Motherhood, Feminism, and the US Census

By Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner
Issue 111, March/April 2002

Mother and sonKathryn Spracklin was in her kitchen in Montreal , Quebec , making a snack for her son and listening to a radio interview with Evelyn Drescher, of Mothers Are Women (MAW).

“As a new mom, I’d been feeling that I wasn’t being true to my idea of what a feminist should do, which was to work at a paid job,” Spracklin recalls. “Listening to that interview, I realized for the first time that maybe feminism wasn’t just associated with making an income.” This insight moved her to join MAW, a Canadian activist group that believes there won’t be real equality for women until the unpaid work they do in the home and community is counted and valued as real work.

A few years earlier, across the country in Saskatchewan , Carol Lees opened her front door to a census taker from Statistics Canada. Lees, a full-time mother of three, sparked a minor revolution that day when she politely refused to fill out the census form if it meant declaring that as an unpaid homemaker she didn’t “work.”1

“People who work, both paid and unpaid, need to be valued,” Lees explains. “The census is a key instrument on which government policy is based. If you’re not represented on the census, then you don’t have a voice as public policy is developed, and policy isn’t developed on your behalf.”

Lees eventually received a letter from Statistics Canada’s chief statistician in Ottawa , threatening the full weight of the law, including fines and jail time, if she didn’t fill out the form. Lees held her ground and founded the Canadian Alliance for Home Managers, which joined together with MAW and several other organizations to achieve dramatic results. Widespread media coverage was generated, and three questions about unpaid labor were added to the Canadian Census in 1996. Meanwhile, most of the US remains oblivious to the social movement taking place just across the border. Something vital was missing from the 2000 US Census: a specific count of full-time parents. In contrast, worldwide attention has been paid to the importance of counting unpaid labor, particularly that of women. In 1985, the Third UN World Conference on Women passed a resolution that directed countries to “recognize the remunerated (paid) and unremunerated (unpaid) contributions of women in national economic statistics and the gross domestic product, especially those contributions of women in agriculture, food production, reproduction, and household activities.”2

There is an enormous amount of untracked, unpaid labor. According to a 1995 UN Human Development Report, “If these unpaid activities were treated as market transactions at the prevailing wages, they would yield huge monetary valuations-a staggering $16 trillion [of which] $11 trillion is the non-monetized, ‘invisible’ contribution of women.” To put this figure into perspective, the official estimate of total paid global output is $23 trillion.3

The Platform for Action at the UN Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995 strengthened this issue, requiring governments to start efforts to measure and value unpaid work in official statistics “with a view to recognizing the economic contribution of women and making visible the unequal distribution of remunerated and unremunerated work between women and men.”4 “Only when women’s unwaged work is acknowledged and valued will women’s demands and needs be valued,” said Ruth Todasco, a member of the International Women Count Network.5

Australia , Germany , Israel , and Norway are among the countries that have followed the UN recommendations and started counting unpaid labor in their national statistics. In the US , however, neither the government nor women’s organizations have taken any substantial action on this issue. It’s a telling sign that a public information economist from the Bureau of Labor Statistics told me, “We don’t specifically track stay-at-home moms because they aren’t relevant to the labor force.”

Not relevant? Imagine the uproar if the government decided to call any other segment of the population irrelevant. The absence of full-time parents in US Census data is especially disconcerting because the census is supposed to provide a snapshot of American life that drives public funding, political policy, consumer marketing, and much more. Invisibility in the census thus has rippling repercussions and long-term financial consequences.

The federal government uses census data to allocate funds for economically disadvantaged persons, job training, public assistance programs, and other services. The private sector uses the same data to help in formulating marketing plans, developing products, and selecting office and plant sites. Legislative bodies use census data to develop legislation to assist underrepresented groups and for community planning.

The myth that all families with a full-time parent are wealthy is perpetuated by their invisibility in the US Census. In actuality, the chances of having a low-family income are much the same in “traditional” families (full-time working father and full-time homemaking mother) as in mother-only families, according to a Census Bureau study. Families with a full-time parent are about seven times more likely to live in poverty than those with two full-time working parents.6

Pat Albright is a single mother, former welfare recipient, and activist with the international organization Wages for Housework Campaign. “An accurate count of full-time mothers would help women on welfare, because most political propaganda makes it look like welfare mothers are just doing nothing all day,” she says. “Anything that actually acknowledges the unwaged work of mothers would go a long way toward helping to reestablish entitlements for caring work.”

