A Woman’s Worth was published online in the August 2013 issue of SynaptIQ+: The Journal for Social Era Knowledge.

Workin’ Woman Blues
Lyrics by Valerie June

I ain’t fit to be no mother
I ain’t fit to be no wife yet
I been workin’ like a man, y’all
I been workin’ all my life yeah

There ain’t no dinner on the table
Ain’t no food in the ‘fridgerator
I’ll go to work and I’ll be back later
I go to work said I’d be back later

Lord you know I’m a good looking woman
Lord you know I’m a good looking girl
If you want to give me something
Anything in this great big world yeah

Lord you know that I am ready
for my sugar my sugar daddy.

…chants Valerie June in Workin’ Woman Blues, from Pushin’ Against a Stone, a collection of songs and ballads I can only describe as Blues Gospel Folk Soul Incantation Poetry. Music is visceral, entering the spirit as do the sounds, sights and scents of a long walk on the beach—sea foam meeting ocean spray, kelp bulb greeting beach grass, driftwood adorning sand dune, bare toes testing tide pull, salt wind softening gull caw, seal bark parting morning fog—the whole intoxicating whiff of it infused into my body and soul come stroll’s end. When the voice and lyrics of a song kiss my imagination in that way that raises goosebumps, I stop, and listen…

…to June’s Tennessee-stropped voice calling out the most primary of female choices—to work, or to be a wife and mother—evoking in me the night howl of a She-Wolf, until the crepuscule cedes to morning light and washes the air of its haunting sound, and the creature, hiding from the sun on the fringes of civilization, waits for another’s day’s dusk to emerge and sing her song once more, with only the moon in attendance…her mating desire, her pack identity, her eternal hunger, her difficult life all borne on the winds of the wild until the end of time.

Workin’ Woman Blues is not a feminist cri, rather it is a finely feathered arrow aimed from the crossbow of reality, one that curses a woman’s hard decisions—whether to work, for which effort she will earn a salary, or to have a family, for which effort she will not, or perhaps, by embracing the aspiration to juggle both, to create a bottomless pit of guilt filled with the hourly sacrifice of one endeavor’s needs to the other’s. No feminist movement forgives any individual woman the burden of her person choice, for she who chooses to work is excoriated by the sneers of the motherhood dominion (Does she hate children? Is she incapable of love?), while she who chooses not to is judged by the society of salaried female workers (Is she male-dominated? Does she lack self-esteem?).

In many ways the three waves of feminism, officially dating back to the mid 1800s, have made it even more difficult for a woman to make a choice with which she can comfortably live, the assumption being that there is, or should be, or can be, a practicable choice between working or being a stay at home mother, or that there is a viable way to do both well.

The third possibility, of being a man’s mistress in exchange for the promise of easy money, is a kind of purgatory, all at once an abandonment of independent self-support and an avoidance of interdependent family commitment, oddly redolent of the life of a hummingbird, its swiftly beating wings giving the appearance of the freedom to fly wherever it pleases, yet delivering the delicate body over and over again to the lip of a brightly colored plastic feeder with its promise of an endless supply of man-made nectar, until eventually it is more human entertainment than wild thing.

Despite the endurance of hushed whispers and gossip, many men still have paramours, those ethereal creatures never exhausted by a hard day’s work or spiritually weary from providence’s travails, instead perennially sexually disposed, emotionally buoyant, their seductive physiques unblemished by the shifting weather of a committed relationship, or shopping or cooking or cleaning or child-raising or…”workin’ all my life y’all.”

Endowed with both contempt and admiration, a mistress accepts the potential oblivion into which she has tossed herself, exacting her Sugar Daddy’s financial support as payment for singing for her supper. Her sexual vitality bequeathed to the ardor of her lover during the day, at night she wraps her body in satin sheets and falls asleep alone, excluded from birthdays, vacations, soccer games and ballet recitals, convinced all the while that her fate is better than that of the betrayed wife, whose womb may well have swelled at the behest of her husband’s emission, but whose endless days sacrificed to its issue eventually kill off any ambition for her own life of creative endeavor, and slowly anesthetize her love of freedom and fantasy and romance…and sex.

Maybe she tells herself there is a kind of dignity and pride in her time-honored choice, for she has seen that there is no self-worth to be scraped together under the poverty line. Maybe she knows that should misfortune take aim at the life of a married woman with children—if her husband dies or the marriage dissolves, if she has been out of the work force long enough to have lost step with the complexity of its economic machinery—her life and the lives of her children risk being plunged into fiscal peril, unless, of course, there exists the blessing of prior independent wealth, a supportive extended family, or a generous divorce settlement. Maybe she tells herself that if she is the lover, but cannot be the wife and mother, at the very least she deserves to be saved from forced membership in the club of women for whom “I been workin’ all my life yeah” has long been a mantra.

