U.S. Capitalism and Reproductive Roles: A Deadly Intersection

by / 8 Comments / 482 View / May 27, 2014

Feminism’s reach has undoubtedly grown in the U.S. since its inception in the late 18th century, but perhaps no other social movement has been more confusing as a result of its constantly evolving position. Even today, feminism’s simplified, overly-broad, and oft-cited definition, “equality for both men and women,” gives no explanation as to what equality actually entails. Some say that women should spearhead their ways through to the top of corporate ladders. Others argue that women are uniquely fit to bear children and ought to do so. Many overly energetic enthusiasts even synthesize the two positions and argue that every woman can be a superwoman. But that’s not the reality.

Gender inequality is not an isolated issue. Like any other identity, womanhood is one part of a complex, intersectional whole. Racial, socioeconomic, religious, and other aspects of one’s life give rise to both problems and privileges, all affecting each other in often invisible ways. Specifically in the U.S., most women are (or at least will be) both participants in a capitalist culture and mothers of children in need of care. This particular intersection creates tension between two feminist branches which otherwise would not (and should not) contradict: the one branch that champions motherhood as a valuable experience worthy of societal respect, and the other branch that upholds women’s rightful position as a productive member of the workplace.

It’s an exaggeration to say that the country has done absolutely nothing about the growing rate of mothers entering the workforce. In fact, twenty years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) was a major milestone for mothers who worked. This act of Congress guaranteed a maximum of twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave so that they could take care of newly adopted or newborn children (and some states even expanded upon that law, granting paid and/or extended leave). But a holistic view shows abysmal progress. After twenty years of policymaking, a whopping five states have paid leave for both the public and private sector, and less than ten states have paid leave for either sector. Compared to twenty other developed countries’ parental leave laws, the U.S. is among the least (if not the least) generous when it comes to parental leave benefits.

But why does that matter?

It means that most women can’t have it all. Most under-class, lower-class, and middle-class mothers simply can’t afford to go twelve weeks without pay, especially when their spouse barely makes enough to support two adults, let alone dependents. Women who come back to work are also less eligible for promotions and are paid less than non-mothers, supercharging the already upsetting 80-cents-to-the-dollar wage gap between women and men. When all these facts sink in, a startling conclusion comes together: motherhood is only welcome in the workplace in words, not in practice.

But many people would still argue: “Why does that even matter? Money isn’t the only goal in life, and motherhood is a very valued practice.” And, for the most part, I agree. Money is merely an instrumental goal, useful only when it’s used to pursue higher goods. Motherhood is also awesome, and I, along with the general population, deeply respect mothers, especially working ones.

However, my personal attitude is not indicative of how broader social forces treat mothers. My lack of racist intent does not make laws and the U.S. justice system less racist. My personal lack of class discrimination does not make U.S. politics less socioeconomically skewed. And my respect for mothers (even in conjunction with yours) doesn’t transform the workforce into a happy-go-lucky paradise for working mothers.

The problem rests in the contradiction between advocates of value pluralism and the capitalist society in which we live. In most cases, having a child doesn’t automatically put food on the table, ensure a good education, and provide transportation. Making money does. In most people’s eyes, being a mother doesn’t qualify you automatically as a “productive member of society.”  Being a financially self-sufficient adult does. Simply put, rearing a child isn’t a step up society’s economic, social, or political ladder. Making money is. Thus is the danger of letting an economic system generate standards of success—entire groups are already excluded.

So what branch is right? Who wins in the end? I don’t know. That’s a philosophical question for another time. All I argue is that there must be some type of change if we want to be a country in which mothers are not simultaneously relegated to the backseat of the workplace and devalued because of it. Either society as a whole facilitates some paradigm shift towards more pluralistic values, or it fairly incorporates motherhood into the current standards of material success through extended leave benefits, closing the wage gap, etc. Both options have their respective challenges and disadvantages, but stagnation is no alternative.

Works Consulted:

Ray, Rebecca, Janet C. Gornick, and John Schmitt. (2008). “Parental leave policies in 21 countries.” 

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Lazear, E. (1981). “Agency, Earnings Profiles, Productivity, and Hours Restrictions”. American Economic Review: 606–620.

Rampton, Martha. “The Three Waves of Feminism.” Pacific. Pacific University, n.d. Web. 26 May 2014. 

Waldfogel, J. (1998). “The Family Gap for Young Women in the United States and Britain: Can Maternity Leave Make a Difference?”. Journal of Labor Economics 16 (3): 505–545.


  • Anonymous1204

    This is a good overview on one type of mother, but it ignores even more adverse obstacles like being a single mother in the workforce or working a minimum wage job where you’re replaceable. This article does offer an interesting perspective on how capitalist values distort other values like motherhood though…

  • smileitsalright

    That your mother joke, was priceless.

  • Huhidontgetit

    Nonsense – A womens’ role is in the home so she can care for her children. Like cmon otherwise childs will not get the same attention they need to live a real life. Every1 is talking about giving women equal pay and even if we do they need to be in home so they can deal with raising the next sons to carry us forward.

    • KenGram

      It is people like you that justify why these articles need to be published.

  • Anonanon

    I’m confused, wasn’t the existence of the wage gap disproven multiple times over? I thought it was understood that it’s not an issue of equal pay for equal work, because it’s not a per-basis comparison. Instead, it’s an analysis of averages, such that the average income of women is lower than that of men, not suggesting that women are being paid less, but rather that they trend to work in lower paying jobs.

