For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women's Work

For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women's Work

For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women's Work

For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women's Work


In the contentious debate about women and work, conventional wisdom holds that middle-class women can decide if they work, while working-class women need to work. Yet, even after the recent economic crisis, middle-class women are more likely to work than working-class women. Sarah Damaske deflates the myth that financial needs dictate if women work, revealing that financial resources make it easier for women to remain at work and not easier to leave it.

Departing from mainstream research, Damaske finds three main employment patterns: steady, pulled back, and interrupted. She discovers that middle-class women are more likely to remain steadily at work and working-class women more likely to experience multiple bouts of unemployment. She argues that the public debate is wrongly centered on need because women respond to pressure to be selfless mothers and emphasize family need as the reason for their work choices. Whether the decision is to stay home or go to work, women from all classes say work decisions are made for their families.

In For the Family?, Sarah Damaske at last provides a far more nuanced and richer picture of women, work, and class than the one commonly drawn.


Virginia laughed when I asked her to tell me about her work experience. It was a difficult task because Virginia, a white working-class woman, started the first of many jobs at an early age. We met at her apartment on the second floor of a weathered three-story building in a neighborhood left behind by the city’s gentrification. We sat at her kitchen table as she kept an eye on her two children, ages seven and ten, who popped in and out of the room hoping to participate in our conversation. She recalled her entrance into the workforce: “I started shampooing [at a local hair salon] when I took up my trade, which was the tenth grade. And then I, you know, worked different stores and I did that until I graduated high school, because that’s when I could get my license.”

Soon after, Virginia met and married her husband, a white working-class man, and they started a family of their own. A janitor, her husband worked nights and picked up extra shift’s when he could. Virginia continued to work full time after the birth of their son, but, she said, a year after their daughter was born, “I started working part time. And then I stayed home to raise the kids.” Virginia left the workforce to “be home for the kids,” but after a few years returned part time. Asked about her changing work and family experiences, she explained, “A mother should be home with their kids,” but added that this isn’t possible today, because “financially, [women] have to actually work in order to make it possible for their kids to have . . .

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