Never Worked a Day in Her Life

It’s been nearly a week since Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” and the discussion goes on.

The feminist in me (also a mother who stayed home with small children for quite a few years) reacted with irritation, disgust, and dismay that any woman would so disparage another woman for her life choice. Aren’t we beyond that yet?

But the linguist in me heard more. I heard work, and three thoughts came to mind.

Physics. There is, of course, the scientific definition of work: the transfer of energy from one object to another. Work, then, is unloading a truck, digging a trench, carrying a baby across the room.

Money. Years ago I came to the conclusion that unless someone crosses your palm with silver, society doesn’t consider what you do to be work. Anyone who has had contact with young children or even observed them closely surely knows that caring for the young of any species is work, as in labor, toil, exertion, effort, sweat, and sometimes drudgery. In a daycare setting or in animal husbandry, those doing this work have a job and are paid. In many situations, paid professionals do the same work as dedicated volunteers or stay-at-home parents who are. . . relaxing?

Class. Not too long ago, I heard an older gentleman, justifiably proud of his welding skills, describe a lawyer as “not doing a lick of work, sitting up there all day long in his fancy suit.” There was definitely a tinge of class snobbery: I work for a living. Is work more real if it results in stained hands and a dirty uniform? The slogan of the proletariat masses was certainly not Professionals of the world, unite!

Although I have certainly heard class snobbery from highly paid professionals, the word work is usually not used. The speaker may curl a lip and talk about common laborers. If work results in stained hands and a dirty uniform, does it become labor?

An accountant crunching numbers or a musician struggling with a difficult score for long hours will get just as tired as a hod carrier, although in different ways.

How do you define work? How do you see the work of others? Is class, religion, politics, or gender a factor in those definitions? I’d like to hear your thoughts!

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