Images of destitute women and children are painful to bear and rupture our core cultural belief that the supposed weaker sex and her offspring will somehow be protected in a civilized society. Mothers counsel their daughters to choose financially secure father-partners because they know that arriving and staying at the top of the modern workplace, which turns a blind eye to equal pay for equal work and does not encourage equal opportunities for advancement, is for most women merely an intellectual and philosophical fantasy chatted about in corner-windowed conference rooms sporting opaque coffered ceilings instead of those pesky glass ones.

The truth is that while men loathe being thought of merely as breadwinners and providers, the sheer cost of raising children encourages women to see men through the prism of their potential financial prowess, rather than as the more complex human beings they really are. The truth is that while women loathe being thought of merely as good wife material, the shelf life of a woman’s fertility and the improbability of creating independent financial wealth before the clocks ticks out encourages men to see women through the prism of their fecundity, rather than as soul mates with aspirations for their lives separate from their youth and beauty.

Few images are as gut-wrenching as Dorothea Lange’s legendary 193 photographer, which she named Migrant Mother: Destitute Peapickers in California, the hapless and unsuspecting central figure in which is Florence Owens Thompson, about whom Lange recalled decades later:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her care to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

Migrant Mother: Destitute Peapickers in California, 1936, Dorothea Lange

It is easier to contemplate the plight of a migrant peapicker when she is photographed in black and white through the curious lens of a skillful photographer such as Lange. Within the boundaries of a dramatic frame, every element artfully arranged—the children, their hair almost expertly coiffed by the camera angle, burying their faces in their mother’s shoulders, Thompson’s focused yet distracted gaze, her hand against her cheek, her furrowed brow, the fingers of a child’s fist against her neck, a slip of gingham shirt, a sweater unraveling at the elbow, a hint of cleavage, a suggestion of naked breast—such a woman is almost more abstract than real, as though she were merely a representation of a poverty-stricken mother, rather than one we might know who lives in the soon to be repossessed house down the street.

Migrant Mother is a photograph of motherhood gone terribly wrong, for we judge the success and the worth of a woman not by her professional work and the salary she earns, but by her devotion to her husband and her children, and by her skill at putting “dinner on the table” and “food in the ‘frigerator.” Women have been taught that their worth is in their ability to shore up their husbands’ careers, and to provide their children with a clean and comforting home from which to explore the world and move into the future. We expect this of women no matter their ages, no matter their social status, no matter the number of their progeny, no matter their mental or physical health, no matter what. And should a woman do right by her family, she might eventually be invited to extend her caretaking talents into the larger community for the greater good, often as a devoted volunteer, another job for which she will earn no salary. For conventionally, a woman’s worth is to be found in how much she gives of herself to others unconditionally out of love, rather than in that diversion for which she earns a salary or charges a fee.

Wif-ing and Mother-ing should be, many men and women believe, full-time roles, ultimately at odds with working outside of the home for pay. Yet, when confronted with a mother such as Florence Thompson, we seem unable to fathom exactly how she arrived at her lean-to existence. We seem not to understand the domino effect of circumstances that might have propelled her there—a national economic downturn, agriculture drought, an environmental catastrophe, war, or the illness, unemployment or death of her husband. When we see a mother and her children who have fallen through life’s cracks, it fails to register that a woman who does not work for a salary, who is not educated to work for money, who does not have access to a steady income, who cannot fall back on family money or support, who cannot pick up the ball and run with it should her soldier fall by her side, such a woman stands to be swallowed up by a prospective wormhole of destitute peapickers. When we see a woman and her children who are down on their collective heels, we think it is her fault. As readily as we laud and love her nubility when she stands glowing and pregnant beside her man as he climbs to the top of the corporate ladder, we just as readily disown and deny her when we spy her glowering in an alleyway somewhere.

Given our partiality toward stay-at-home wives and mothers, it is not surprising that a Workin’ Woman, even if she has become by necessity the sole provider for her children, is not cast as an admirable mother, a devoted mother, a committed mother. Rather, she is often seen as unavailable and absent, as intellectually disinterested in and emotionally disengaged from full immersion in motherhood, as spiritually damaged in some way, ignoring the call of her biology, either unwilling or unable to sacrifice her own individual needs to the needs of her children, which should by nature, we are taught, always come first. The Workin’ Woman is selfish and narcissistic, having abandoned her husband, children and home. It is assumed that there must be some way, other than working for a living, to put “dinner on the table” and “food in the ‘frigerator.”

