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  • Sewing Entrepreneurs and the Myth of the SpheresHow the “Work at Home Mom” Complicates the Public-Private Divide
  • Jennifer Ann Russum (bio)

The “working woman” has been an enigmatic figure in America since the nineteenth century. From the rise of the “separate spheres”1 to the women’s “right to work” movement,2 America has been a place where women’s labor, both in the home and outside it, has been questioned and critiqued. This cultural conversation shapes the possibilities for female identity, as different authorities—the voices of men and women from church, state, and academia—speak to how women may present themselves in public, as workers, as professionals, and most contentiously, as mothers. The struggle to classify and compensate women as laborers continues in modern America, with ongoing debates about equal pay, maternity leave, and flexible work hours playing out in the political and media landscapes.3 Critiques of childcare costs4 and the surge of women leaving the workplace to stay at home with their children5 only make the issue more complicated. This study looks at contemporary entrepreneurs and the ways sewing continues to play an important role in women’s professional lives, especially for middle-class women, who along with working-class women have historically used their sewing skills to earn personal income. The ability to sell sewing knowledge and products on the web adds a new angle to the already complex identity of the professional middle-class seamstress, a long-standing but often ignored figure in US history. In this study I focus specifically on mothers who start sewing businesses from their own homes to show how their use of digital tools to exhibit and sell their goods problematizes cultural pressure for mothers to align themselves along the binary of the “working mom” or “stay-at-home mom.” The binary has never truly existed for myriad women throughout history who have served as the main caretaker for their children while also garnering an income on the side, but digital platforms are helpful in dispelling the myth that women must choose between homemaker or professional by shedding light on how women pursue both these roles at the same time. [End Page 117]

An ongoing critique of American capitalism is that not enough women head US companies6 or work as entrepreneurs.7 Studies show that women still face significant challenges in the workplace, even after decades of progress in the fight for women’s rights. One study by Howell, Carter, and Schied found that women saw their workload increase when middle management was removed and did not feel they had more of a voice within their company, despite worker empowerment being a goal of “flattening out” the organization by removing mid-level liaisons.8 Additionally, women struggled to juggle their working identities with their non-professional roles of mother, wife, and caretaker. Even in the most “family friendly” companies, female employees received mixed messages from superiors regarding their lives outside of work. For example, “One manager constantly told workers, ‘Do not work late’ and ‘Take care of your personal life.’ But in the next breath, there was a very different message. ‘Don’t forget, these deadlines must be met.’”9 Many of the programs intended to promote gender equity in the workplace ironically cause women, and specifically mothers, to be stigmatized by their co-workers. For example, many studies show that women who take advantage of company policies such as flexible work hours or extended maternity leave are penalized, whether formally or informally, for doing so. These women are often disrespected or disregarded by co-workers because they do not work at the office on a traditional schedule,10 and studies show that women who partake in flexible schedule benefits eventually fall behind their peers in pay.11 It is no wonder women are hesitant to keep their employment or pursue advancement when they face such explicit gender discrimination at work. Often the dissonance of juggling employment with the unpaid labor of the home becomes too much for women to bear and they revert to part-time work or staying at home full-time, especially after taking childcare costs into consideration.

While these rhetorics...


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pp. 117-138
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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