Santorum's stone-age view of women

CNN Opinion
February 14, 2012
By Stephanie Coontz

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum is unhappy with last week's compromise over whether Catholic institutions should be required to cover contraception for their employees, arguing that birth control "shouldn't be covered by insurance at all." The issue, Santorum claims, is "economic liberty." But in the past he has made his real objection clear, categorizing contraception as "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."

Taken together with statements Santorum made in his 2005 book, "It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good," his opposition to contraception (as well as to abortion, even in the case of rape) seems part and parcel of a deep hostility toward efforts to empower women and enhance their status. He has shown nothing but contempt for what his book called the "radical" feminist "pitch" that "men and women be given an equal opportunity to make it to the top in the workplace." So perhaps it's not surprising that at the time of publication he did not list his wife as a co-author or contributor, although when asked last week about this and other comments on working mothers, he now says his wife wrote that part of the book

Whichever member of the couple wrote the section on women, it is worth revisiting a couple of its points. Take, for instance, the book's dismissal of programs to help impoverished single mothers improve their job prospects by returning to school: "The notion that college education is a cost-effective way to help poor, low-skill, unmarried mothers with high school diplomas or GEDs move up the economic ladder is just wrong." Or its claim that unnamed "surveys" have shown that educated professional women find it "easier, more 'professionally' gratifying, and certainly more socially affirming, to work outside the home than to give up their careers to take care of their children."

The Santorums' apparent hostility to women's educational and professional advancement is insulting and out of touch with today's world. But it is also odd in light of their purported interest in the welfare of children. It turns out that the most powerful single influence on a child's educational success is not the mother's marital status but her own level of education and her educational aspirations for her children, according to education researcher W. Norton Grubb.

Having more education is one of the biggest predictors of women having careers. But it's also one of the biggest predictors of women (and their husbands) doing more child care, according to a forthcoming paper by Paula England, a New York University sociologist and Research Fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, and her collaborator, Anjula Srivastava. Educated mothers are much more likely to work outside the home and to return to work within a year after the birth of a child. They also tend to have fewer children than their less educated counterparts. Yet on average they spend more time in direct interaction with their kids than less educated women.

Well educated fathers also spend more time in childcare than less educated dads. But, interestingly, the amount of childcare a man does is more directly influenced by his wife's educational level than his own. On average, having a wife with a college degree raises a man's participation in childcare by 3½ hours per week.

Educated parents find more time to spend with their children by reducing time dedicated to home-based activities that involve little interaction with children. They spend less time on sleep and personal grooming, less time doing housework, and less time watching television than their less educated counterparts, regardless of their employment status. This is hardly evidence that they do not find childcare gratifying.

No single choice about how to organize work and family life is right or possible -- for every family. And every choice has tradeoffs. Sometimes having a mom stay home is a big help. On the other hand, when a mother works outside the home, her husband generally does more child care and has higher parental knowledge about his childrens' friends, routines and needs, cutting across the tendency for fathers to be second-string parents at home.

Every family must make its own, sometimes difficult, decisions about what best fits their particular needs and preferences. We don't need politicians like Rick Santorum or, as he now somewhat unchivalrously claims, his wife -- making those decisions more painful by suggesting that women who choose to pursue careers are worse mothers than those who do not.

Stephanie Coontz teaches family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (BasicBooks).

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