Kirsten Swinth: Hillary Clinton, Cookies and the Rise of Working Families





Kirsten Swinth is an associate professor of history at Fordham University. Her work focuses on women, work and culture. She is working on a book on care and competition in postindustrial America and the making of the working family. This column was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.

(CNN) -- "I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession," Hillary Clinton famously snapped on the campaign trail two decades ago Friday. Mostly, we remember the comment as a moment in the perpetual mommy wars, but I tend to think about it as a moment in the history of chocolate chip cookies....

In 1992, Clinton's comment drew scorching responses from at-home mothers and cheers from fellow working moms. Such polarized reactions should be set in the context of Clinton's own life. Among the few women in her Yale Law School class, Clinton fought hard for professional success. Her remark was not merely a political misstep, but a generational declaration: a reflection of gut-level struggles women had made for workplace opportunity, even as mothers....

An idealized image of mothering stays powerfully with us: children arriving home from school, met at the door with warm chocolate chip cookies and a motherly embrace. That image evokes devotion, time and, most importantly, love. It is middle-class parenting unstressed by the demands of labor, whether paid or unpaid (the pans and trays awaiting washing are generally conveniently left out of the picture)....

[Working mothers] would do well to listen to another first lady, Michelle Obama, who as a black woman is well schooled in the multiple roles that black women, whether middle class or poor, have long fulfilled. Black mothers historically have believed they are dedicated mothers, even while earning money for their families. No one assumed that Obama, in her lawyer days before the White House, devoted herself to cookie making, but we knew she was a good mother....



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