Why Mothers’ Choices About Work and Family Often Feel Like No Choice at All


In the mid-1980s, in a landmark employment discrimination case against Sears, Roebuck and Co., the company argued that women were not promoted because they did not choose high-paying or stressful jobs. Sears won, but in testimony, Alice Kessler-Harris, a labor historian, offered an alternate lens: “Choice can be understood only within the framework of available opportunity.”

In a 1991 paper, “Gender Wars: Selfless Women in the Republic of Choice,” Joan C. Williams, a work-life law scholar, wrote: “This insistent focus on the ‘choices’ of individual actors deflects attention from the truly stunning consistency with which it ‘happens’ to be wives who ‘choose’ careers that ‘accommodate their children’s needs,’ while husbands continue (as they always have) to perform as ideal workers.”

Today, the divide is less stark: Three-quarters of mothers are employed. But many feel forced to make painful decisions, like leaving their child in inadequate care, or working in scaled-back jobs they say they wouldn’t have chosen under different circumstances.

It’s still framed as a woman’s own decision — lean in or opt out — and the language of choice continues to shape policy debates.

Democrats have proposed new federal programs, financed by taxpayers, that would provide things like paid family leave and public preschool — which they say would free parents from the limits on their choices today.

Republican proposals focus on individual solutions — like letting new parents draw down their Social Security or tax credits early, and providing funding to increase the number of home-based family child care providers. They say these would give parents more choice without having the government sway them in any direction, and ensure that “the people making different choices than you aren’t paying for your choices,” said Carrie Lukas, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative policy group.

“It’s not just society forcing women to work less,” she said. “Or maybe it is partially society forcing them to, but at some point I think we’ve just got to accept the idea of women wanting to do this. I want them to have the best options possible and the most say to decide what their own personal preferences are.”

Preferences are shaped by policy, culture, the workplace and the realities of daily life. The question is how women’s choices might change if their options were different.


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