuse orders to work overtime, and they often have to work two jobs just to earn enough to survive, leaving their children to cope as best they can. Again, this is not a choice; it's a crime.
In general, we have to get over this mind-set that everything we do is a result of our own personal choices. We need to examine the framework in which those choices are made. Does it allow the choices we really want? Does it reflect someone else's choices, like the choice of an employer or the choice of politicians not to offend their business contributors? If we think everything is our choice, we have only ourselves to blame for our predicaments. But that keeps us from examining who and what really is at fault.
MMO: What are your thoughts on the preoccupation with the "mommy wars" and "opt out revolution" in the mass media? Why do you think we're seeing so many misleading trend stories on women, work and family in the national press?
Ann Crittenden: Ah, the media! Let me share one observation. In all my dealings with the media, I have found the vast majority of reporters to be competent and sympathetic, and their stories in daily newspapers around the country to be accurate and sensitive to mothers' concerns. The same goes for most radio shows I've been on. But this does not apply to the Big Media -- the big national television morning shows, the biggest national dailies, or the two big national newsmagazines. These are the outlets that repeatedly hype the Mommy Wars and the flimsy stories about professional women "opting out." With all of these, especially TV, I think it's a drive to hype conflict in order to gain attention and "buzz" and market share.
It is also true that the bigger the media outlet, the more it is dominated by male editors who again, do not "feel" or really care about these issues the way so many female reporters do. (The great majority of reporters I talk to are mothers.) In the meantime, these so-called savvy editors are missing the real trend, which is what is stirring at the grass roots. One example is the CEASEFIRE campaign being launched by MOTHERS in cooperation with MomsRising.org calling on the media to stop it already with the stupid hyping of a mommy war. I'd like to see a boycott of every product advertised on the next show that promotes that fake story one more time!
MMO: What are you working on now?
Ann Crittenden: At the moment, I've been concentrating on my public speaking, on doing occasional short pieces for The American Prospect, and frankly, on managing some projects at home that I neglected all the years I was writing non-stop, like a kitchen renovation! I'm now entering a state I call "positive drift." This entails reading and thinking and beginning to write a little until I feel I have a book that I absolutely have to write. I firmly believe that you shouldn't write a book unless you feel compelled to do it. It's too much hard work otherwise!
MMO : May 2006