TPM Cafe: Opinion

The Third Shift: How Mom Became The Family’s Bodyguard

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AP Photo / Martin Sterba

The framing of American women as the primary consumers of products associated with “moms”—cleansers, paper products, medicines, diapers, foodstuffs, etc.—tells us that we still have a long way to go to achieve gender parity in household responsibilities, including shopping. Indeed, a 2011 study found that women control more than 80 percent of U.S. spending and a 2013 study found that two-thirds of women still handle most of the grocery shopping in their families.

But it also tells us something less obvious: The issue of household safety is profoundly gendered. While men are typically responsible for outside intruders, women are often responsible for less visible intrusions on family safety, such as those found in consumer products.

This issue of naming women as the ones responsible for raising healthy, safe, children is not new; it’s taken different forms throughout U.S. history. In the early years of the U.S. republic, the ideology of Republican Motherhood meant women played an important role to raise the future (male) citizens. A hundred years ago Progressive-Era women played the role of “municipal housekeeper,” responsible for literally and figuratively cleaning the urban environment, whether by helping fight municipal corruption or by helping create better sanitation systems and thus healthier families.

Our current state of consumer advocacy hearkens back to the reforms following the end of World War II. This was the period when the GI bill promoted male education and taxation policy favored the family wage to ensure women’s dependence on men. An ethics of mass consumption contributed to the erasure of the distinction between purchaser and citizen. With the dismantling of the Office of Price Administration (OPA) in 1946, which had been established to control inflation and stabilize rent, consumer advocacy became marginalized.

An emphasis on “growing the economic pie,” rather than assuring its fair distribution, helped to yoke the notion of consumer choice to political freedom. With the postwar rise of what Harvard University American Studies professor Lizbeth Cohen has called the “Consumers’ Republic” came a number of troubling changes to the nature of consumerism. For one, citizen-consumer concerns like product safety, clear labeling, and price control were overlooked in favor of the psychology of consumption—why someone chose product x over product y.

Bringing this history forward helps us to see two things: How women became the primary guardians of the home and how government consumer advocacy lost traction and relied on the private sphere to make choices. After all, if you have consumer choice, you have a kind of freedom. Or so the thinking went.

The reality is, today the job of keeping their families safe from toxins and other contaminants has become an almost impossible challenge since stores and packaging labels are not always truthful and government regulations are sometimes lax. When a woman takes on the traditional role of household gatekeeper, she must plow through huge amounts of conflicting information trying to decide what to buy. Who should she trust? The companies advertising their “all natural,” healthy products—meaningless categories?

It seems there are fewer and fewer products we can trust. Recent studies show that words like “natural” have no consistent meaning. Studies also show that “organic” could mean a variety of things. Common sense suggests that the overuse of the term “healthy” makes it virtually meaningless, a throwaway word. Two months ago, we learned that the household weed killer Roundup may cause cancer in humans.

Whereas in the past, mothers may have believed they could turn to the government to help them keep their families safe, today government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) often do not contest companies’ claims that their food and products are nontoxic, as the example of BPA in plastic illustrates. There’s little to no regulation of the claims of companies like Whole Foods—which has built an image of selling wholesome, responsible products—of selling health to their customers. Right now in Congress, bills about whether or not to mandate a national label for genetically engineered ingredients in foods are hotly in contention.

To help everyone out, especially the mothers tasked with keeping their families safe from harmful products, we need a better, safer regulatory system. And we need to undo the longterm societal assumptions about who is responsible for family safety that began when the dismantling of the OPA solidified the link between women and consumer protection. As the battle over the naming of Amazon Mom makes clear, we have grown accustomed to consumer advocacy being left to the women. We need to level the playing field so that family health and safety is not merely mom’s role. But gender parity isn’t enough: consumer advocacy and safety shouldn’t depend upon any one individual. We need to insist that regulatory agencies step up and protect our health so that moms and families aren’t left wandering the aisles alone.

Kate Baldwin is associate professor of communication studies and American studies at Northwestern University. Shana Bernstein is a historian and clinical associate professor of legal studies at Northwestern University. They are both Public Voices Fellows with The Op-Ed Project.