But the brouhaha over Hilary Rosen’s injudicious remarks is not really about whether what stay-home mothers do is work. Because we know the answer to that: it depends. When performed by married women in their own homes, domestic labor is work‚Äîdifficult, sacred, noble work. Ann says Mitt called it more important work than his own, which does make you wonder why he didn’t stay home with the boys himself. When performed for pay, however, this supremely important, difficult job becomes low-wage labor that almost anyone can do‚Äîteenagers, elderly women, even despised illegal immigrants. But here’s the real magic: when performed by low-income single mothers in their own homes, those same exact tasks‚Äîchanging diapers, going to the playground and the store, making dinner, washing the dishes, giving a bath‚Äîare not only not work; they are idleness itself.
So there it is: the difference between a stay-home mother and a welfare mother is money and a wedding ring. Unlike any other kind of labor I can think of, domestic labor is productive or not, depending on who performs it.
Katha Pollitt writing in The Nation is exactly spot on. The simple fact is that WHO does the work is just as important as WHAT the work is. Even New York, where nannies can make a lot of money, it depends on WHO the nanny is – their background, race, skin color, class – that depends on how much money they can make. Domestic work isn’t a virtue in itself; the virtue of the individual defines that profession. A lower-class, illegal immigrant, single woman is not the view the same as Ann Romney. They just aren’t and there’s no single way to compare the two without noting the differences. And there are way more lower class women doing domestic work than there are Ann Romneys. The fact that she’s become the face of this reality is insulting, not only to those who are left in her shadow, but to the countless women, and men, who don’t have the opportunity to be stay-at-home moms.
What’s funny about this, to me at least, is how this issue has been around for millennium. You can see it within the Book of Acts. For Luke, the women work best as patrons. In the story of Lydia, Paul, and the slave girl with the spirit of divination, Lydia is valued because she is rich and has the opportunity to take care of Paul. The slave girl, the one who goes around announcing that Paul is a servant of God, has her spirit removed from her. She’s silenced and vanishes from the text while Paul returns back into Lydia’s household later. Although there are many ways to read this text, one way to read it is simply that the slave girl who vanishes is worth less than Lydia for Luke. Paul had an opportunity to baptize the slave girl, to bring her into the fold, but doesn’t. Instead, he silences her. Lydia was given the opportunity for entrance into the body of Christ but the slave girl was not.
The parallel to the Ann Romney/Hillary Rosen story isn’t exact. But it does show that, even in my Christian tradition, the reality is that individuals becomes types that overshadow and hide reality behind them. “It depends” is just as important component of the church as it is with US society. On this side of the eschaton, that’s where we live – in a place where “it depends” matters more than it should. As long as we, as a society, self-define our own elites and look to them as our models of our reality, at the expense of the vast multitudes that will never fit those templates, we’re going to make the mistake of talking about the WHAT but always missing who the WHO really are.