Shulevitz thus calls for a feminism — one that she calls “caregiverism” — that “demand[s] dignity and economic justice for parents dissatisfied with a few weeks of unpaid parental leave.” Image: Thinkstock.
In her 1970 book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, Shulamith Firestone posited that the biological division of labor in reproduction is the root cause of male domination.
Given that a majority of the world population is cisgender and that women perform the lion's share of reproductive labor, Firestone imagined a world in which we could reproduce children outside of a uterus in order to free the woman of the "means of reproduction" and end what she viewed as the oppression of the biological family.
That radical feminist vision remains fantasy.
However, women are still constrained by the expectations society places on them — and assumptions it makes about them — when it comes to pregnancy and childcare.
Mothers are less likely to be hired for jobs or to be paid as much as their male colleagues with the same qualifications.
Mothers also find that, given the lack of affordable child care, they can’t afford to work.
At the same time, a mother’s choice to stay out of the workforce will often derail her career, which is why women and people who can get pregnant are waiting longer to have children.
In fact, because childcare is the second biggest cost in raising children, and because women are disproportionately represented in careers that pay less, such as teaching and healthcare (put another way: because careers that disproportionately draw women pay less), it is primarily women who are being forced to choose between going to work and providing child care. After all, “working doesn't make sense if the child care bill consumes most of their salary.”
In other words, even though women are now the breadwinners in 40% of households, and there are nearly two million stay-at-home dads, as well as families with two dads or two moms, we still primarily rely on women’s labor when it comes to childcare.
To paraphrase Labor Secretary Thomas Perez: We are living in a Modern Family society ruled by policies more appropriate for Leave It To Beaver.
Judith Shulevitz recently noted in the New York Times that although “unmarried childless women have overcome every barrier to opportunity you can think of... Mothers, on the other hand, aren’t doing nearly as well.”
According to Shulevitz, this is because the feminists of Hillary Clinton’s generation focused on demanding equality for women in the workplace.
Shulevitz thus calls for a feminism — one that she calls “caregiverism” — that “demand[s] dignity and economic justice for parents dissatisfied with a few weeks of unpaid parental leave.”
But as Shulevitz also notes, there has been a long tradition in feminism of trying to “overturn a status quo that esteems professionals and wage-earners while demeaning those who do the unpaid or low-paid work of emotional sustenance and physical upkeep.”
Indeed, in the 1960s and ’70s, feminists advocated for government subsidies for housework and child care, the work that women were (and still are) expected to provide for no pay.
Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm even introduced a bill in 1971 that — had it become law — would have set aside $10 billion worth of federal funds for child care.
Forty years ago, in the 1976 book Women, Money & Power, co-authored by my mother, Phyllis Chesler, and Emily Jane Goodman, my mother bluntly stated: “The industrial money-culture is completely dependent on the human labor of wives and mothers. And yet, both psychologically and economically, these women are penalized by this culture.”
While my mother did not question the importance of parenting or motherhood, she did question “motherhood as forced labor.” Decrying the fact that “women’s work” is not valued, and noting that our society only values “what is paid for,” the book suggests that “if motherhood were truly powerful and respected” women would be paid for doing the “honorable work” of housewives and mothers, would not be punished in the public sphere for having raised children, and that each woman would have the “option of arranging her work and child care duties and those of the father to complement each other.”
We have known for some time that non-parents are happier than parents. A recent study tells us that American parents (of all genders) face the largest happiness shortfall compared to people who don’t have children.
While we have not been yet been able to change human reproduction à la Firestone, and it is still fantastical to believe caregivers will be paid for their work, feminist values have impacted how modern families divide childcare responsibilities.
Hence, today, while caregivers continue to be undervalued because they are assumed to be largely women, the issue of child care is not only a women’s issue.
This only means, however, that regardless of gender, caregivers suffer under our system.
We have known for some time that non-parents are happier than parents. A recent study tells us that American parents (of all genders) face the largest happiness shortfall compared to people who don’t have children. Not surprising to those of us who are parents, paid parental leave has a small impact on that happiness gap.
Instead, policies that make it less stressful and less costly to combine child rearing with paid work beyond a child’s first few months, like flexible schedules, subsidized childcare, and policies that gave money to parents in the form of a child allowance or monthly payments “seem to be the ones that really matter.”
Federally-funded universal childcare and flexible work policies would go a long way in further narrowing, and perhaps eliminating, the gender wage gap, would remove a significant impediment to women advancing their careers, and would make parents of all genders happier and better supported.
But this, too, seems like a dream.
It has been reported that Hillary Clinton “knows what it’s like when the babysitter cancels.” In other words, she understands how parents, especially mothers, have had to juggle work and family. More important, she has concrete proposals to address the problems parents face, including using tax credits to cap child care costs at 10% of a family’s income.
As Michelle Obama eloquently expressed at the first White House Working Families Summit back in 2014, flexibility at work and affordable child care is crucial to families because “work-family balance is so fragile, and you realize how fragile it is [when,] with a blink of an eye, a broken toilet, a sick child, a sick parent, that... balance is thrown off.”
Is it possible that a culture that, until now, has relied on the unpaid labor of women and the treatment of families like islands can be changed by a woman president who gets the difficulties facing parents —one who knows that it takes a village to raise a child — and at a time when fathers and parents are also clamoring for better family policies?
It may be our only hope.