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I was struck recently  by the persistence of an old  argument used to kill the Fair Pay Act - and every other  measure that would make life easier for mothers.    You know it by heart: many women  “choose” to earn less than men, and if they choose to earn less, then what’s the big deal about a little wage inequality?

This so-called “choice” argument can be superficially persuasive.   Most women probably do prefer cleaner, relatively lower-paying jobs.   Most women would  rather be beauticians than coal miners, art teachers than  mechanics.  (Although this begs the question why teachers and beauticians earn so much less than mechanics and miners).  Women working full-time often work fewer hours (for pay) than full-time working men.    And in recent surveys,  far more working  women than men  say they would prefer to work part-time.

Women, in short,  are different from men.  They’re  just not as into dirt, long hours and making  money.   Maybe they are just .... more French!

But before you buy into this one,  remember  that those who benefit from the status quo always attribute inequities to the  choices of the underdog.  And women are still underdogs in the job market.  Women working 40 hours a week still earn 86 cents for every dollar a man earns, a bigger gap than in many developed countries with more family-friendly policies.   But if American women accept this willingly, then there’s nothing to worry about.   It’s their choice.   No one “made them do it.”  So no one has to do anything about it.

The only thing wrong with this argument is that it leaves out  history:

* The history that still dictates lower wages in female-dominated professions;

* The history that discourages women from entering better-paying, male-dominated fields like the skilled trades,  engineering, and science.

*   The history that explains why women in almost every occupation still earn less than men in the same occupation.

*  The history that dictates that women still do the bulk of the work at home, limiting their ability to work for pay.

“It’s their own choice” rhetoric also leaves out power:

* The power to dictate the rules of work.  Women don’t.

* The power to decide who does most of  the menial housework.

* The power to legislate working conditions that fit women’s lives,  like the right to paid sick days and paid maternity leaves,  the right to refuse to work overtime, and the right to work part-time.  We have none of these rights.  Is that women’s choice?

The major point here is that women’s  choices are not made in a vacuum.  They are made in a world that women did not create,  according to rules they didn’t write. For many women with children,  choice is all about bad options and difficult decisions: your child or success in your profession; taking on most of the domestic chores or marital strife; food on the table or your baby’s safety; your right arm or your left.

If we have to talk about choice, let’s broaden the conversation.  Let’s start talking about  employers’ choices and  politicians’ choices and husbands’ choices to perpetuate a system that keeps women earning less than men, more economically vulnerable than men, and more susceptible to poverty the minute they have a child.

It’s other people’s choices,  not ours,  that things are still this way.

Ann Crittenden

Crittenden’s ground-breaking book The Price of Motherhood has just been re-issued  in a 10th anniversary edition, with a new preface.  She concludes that while mothers’ attitudes have changed, not much else has.

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