Mississippi Governor Stirs Simmering Debate on Working Women

VIDEO: http:Is there a relationship between working moms and American kids struggling in the classroom?

Hard to believe in 2013 and the era of "Lean In," but one could argue that the country is approaching a sort of national mini-conversation on women in the workplace.

In the workplace otherwise known as Capitol Hill today, there was a prosecutor's table full of women senators staring down a witness table full of medal-spangled male military brass seeking to protect a commander's ability to veto discipline handed down by military courts for sexual assault.

Image credit: GovernorBryant.com

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant broached the subject today when he was asked at a D.C. event why U.S. kids have become so "mediocre" in education.

"I'm going to get in trouble if I … You want me to tell the truth," Republican Bryant said. "You know I think parents became … Both parents started working and the mom is in the workplace.

"It's not a bad thing," he said, looking at the audience as if he expected disagreement. "I'm going to get in trouble. I can see the emails tomorrow. But now both parents are working, they're pursuing their careers. It's a great American story now that women are in the workplace."

A moderator at the event sponsored by the Washington Post asked Bryant, 58, whether it was then the mother's place to teach children to read.

"No, no," he said. "But I think there was that loving, nurturing opportunity that both parents had a little bit of time.

"My dad was a reader," he said. "He was a mechanic so he didn't go to college. So he was a reader, but he had a little more time with me. … In today's society, parents are so challenged. Not just the mom, but the mom and the dad. They're working overtime, they're trying to balance both of them in the workplace."

Time will tell whether emails do, indeed, roll into Bryant, who seemed to suggest that while he's not personally opposed to women in the workplace, he thinks it has contributed to a general U.S. decline. But there's no doubt a contretemps on the conservative cable network Fox News struck a nerve.

An all-male panel on Fox last week was discussing a PEW study of Census Bureau data that showed the growing importance of working mothers in the U.S. household. Forty percent of homes with children younger than 18 in the United States rely entirely or mostly on a female breadwinner, because more women are pursuing careers and also because there are more households with a single woman and children. Here's how PEW described them:

"These 'breadwinner moms' are made up of two very different groups: 5.1 million (37 percent) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63 percent) are single mothers."

An accompanying PEW survey suggested 51 percent of Americans believe that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn't hold a job while only 8 percent say the same about a father.

The Fox News controversy sprung up when the three men appearing together on the network appeared alarmed at the study.

"When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society, and other animals, the male typically is the dominant role," said Erick Erickson, a Fox News commentator who runs the website Redstate.com. "The female, it's not antithesis, or it's not competing, it's a complementary role. We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complementary relationships in nuclear families, and it's tearing us apart."

His comments drew the scorn of some of the women on Fox News, including Greta van Susteren and Megyn Kelly, herself a working mom, when she challenged Erickson in a heated exchange about science. Erickson fired off a long written missive defending his views.

"To me, you sound like somebody who's judging and then wants to come out and say, 'I'm not, I'm not, I'm not, and now let me judge judge judge, and by the way it's science it's science it's science it's fact fact fact fact," Kelly told Erickson. "Well, I have a whole list of studies saying your science is wrong and your facts are wrong."

Separately, hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones apparently used no science to formulate his thoughts on the differences between men and women in the workplace, but rather on his own personal nonscientific life experience. Jones said at a University of Virginia panel earlier this year that women can never be as effective as Wall Street traders because they have children and lose the laser-like focus needed for trading.

Place all that against the ongoing debate among highly achieving women about whether they can have it all. Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter has said no. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and "Lean In" author seems to say yes.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer went back to work after a few weeks of maternity leave and put a nursery next to her office. The rest of the country, meanwhile, has to deal with what a recent New Republic investigation dubbed the " Hell of American Day Care".

You'd hardly know that amid this clearly unsettled debate about women in the workplace that 94 years ago today, June 4, Congress passed the 19 th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

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