But our notion of the self-sacrificing human mother, the mother who would gladly give up working outside of her home, is oddly contrary to the behavior of many animals in nature, for which teamwork is crucial to survival. In the wild, a father wolf may well be a good provider to his mate and her pups after their birth, yet, soon enough, both the male and female will share the job of feeding, tending to, and raising their young. At once a playful and protective, gentle and tolerant, generous and stern team, they teach their pups to hunt and to stay out of danger, for in the wild life is tough and they must learn early on to fend for themselves. What women does not recognize in some primal part of her being the intricate combination of skill, ferocity and devotion with which mother in the wild—bears, cheetahs, lionesses, for example—raise their young? What mother, what woman, does not wish that the seemingly disparate sides of herself—the fierce and the tender—would be understood as elemental and necessary to the call of being a wife and mother and lover?

In Nature, motherhood is work and work is survival. In Nature, the mother who does it all is the definition of a ‘fit’ mother. In Nature, there is no species of wolf mother that is loving, sweet, warm and fuzzy…always there, always attentive and always available…and another entirely different species of wolf mother that is stealthy when she needs to hunt, and savage when her offspring are in danger. In Nature, the nurturing mother and the working mother are one and the same mother.

But for human mothers the world of working for a living and the world of caring for a husband and children spin in such vastly different orbits that there is nothing for she who aspires to do both but sing the blues. Hers is the plaintive cry of a woman who feels she “ain’t fit to be no wife yet, ain’t fit to be no mother” because she “been workin’ like a man, y’all,” and is not free to stay home and abandon the hunt, is not free to give up the survival instinct that compels her to work for her and her children’s survival, is not free to give up her howl into the night…unless she marries a man who will never leave her or never die, or unless the Lord should see fit to bestow upon her a Sugar Daddy.

In contrast, I have yet to meet the man who would claim he is unfit to be a father, or unfit to be a husband, because he works. Working is the essence of a man’s life, intrinsic to his social purpose, what he is born to do, raised to do, taught to do, what he is expected to do. Every man looks forward to the day he will become a working man—to a man work is freedom and independence—and most men (not all, but most) assume that ”workin’ like a man y’all” is the seminal characteristic that makes them suitable marriage and father-partners.

Men are far more likely to be defined by their success at business rather than by their success as husbands and fathers, while women are far more likely to be defined by their success as wives and mothers rather than by their success in the workplace. We are forgiving of a working father whose absence takes him away from the events that mark his children’s adolescence. Although we romanticize the image of a father sitting behind home plate cheering his son on, the image upon which we look in admiration is the one of him sitting at the head of the boardroom conference table. Perceived power in a man, his control of others, indeed his very inaccessibility, makes him sexy and desirable.

But we are unforgiving of the woman who does not put her children first, who is inaccessible, who aspires to something other than the limiting definition of her worth tied to her fertility, her predictability and her service to others. Even mistresses are in service to the needs of men, which is the reason we understand and accept them. But the woman who goes off to work with an attache case and puts off having children is a woman we assume has chosen the boardroom over the bedroom, and turned her back on intimacy and romance and partnership…and sex. If she is alone, she deserves it, we tell ourselves.

Just as the psychology of women and their relationship to family is embedded in the DNA of our culture, so too is the psychology of men and their relationship to work and money. The foundation of a man’s pride is his willingness to work long hours to earn enough money to have a family, because a man cannot meet the needs of his progeny scraping together a living under the poverty line. Fathers counsel their sons to abandon capricious career pursuits in favor of those that provide financial security. Mothers counsel their daughters to look for partners who will not leave them financially destitute should they predecease them. In a purely Darwinian sense, one might even say that a woman who chooses a man with questionable earning power has questionable survival instincts, and though she may not be the alpha female in a pack, she cannot be out on her own and expect to survive.

Even same sex couples raising children together are increasingly falling into the accepted groove of one partner being the designated stay-at-home parent, a trend that underscores the reality that someone must underpin the family financially. Yet, should anything happen to their partnership, that stay-at-home same sex parent will be in the same perilous economic situation as any stay-at-home Mom. Different gender perhaps, but the same ultimate circumstances. Which begs the question— is this the best way to organize human families, or is the model propagated merely because it has become a civil habit?

Men of the Docks, 1912, George Bellows

Our fundamental empathy with men who cannot find work is as memorably ingrained in our cultural lexicon as Dorothea Lange’s impoverished woman fallen on hard times, no more palpably than in George Bellows’ Men of the Docks, a 1912 painting of longshoremen bundled up against the cold on New York’s East River hoping to be employed unloading the burden of big ships, the lone shape of a man not chosen for the task disappearing into the shadows to await another day’s dawn when he might be chosen for paying work.