    Also, the existence of a wage gap is economically unsound, in that if one could hire a worker for a lower wage (77 cents, rather than a dollar), they would. That’s why there are trends of illegal immigrants being hired more often, because they can be paid less. Thus, if women tended to be paid less than men, by a ratio of .77:1, it would be assumed that men would never be hired, right? But that doesn’t seem to be the case whatsoever.

    Also, some authors on the matter:

    Sommers 2012:
    “After controlling for several relevant factors…they found that the wage gap narrowed to only 6.6 cents.”
    “U.S. Department of Labor…examined more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and concluded that the 23-cent wage gap “may be almost entirely the result of individual choices being made by both male and female workers.””

    U.S. Department of Labor 2009:

    “Statistical analysis that includes those variables has produced results that collectively account for between 65.1 and 76.4 percent of a raw gender wage gap of 20.4 percent, and thereby leave an adjusted gender wage gap that is between 4.8 and 7.1 percent.”

    “It is not possible now, and doubtless will never be possible, to determine reliably whether any portion of the observed gender wage gap is not attributable to factors that compensate women and men differently on socially acceptable bases, and hence can confidently be attributed to overt discrimination against women.

    “In addition, at a practical level, the complex combination of factors that collectively determine the wages paid to different individuals makes the formulation of policy that will reliably redress any overt discrimination that does exist a task that is, at least, daunting and, more likely, unachievable”


    • Jim Huang

      Thanks for reading! You raise a lot of important issues.

      1.) On the argument that women work in lower paying jobs on balance due to personal choice: First of all, my argument about mothers is more nuanced than what you portray it to be. Assume that all your studies are correct, that the pay gap is negligible, though slightly leaning towards men by a few cents. This doesn’t account for why there’s still a pay disparity between non-mothers and mothers. So even if there are no structural inequalities barring women from entering the workplace, there absolutely exist inequalities which devalue motherhood. My argument is that the current capitalist system is inhospitable towards mothers, not that the capitalist system is bad towards all women (an issue deserving of another article, because I do believe that’s the case).

      Secondly on this point, even if you ignore that this article is specifically about motherhood, there are very few good reasons as to why there is such a disproportionate amount of men in leadership positions (read: higher paying positions) than women. Why would the balance shift this way? Is it because women are academically inferior? The statistics showing college acceptance and diploma-receipt show the opposite, that women are actually earning more college degrees than men, albeit slightly. This issue is worthy of a whole other article, but it’s naive to assume that personal responsibility (not forced choice) gets a qualified woman a lower paying job.

      2.) On the “economic soundness” argument about how people would never hire men. Again, this is too simplified to examine the big picture. Federal work laws prohibiting employers from prohibiting employees to talk about their wages are often ill-enforced and are difficult to litigate. The simple truth is this: many women don’t know that they’re being paid less, and not enough women exist in the country to fill every job a man could potentially perform. So men must be hired, absolutely. But being a man affords one a certain privilege in many high-earning positions. Being a man allows one to be assertive without being “bossy” or “bitchy.” Being a man allows one to be less prone to sexual harassment in the workplace. Again, a whole other article can be written about male privilege in the workforce, but that’s not my focus. I merely argue that mothers (a) need work; (b) are working for less; (c) aren’t as valued for the same work; and (d) don’t get economic/social/political benefits from being mothers, which is a second, 24/7 job.

      • Anonanon

        You’re correct, I misread the intentions of the article. Sorry about that!

        On the first point, you’re correct that there’s absolutely difficulty involved with being a parent (specifically a mother, in this case) in the current work force.

        On the 1b point, about why there is a skew in high paying jobs:
        Refer to the US Dep of Labor article I provided (http://www.consad.com/content/reports/Gender%20Wage%20Gap%20Final%20Report.pdf) which suggests that the disparity isn’t caused by a societal bias, but rather by individual choices. Second, even if women do earn more degrees than men, they still tend to choose lower paying jobs- whether or not that’s an issue of a “forced choice” (could you elaborate on what you mean by that? I’m curious about it) is, as you said, an issue for another time.

        On the 2 point: My example of not hiring men wasn’t meant to be a broad spanning explanation or breakdown of the issue, it was solely meant to offer a “food for thought” scenario, a gut-check, etc. It’s absolutely oversimplified, a complex explanation wasn’t ever the intent. Second, on the concept of “bossy”. I have a separate issue with this, I’ve written a mini-article about it before, and I can dig up what I wrote, but only if you want to talk about that as a separate issue (the mini-article I wrote was mildly long [well actually it was kind of long]). On sexual harassment in the work place: I doubt it’s possible to quantify the amount of sexual harassment that one gender receives relative to another, and it’s also a discussion for another time.

  • Jack Richards

    Love the article Jim 🙂 Some constructive notes:

    You should probably cite The Atlantic’s now famous article “Why Women Can’t Have it All,” considering both the phrase and some of the argumentation is similar.

    There are, indeed, many factors to the gender wage-gap debate. Still unmentioned here is the tendency of women in the general population to negotiate for higher wages at their places of employment. While I don’t have the studies on hand (I can probably find them if you want them), one of the labor department’s studies suggested women tend to take the wage offered to them instead of asking for more.

    Finally, a question for you. What confidence do you have in government to forcibly “incorporate motherhood into the current standards of material success?” I, personally, have serious doubts in the government’s ability to effect social change, instead of hopping on the bandwagon of an already advancing society.