Conflicted Americans: The Working Mother : Old issues--and a new one--in Hillary Clinton flap

On top of all the obstacles to fair and equal participation of women in the labor force--the "glass ceiling," the "mommy track" and the lack of adequate and affordable child care--sadly we may have to add yet another: a husband's occupation.

Sunday night, as the Michigan and Illinois primary campaigns drew to a close, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown accused Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton of funneling state business to the Little Rock law firm of which his wife, Hillary, is a partner. The Clintons have vehemently denied the charge.

But it was Hillary's response Monday, we fear, that may draw the heaviest artillery fire: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided to do was pursue my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."

It is this tart response that we expect to elicit some new, unproductive rhetoric about an old topic: the allegedly deleterious effects of women working . . . effects on children, the family, on the structure of society. Maternity leave, family leave, flexible work schedules, child care centers--these are the building blocks of a brave new world in which women are said to "abandon" husbands and children for careers.

Barbara Bush, we should recall, created a stir with her 1990 commencement address at Wellesley College. Responding to criticism that the college should have invited a speaker who better represented the aspirations of female graduates, Mrs. Bush said: "You will never regret . . . not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent."

Such statements--and those which will inevitably follow Hillary's Clinton's defense--only skate over the deep ambivalence felt by many Americans, and certainly by many American women, about their changing roles. Working outside the home is a fact of life for most U.S. mothers; more than 50% with children under 6 years old are now employed. Some women have the financial luxury of choosing whether to stay at home, but most have no such choice--they are single parents or are married to men who do not earn enough alone.

But whether employed outside the home or not, many women feel deeply divided about their choice or, in many cases, their lack of a choice. Many working women long for what they perceive as the relative freedom enjoyed by stay-at-home moms: more time with children and for themselves. Many at-home mothers wish for the excitement and rewards--psychic as well as financial--of a stimulating and productive job.

Sometimes the ambivalence of women at work and at home turns to envy. Sometimes, it turns to mutual resentment. It would be a shame if Hillary Clinton's remarks further stirred these troubled waters.

Clinton's defense will also draw fire because of her still unusual position, being an employed wife of a presidential candidate. Conflict of interest is a serious charge. If her firm directly profited from her husband's political office, that should rightly damage the Clinton candidacy.

But short of such evidence, Hillary Clinton--a Yale Law School graduate, mother of a 12-year-old daughter and a woman of obvious intellect and drive--deserves respect. She worked hard to get where she is. So far she is handling the pressure well. For men the old saying was, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. But for some women these days, it's when you get out of the kitchen that you really feel the heat.

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