According to Stephanie Coontz, a family historian, national co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, and professor at Evergreen State College, there are other immediate consequences: “Since our society doesn’t value childrearing, we inevitably tend to pit stay-at-home parents against working parents.” She points out that the existence of full-time moms is used as an excuse not to invest in services such as preschools, after-school care, and reintegration into the workplace for full-time parents and calls this situation “oppressive to both working and full-time parents.”

I myself am a wife and mother who spends my days filling sippee cups, chasing kids, and doing art projects with strange gooey substances. But it is only in my second job, as a semiemployed late-night moonlighter, that I count. Anyone who wrote “full-time parent” as their occupation on the US Census form was automatically classified in catchall category 995-“not in the labor force.” Joanne Brundage, executive director of Mothers and More, asks, “How can we possibly solve the problems facing our society if we don’t have all the pieces? Unpaid caregiving work needs to be counted.”

The lack of a specific count doesn’t stop people from making rough estimates based on statistics for “married couples with children with only the husband/wife in the labor force.”7 Unfortunately, this number doesn’t include those full-time parents who work part time from home, are unmarried with partners, have spouses who don’t work, or are single. Census data released in May 2001 reported that married couples raising children account for less than a quarter of households, and the number of families headed by single mothers has increased by 25 percent since 1990.8

The issue of census undercounts of full-time parents grows in importance as traditional methods of making estimates (by tracking married couples with only one spouse in the labor force) become outdated. In other words, the full-time mom is counted in the shadow of her husband’s actions in the workforce, if she is counted at all, a situation eerily reminiscent of the time when women weren’t counted in the public vote. It’s a double whammy: Full-time parents in the US are both unpaid and uncounted. Back in Canada , Kathryn Spracklin and Carol Lees celebrated May 15, 2001 , as the day the Canadian Census again asked those hard-won questions about unpaid labor. Lees reflects, “I’m gratified to know that a housewife without any political training or skills could help make these changes.” Spracklin, now a policy analyst with MAW, says, “Activists are still working to make sure the census data is used for positive policy that promotes equality and social justice.”

The US could learn a lesson from the women in Canada .

1. Meg Luxton and Leah Vosko, “Where Women’s Efforts Count: The 1996 Census Campaign and ‘Family Politics’ in Canada ,” Studies in Political Economy 56 (Summer 1998): 49-81.
2. “Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women: UN Resolution” (Nairobi: Third United Nations World Conference on Women, 1985), paragraphs 58, 64, 20, 130, and 179.
3. The Human Development Report (prepared by the United Nations Development Programme and published by Oxford University Press, 1995), 97.
4. “Platform for Action” (Beijing: United Nations World Conference on Women, 1995), sections 206F,G, 165G.
5. Marilyn Waring, Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), xxvii.
6. We the American Children (US Bureau of the Census, September 1993).
7. “Married Couples by Labor Force Status of Spouses, 1986 to Present,” Table MC-1 in America ‘s Families and Living Arrangements: March 2000 (US Bureau of the Census Current Population Reports, Series P20-537, June 29, 2001 ).
8. Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert, “Unmarried with Children,” Newsweek ( May 28, 2001 ): 46-54.


Bose, Christine. Women in 1900: Gateway to the Political Economy of the 20th Century. Temple University Press, 2001.
Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Basic Books, 2000.
Crittenden, Ann. The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued. Metropolitan Books, 2001.
Folbre, Nancy. The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values. The New Press, 2001.
Waring, Marilyn. Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth. University of Toronto Press, 1988.

Mothers & More, PO Box 31 , Elmhurst , IL 60126 ; 630-941-3553; An international not-for-profit organization with more than 170 local chapters, supporting women who have altered their career paths to care for their children at home.
National Organization of Women (NOW) Legal Defense and Education Fund, Fifth Floor, 395 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014; 212-925-6635;
Mothers At Home (MAH), 9493-C Silver King Court , Fairfax , VA 22031 ; 703-352-1072;
Mothers Are Women, PO Box 4104 , Station E, Ottawa , ON K1S 5B1 , Canada ; 613-722-7851;
Status of Woman Canada , McDonald Building , 123 Slater Street , 10th Floor, Ottawa , ON K1P 1H9 , Canada ; 613-995-7835; A Canadian government agency that promotes gender equality.

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner lives in Kirkland , Washington , with her husband, Bill, their children, Connor (4) and Anna (2), and their dog, Cowboy. She left her job as political director of an environmental political action committee to become a full-time mom and freelance journalist. She writes frequently about motherhood, public policy, and new feminism.

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