I’ve been reading a lot of articles over the past few years about “traditional gender roles” from many, many perspectives. Every so often I stop and wonder why this topic fascinates me so much. Finally, it hit me – whose traditions are these, anyway?
I don’t know that much about my mother’s family, as she died before I was interested in these things. However, I’ve been working on my father’s family tree and pumping him for the stories behind the immigration and census data, and it’s revealed a whole different sort of tradition.
My father’s paternal grandmother, Erminia, immigrated to a mining town in Pennsylvania, where she managed a boarding house while her husband was a miner. Soon after she gave birth to her second child, her husband was killed in the mine, and she returned to Italy for many years. There, she managed a general store to support her little family. She never remarried. At 16, her son moved back to America and a few years later, she followed.
Silvia, my father’s other grandmother, lived in a farmhouse with the animals on the first floor and the family upstairs, and worked that family farm just as hard as any man. When World War I came along, she and her children were evacuated to a refugee camp, where she was put in charge of distributing food and supplies. Fearing separation from her children, she tied them to her with a string and took them with her on her duties. After the war she began bringing her family to Brooklyn as they could raise the funds.
My grandmother, Maria (a.k.a. Mary), was 13 when she came over, and if I remember her stories correctly, pretty much began working right away. The family settled into tenements in Brooklyn, and as the 5 siblings grew up and married, they remained on the same block, raising their families together. Nonna Erminia came back to America to pitch in on childcare and housekeeping duties, finally getting a chance to stay home for her later years.
Staying home was never an option for my father’s mother her prime working years. There were mouths to feed, bills to pay, and for a time, there was this big Depression thing that made those tasks that much harder. None of them had much education or an easy time learning English, so both the men and women took on factory work (with the exception of my grandfather, who had a wild string of interesting careers over his lifetime). They worked hard, built good lives, managed to move everyone out to the country, and sent most of their own kids off to college – my father being the first in his family to get a college degree and Masters.
Speaking of education, what I do know about my mother’s mother is that she graduated from the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. Considering she was born in 1910, that wasn’t exactly the normal path for a woman, even though that particular college had been a women’s school since 1847. I honestly have no idea whether she ever worked, or if that was even possible, as she had a whopping six children who were close in age, then was struck with Multiple Sclerosis, but I was raised to be very proud of her legacy of choosing education in that era and passing down her love of it to her (some of them highly overachieving) children.
My mother actually chose the Mount over more prestigious schools, when her time came to go to college, thanks to her mother’s love of her experience there. She never seemed to
question that choice, even though top schools had wanted her. She loved her time there, too. She went on to receive a PhD from New York University in Medieval Literature and become a super-dedicated educator.
My mother was the first woman in her family to have real opportunities and she took advantage of them. Technically, she could have stayed home, at least by the time I came into the family. On my father’s salary alone we would have been comfortably middle class, though we would have had to make do with much less.
Staying home was never an option for my mother, though. Nor would it have been a good choice for any of us. The best gift my mother gave me was being a fantastic role model, the hardest worker I’ve ever known. She was a brilliant and fascinating woman, but best taken in small doses. Having a nanny wasn’t a second-best choice, it was a chance for me to have yet another person who loved and influenced me in my early years, and she was simply better with young children than my mother could ever be. The only effect of my father taking on the largest parenting role is our fantastic relationship.
Not only would my mother have been miserable if she’d stayed home full-time (and would have made my father and I just as miserable, I’m quite sure), but thousands of adolescents would have missed the chance to be influenced by her. She was not your average educator or administrator, as evidenced by the large church packed with former students at her funeral.
I’m actually the closest thing to a stay-at-home anything that’s existed in the family I got to see as I grew up. My income currently comes from freelance web and graphic design, after a time of total unemployment, with some song sales on the side. I get to set my own schedule, make time for the things that matter to me most (like this very website), and carve out quality time with my partner almost every day. Staying home, in whatever capacity, is a radical and very privileged choice for me, not tradition at all. I’ve worked in offices, on the road, and in recording studios, and that taught me I work better at home or on the road, with a mix of the two being my ideal. I’m so very, very lucky to have had any of these options, let alone all of them.
When I read about history, squeezed in between the mainstream take is a shadow history – a history of women who were very much in the workforce, whether they were being counted or not.
Staying home is for the wealthy. It has always been for the wealthy, with the exception of a little time in the mid-20th century when some of the middle class did it, too.
Even women right in the Bible ran businesses and worked in many capacities. This is not a modern concept at all. Greco-Roman women of that time were crucial to the success of family businesses, as Samantha Field puts it, “They were the COO’s of Roman days.”
One of the oddball side-effects of The American Dream is that many people in America have developed an attitude where they believe they will someday be wealthy, so they should just go ahead and live like they already are. This is often cited as the reason so many vote against their own economic interests so frequently, and I would like to put forth the idea that this is also why the idea of “traditional gender roles” trickled into mainstream discourse.
The only real difference between now and the past is that women have a lot more earning power, education, career options, and access to far more reliable contraception. Women can also get their own credit now, something that us modern folks take for granted, but a fairly recent development that was a huge leap in women’s autonomy. We can get our own bank accounts instead of passing our earnings on to a male head of household. We also have far more ability to get away from abusive husbands, choose to never marry the wrong guy even if a pregnancy occurred (and yes, premarital sex has always been a thing people do, pregnant brides are truly a grand tradition from long before the shotgun was invented), and base our choices on what is best for us and any children we might have.
These are good things.
These are not breakdowns of tradition, they’re improvements upon the reality of women’s lives throughout time.
To promote the idea that it’s a woman’s duty to stay home is to completely ignore the lives women have led all along, to hold everyone up to a standard that all but a few can not hope to afford. It’s just piling more guilt onto the shoulders of women who are probably already drowning in the stuff.
In cases where a family with children is on the cusp of affording to have a parent stay home, making that choice can mean some serious sacrifices, especially in terms of which privileges you can pass on to the next generation. Wealthy families stay that way for generations largely because of the educational advantages they can give their children. Choosing to forego an income can have ramifications for generations to come.
For some families, it is absolutely the right decision to have one adult home full-time. For others, it isn’t. That’s why options matter.
We are not made with cookie cutters, and neither are our families.