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Homemakers in an Age of Feminist Mystique

Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen hit close to many American homes with her comment that Ann Romney, stay-at-home mother of five boys, "had never worked a day in her life."

The broadside didn't just hit a presidential candidate's wife but also a wide swath of Middle America moms.

It turns out the typical stay-at-home mom doesn't live next door to the "Desperate Housewives" in a four-bedroom house on Wisteria Lane. Instead, as The New York Times reported after the Rosen-Romney dust-up, 65% of stay-at-home, married mothers of children under 18 live in a household with an annual income below $75,000.

Rosen apologized, saying she valued all women's work. Trouble is, her comments fit a longtime pattern of statements by liberal feminists that seem to diminish the decision not to work outside the home.

On the campaign trail for her husband in 1992, Hillary Clinton defended her own choice to pursue a law career by disparaging what others opted to do. "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession," she told reporters.

Clinton's condescension was only a faint echo of the brutal comments made by feminist matriarch Betty Friedan in her 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique."

"I am convinced there is something about the housewife state itself that is dangerous," wrote Friedan, describing the homemaker as consigned to "a comfortable concentration camp."

Friedan used the term "feminine mystique" to refer to "certain concrete, finite, domestic aspects of feminine existence" made "into a religion, a pattern by which all women must now live or deny their femininity."

Since Friedan's day, the demographics have changed dramatically. By 1982, women had outstripped men in the number of bachelor's degrees earned each year; by 1986, the same was true for master's degrees. In 1995, more women in the workforce had bachelor's degrees than men.

About 70% of married mothers with children under 18 were in the labor force as of 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Within a generation, more households will be supported by women than by men," bestselling author and Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy predicts with praise in her new book "The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family."

Not all women will reach the same conclusion.

For decades, nearly all young women consistently have said marriage and motherhood are important to their future happiness. Strong majorities also look forward to working.

When they grow up to be mothers, juggling home and workplace responsibilities, many wish they could tilt their timesheet ratio more toward home. In fact, nearly 70% of full-time working mothers of children under 18 said they'd prefer to work part time or not at all, according to a 2007 report from Pew Research Center.

Feminists claim to support a woman's individual choice when it comes to the balance of work and family life. But episodes such as the Rosen flap don't reveal respectful regard for all women's choices in this arena.

The irony is that women now face a feminist mystique. Today's "pattern by which all women must now live" - to use Friedan's words - leads to awkward silences in response to the homemaker who admits her vocation at a cocktail party.

Too often feminists tend to categorize women as a class. Demanding conformity to the feminist norm, they fail to respect a woman's intellectual freedom to think for herself - the ostensible goal they fought to achieve.

British mystery writer Dorothy Sayers found that "repugnant." She lambasted the impulse in a speech to a women's group in 1938, titled "Are Women Human?"

"What is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one's tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs," Sayers said. "Are women really not human, that they should be expected to toddle along all in a flock like sheep?"

Today's stay-at-home mom may not be following the crowd. And for that, feminists ought to show her just a little more respect.

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.

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