Motherhood in America


In no bourgeois democratic country in the world do men and women have equal rights. In some countries they might have equality before the law, but this does not mean that they are equal when it comes to wages and social rights.

Nonetheless, you would expect from a country like the United States of America, which is the richest and most advanced capitalist country in the world, and which is the biggest so-called defender of “freedom, equality and democracy,” that the position of women and the circumstances for motherhood would be some of the best in the world.

However, this is far from being the case. While the question of women in society ultimately is a class question, mothers and women generally in the U.S. are in fact in a worse position compared to women in most other Western countries. This is for the simple reason that capitalism makes higher profits when the working class is divided unequally. The position of women in society is a clear example of how capitalism combines formal political equality with economic and, consequently, social inequality.

The economic reality

It is said that you can judge the true character of a society by how it treats the majority of its mothers. It goes without saying that if mothers have access to quality health care, housing, education, healthy food, and daily necessities, then children will be in a better position to do well in life, which ultimately benefits the whole of society. It is necessary therefore to look at the concrete numbers and details related to women’s income level, child-bearing, and the raising of children, to more clearly understand the conditions for mothers in the U.S.

In 2011, 46.2 million people in the U.S. lived with an income below the poverty level—more than 17 million of these were women aged 18 and older. This means that 14.5% of the adult female population lived in poverty, compared to 11.2% of the adult male population. That is, one in every 7 women was poor, compared to one in every 9 men.

If you look at the numbers by ethnicity and race, you will see that the percentage of nonwhite women living in poverty is much higher. Around 25 % of Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native women live in poverty. Last but not least, the poverty rate for single mother families (all ethnicities) was at 40.7% in 2011.

Women’s Health USA shows that the poverty status amongst women is highest for those aged 18–44; that the poverty level decreases the more education women have; and that women in families experienced higher rates of poverty than men in families. Finally, statistics show that women on average in all occupations earn 77% of what men are earning in the same positions. The median income for U.S. women in 2010 was $36,931 compared to men’s $47,715.

This means that women on average earn 23% less than men in the same position. Women with a higher education tend to do better than other women, and the proportion of women living in poverty is remarkably higher among women of childbearing age, especially for nonwhite women.

This does not mean that there are no rich women in the U.S. As is the case with the rest of the population under capitalism, women are divided into classes, and the women of the capitalist class do not have to struggle for their own lives or the lives of their children as women workers do. With the current crisis, the gap between rich and poor is constantly growing and the number of people finding themselves part of the low-income working class is increasing too. The difference in wages between the genders shows that the majority of working women in this country are economically disadvantaged.

Why does the economic difference between the genders exist?

This is the million dollar question. If you take a look on Wikipedia under “Explaining the Gender Pay Gap,” you will see that many scientists have spent time, money and energy trying to find the reason for this inequality—but in vain. Instead of looking at the real source of the problem—i.e. the employers who maintain and are responsible for paying men and women differently—they look for causes related to women in general.

The fact is that economic inequality is an inherent part of capitalism. The history of women’s position in society is long and cannot be dealt with fully here. When women joined the workforce, the capitalists, who are always trying to find ways to cut wages and increase profits, treated women as cheap labor and refused to pay women equal pay for work of equal value. The women were not properly organized and many trade unions saw them as a threat. Women were forced to work for what the factory owners were willing to pay, which was always less than what men received. This meant that men and women were not only fighting to earn money to raise their families, but also against each other in the workplaces. The cheap labor women represented was in fact a threat to the wage standard that the male workers were earning. The capitalists succeeded to a certain degree in justifying this inequality in wages by pointing out the biological differences between the genders.

It is normal and necessary today for the majority of women to be employed outside the home, and as we have seen there is a significant gender income gap. There are women who are millionaires and billionaires and CEOs, but the income gap between the genders does not make a difference at that level. Most of these women have gained their money by exploiting the working class, and therefore also by exploiting the difference in wages between men and women. And while working mothers must work a “second shift” after working for the capitalists, wealthy women hire maids, nannies, cooks, and other household servants to make their lives easier.

Capitalism does not care whether you are a man or a woman, black or white, Christian or Muslim. The only thing capitalism cares about is how to make profits and how to spend as little as possible on the cost of your labor power. The financial inequality between the genders today exists and remains because of the capitalist system. As long as capitalism remains, so too will this artificial division of the working class.

What to expect when you are expecting

Giving birth and raising children is a social necessity. But it is by no means a social responsibility in capitalist society. The hospitals, health insurance companies and the banks profit from social reproduction from the moment a baby is conceived till the day it dies.

