Reeve Vanneman

Media images of working mothers

Joanna Motro and I have begun analyses of the changing media portrayals of working mothers over the last three decades. Using Lexis/Nexis, we have downloaded and coded over over 2000 articles from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press that discuss working or at-home mothers. Our guiding idea is that the portrayal of working mothers may have shifted in the 1990s from a concern over the effects of working on their children to a concern over the effects of working ("trying to have it all") on mothers themselves.

This new emphasis in the media may have played a role in the stalled gender revolution and especially in the end of the rise in more feminist attitudes in public opinion surveys. This theory was first popularized by Susan Faludi's 1991 book Backlash, although she dated the media shift to the 1980s.

Our initial results based on 859 New York Times articles confirmed our expectations of a rise in "distressed working mother" themes during the 1990s and a decline in concern for problems of children of working mothers.

We are extending these analyses to investigate two related themes: "Mommy Wars" and "Opting Out". They all show similar increases during the mid-1990s -- and some intriguing evidence of a reduction after the economic crises of 2008. Together these themes reinforce a cultural schema that is consistent with lower mothers' labor force participation. This schema bridges earlier narratives about working mothers: it incorporates themes of choice and gender equality from feminism and child-centric themes of 1950s traditionalism -- what Maria Charles and David Grusky have called "egalitarian essentialism". Moreover, the distressed working mother narrative is useful for both liberal efforts to promote a more humane work/ family balance and conservative efforts to return to a 1950s family of male "breadwinners" and female "homemakers".

Last updated October 1, 2016
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