On “The Sexual Division of Labor, the Decline of Civic Culture, and the Rise of Suburbs,” an essay by Christopher Lasch

“Should women work or stay home?” is not an age-old dilemma, says historian Christopher Lasch. Rather, it is an idea that bloomed in a particular time and place and may shrivel and die now (or to the extent that) both have changed.

First, he takes aim at the idea that women at work (“work” as a stand-in, somehow, for all that is not housework and childcare) is something new:

“In reality, full-time motherhood — the rejection of which touched off the latest wave of feminist agitation in the sixties — was something new and historically unprecedented.”

He plays a little fast and loose with terms here, and I wish he had precisely defined “full-time motherhood.” (What is it, housework? childcare? teaching?). Still, if he’s saying, as I think he is, that the phenomenon of a stay-at-home-mom who works exclusively and/or primarily on projects related to her own home and children (what I think he means by “full-time motherhood”) is a novel and localized concept, born in the suburbs of the American 1950s, then that’s radical, because it would mean that the role isn’t traditional and can’t be defended as such. It would be modern and thus suspect to traditionalists for all the usual reasons.

That full-time motherhood “was something new and historically unprecedented” is a historical claim, and could be contested, once we get the terms straight. Has it been contested? It would be good to try to get that right so we can proceed with thinking through what we can and should do now.