The saga of the working man is universal, recognizable in the United States and in every other country in the world. In 1935 Clifford Odets dramatized it for the post-Depression era in the play Waiting for Lefty, in which a financially dependent Edna goads her husband Joe into joining a strike against his employer for better wages…for the sake of their children. In 1949 Arthur Miller dramatized it for the post-World War II era in the play Death of a Salesman, in which Willy Loman is no longer needed by his company, his own worth as a man so thoroughly tied up with having a job that he kills himself so that his family can receive the insurance payout, the only legacy he feels he can leave them. In 1989, the story of the working man was the central theme of Roger & Me, filmmaker Michael Moore’s documentary about General Motors’ CEO Roger Smith’s decision to close Flint, Michigan’s auto plants and put 30,000 people out of work. And in 1969, country music legend Merle Haggard wrote his own Working Man Blues, a song he still performs almost 45 years later, its theme as timeless and predictable as the nigh howl of a He-Wolf:

Working Man Blues
by Merle Haggard

It’s a big job just gettin’ by with nine kids and a wife
I been a workin’ man dang near all my life
I’ll be working long as my two hands are fit to use
I’ll drink my beer in a tavern
Sing a little bit of these working man blues

I keep my nose on the grindstone
I work hard every day
Might get a little tired on the weekend, after I draw my pay
But I’ll go back workin’, come Monday morning I’m right back with the crew
I’ll drink a little beer that evening
Sing a little bit of these working man blues

Hey hey, the working man, the working man like me
I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be
Cause I’ll be working long as my two hard are fit to use
I drink a little beer in a tavern
Sing a little bit of these working man blues

Sometimes I think about leaving, do a little bummin’ around
I wanna throw my bills out hte window catch a train to another town
But I go back working I gotta buy my kids a brand new pair of shoes
Yeah drink a little beer in a tavern
Cry a little bit of these working man blues

Hey hey, the working man, the working man like me
I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place i won’t be
Cause I’ll be working long as my two hands are fit to use
I drink a little beer in a tavern
Sing a little bit of these working man blues

Yeah drink a little beer in a tavern
Cry a little bit of these working man blues

Valerie June’s Workin’ Woman Blues is not a feminist cri. It is not a response to Working Man Blues. It is a commiseration, a confession, a plea. It is an announcement that women and children are not accoutrements to life. It is a request for us to acknowledge that men and women are made of the same desires—to work, to contribute, to participate, to pay one’s way, to love—to be a part of something bigger than the biological destiny of one’s gender. It is a reminder that women have the same needs as men.

In 2013 there are more women than men in graduate school, and although women are slowly making up 50% of the workforce they are still not earning equal pay for equal work, and, worse, even though women have been pulling their chairs up to the proverbial conference table and speaking up on their own behalf for decades, in spite of what Sheryl Sandberg claims in her book Lean In, they are still not rewarded with major leadership positions no matter their ability and qualifications, because breaking through the glass ceiling is one thing, and reprogramming entrenched gender stereotypes—even entrenched stereotypes by women about women—is quite another.

In the field of Fine Art, a recent audit showed that every one of the top 100 artists whose works of art were auctioned in 2012 was a man, and only 8% of public art is being created by women. In the world of Letters, depending on which article one reads, only 30% of books reviewed are written by women. And most reviewers are publishers are men, even though women are heavy readers and buyers of books. Sadly, many women authors are still advised to use their initials in lieu of their first names, in order not to dissuade men from buying books written by women. In the world of Film, which represents a significant form of American entertainment, only one woman in the 80 year history of the Oscars has ever won an Academy Award for Best Director.

These statistics will always reflect the relative invisibility of women as product participants, in the non-sexual sense, in the economic health of our country, if we do not change our flawed and narrow cultural perception of a woman’s worth. These statistics will never change if we do not teach our children that their mothers’ worth extends far beyond her female capacity to give birth and tend to the homefront. Our country can no longer afford the price of its lack of consciousness about how we value women.

We must stop, and listen…

…to the silence of a man when he is out of work and can no longer provide for his family.

…to the sound of a woman’s tears when she then realizes the price of giving up work for family.

…to what kind of mothers our children really need as role models.

…to what kind of wife and mother and woman and lover each of us wants to be.

…to the beautiful howl of a She-Wolf asking us to redefine what a woman is worth.

A Woman’s Worth can be read in its entirety (which includes a Postscript) in The Journal for Social Era Knowledge at http://www.synaptiqplus.com/journal-cover-fall-2013/a-woman-s-worth.