The costs related to being pregnant and giving birth have increased so much over the last few years that more and more people end up in debt just because they want to start a family.

This was shown in a thorough study of the conditions for infants and toddlers in the U.S., prepared by The Future of Children: “Recent estimates suggest that one quarter of all poverty spells in the United States begin with the birth of a new child. The pressures of caring for a new child are not all financial either. With the arrival of a new child, the mother must recover from childbirth, adults in the household must adapt to disrupted sleeping patterns, and everyone experiences changes in their daily routines.”

The joyful event when a new baby comes to the world literally has its price. The average cost of giving birth is between $6,000 and $12,000, depending on where in the country you live. This is for a normal and uncomplicated delivery and a healthy baby. If you have health insurance you will end up “only” paying between $2,000 and $7,000 out of pocket for the delivery and the cost of treatment for the baby, depending on your insurance plan.

The time up till the birth and right after, can be very stressful for the working mother for financial reasons as well. The U.S., Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua Guinea are the only 5 countries in the world that do not guarantee working mothers paid maternity leave. For those working American mothers who are fortunate enough to get maternity leave, this will last for 12 weeks at most, and be unpaid.

Many working class women, and single mothers in particular, are not able to take this maternity leave, for the simple reason that they cannot pay their bills without receiving their salary. This means that these women work harder during their pregnancy to save up sick leave, vacation, and personal days, and cross their fingers for their and the baby’s health, in order to be able to take a few weeks off around the time when they are giving birth.

Once the baby is born

After the child has been born new economic challenges arise. Often, working class mothers have to choose between their own and their child’s health, and paying the bills. It might seem like a private and irrelevant matter to some, but the issue of breast feeding shows directly how privileged women with a higher education, a higher income, and/or a husband who has a high income, and who themselves are able to take a longer maternity leave, are able to give their children a qualitatively better life from the beginning.

Child and nutrition experts recommend that children should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their lives, and then breastfed until they are 2 years old. It has been scientifically demonstrated that babies who are fed formula and stop breastfeeding early have higher risks of illness, obesity, allergies and sudden infant death syndrome. Mothers who breastfeed, on the other hand, have lower risks of breast and ovarian cancers. Breastfeeding delays the return to fertility and helps the mother to lose the weight gained while pregnant. Added to that, breastfeeding is cheaper than other alternatives. But in order to pay for rent, food, and day care, the majority of working women stop breastfeeding earlier than this, because they must return to work.

Save the Children published a report on the “State of the World’s Mothers” in May this year which states that “In the United States alone, it is estimated that low rates of breastfeeding add $13 billion to medical costs and lead to 911 excess deaths every year.” The report also states that disadvantaged mothers breastfeed less than their more privileged counterparts, and that “less than 2% of low-income mothers who planned to breastfeed were able to meet their goals.”

In other words, because low-income mothers cannot afford not to work, they spend more money on day care, formula, and health care, and risk longer-term illness for their children, which again makes it compulsory that the mother keep working. The gender income gap means that women have to work longer to cover their expenses as compared to men, which again has consequences for the child and family life in general. In some families with two parents, the lowest-paid parent chooses to stop working in the interest of the child or children’s wellbeing.

Not only does this force most working class families into poverty or debt, but this is in itself a backwards tendency that forces mainly women to sacrifice themselves for the family.

The next generation

After birth comes child care. No matter whether the child is male or female, they can only get the level and quality of day care and education that their parents are able to buy. In capitalist America, day care and education are commodities, and access to quality care and education is not a basic human right.

As we have described in earlier articles in Socialist Appeal, the current economic crisis in the U.S. and the capitalist world has created a generation of youth—the current and coming generation of new parents—who are in higher debt than ever before. This generation will not be able to get the same quality of life as their parents were, and they will have to fight in order to be able to save their children from the barbarism of capitalism.

The reason why millions of Americans live below the poverty line; why women and non-white ethnicities live under worse conditions than their counterparts; and why the total student debt is higher than the national credit card debt, is not because of a lack of resources in U.S. society. It is because capitalism profits on the exploitation and misery of the majority of the population. It is because the private ownership of the means of production makes production serve the interests of these few private owners alone.

Formal political equality combined with economic inequality inevitably creates social inequality. The question of working class women’s and mothers’ position in society is inseparable from the question of private ownership of the means of production.

Therefore, the struggle for equality between the genders cannot be separated from the struggle for the emancipation of the working class in general.

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!