The Status Of Women, The Status Of “Women’s Work”

by Elizabeth S. Bernstein

In 1973 Betty Friedan traveled to France to have a conversation about the state of feminism with Simone de Beauvoir, whom she regarded as a cultural hero. Friedan’s own opinions had evolved considerably in the decade since the publication of The Feminine Mystique. She would elaborate those changes sometime later in a new book, The Second Stage, in which she argued for women’s work in the home to be viewed as “real work” and included in the gross national product. Now, in her meeting with Beauvoir, Friedan asked her opinion on ways to recognize the value of that work, such as crediting it for social security purposes, or distributing vouchers which parents could either use to buy childcare or collect on themselves as full-time caregivers. Perhaps Friedan wondered if Beauvoir’s thinking too might have changed since she stated in The Second Sex that the work of a woman at home “is not directly useful to society, it does not open out on the future, it produces nothing.” If so, she got her answer: Beauvoir, holding out for a total remake of society, believed that even in the meantime “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children …. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”

Rhetoric is one thing, and given the many ideological variations within the women’s movement, any attempt to attribute to it some particular position on women’s work in the home would almost certainly invite fierce disagreement. But it is much harder to dispute what has actually happened in the last half-century. In certain respects the women’s movement has had enormous success. Women’s levels of education, employment, and income have all surged. In that sense the situations of men and women are far more alike than they once were. Through their inroads into realms previously closed to them, women have obtained a share of the status which was once conferred far more heavily on men.

I would be hard-pressed to say, though, that there has been any improvement in the status of “women’s work.” (I mean by that the traditional work of women, whether performed by women or by men.) The essential functions without which no society can exist – the care of children, the preparation of food, the keeping of a house, the care of the elderly and infirm – continue to be devalued.

I believe that there is imbalance in any culture which denigrates these functions. It is an imbalance which is not rectified by the fact that women and men both now participate in the work which was traditionally situated on the male side of the divide.

To accord “women’s work” the respect it deserves would be an important form of progress. But decades of experience suggest that movement in that direction doesn’t necessarily follow from the efforts of those whose primary measure of progress is to bring about the convergence of men’s and women’s careers outside the home.

The project of achieving equal lifetime earnings for men and women contains its own contradictions. There is, on the one hand, recognition that women’s average wages remain below men’s in part because the traditional work in which many women are employed – childcare, housecleaning, food preparation – is undervalued and underpaid. On the other hand, the model in which neither mothers nor fathers leave the workforce to care for children only works so long as the cost of hiring other women to perform those tasks (over 90% of childcare workers being female) remains low enough for parents to afford.

Hence the recent proliferation of complaints that women’s income continues to fall short of men’s because the high cost of childcare discourages mothers from remaining in the workforce. But the concern expressed is not only that the cost of daycare is unreasonably high. It’s also that there are too few licensed child-care providers and that only a small fraction of daycare settings count as “high quality.” Factors considered to contribute to “high quality” childcare include low child-to-caregiver ratios (one staff person for every three children up to age one-and-a-half, and for every four children up to age two), and post-secondary certificates or degrees for the caregivers.

Consider just how much value is expected of paid childcare. Remember that parents working outside the home generally need childcare for even more hours than they themselves work. Factor in the fact that the resources devoted to an infant in a high-quality daycare center include not only one-third of the caregiver’s time, but also all the associated overhead of the facility (rent, insurance, utilities, supplies, equipment). Then throw in the expectation that the women providing the care will have relevant formal education. Given all that, there ought to be plenty of room in the discussion to acknowledge the magnitude of what is asked of childcare workers, the skills they bring and the responsibilities they take on. It should be possible to honor the value of childcare even while addressing the issue of cost. Those who instead call the price “astronomical, “outrageous,” “exorbitant” do not advance the cause of respecting women’s work.

I fully recognize that American families are struggling financially, and that they require government assistance. There are many forms of assistance that would be welcome. That includes measures to reduce income inequality generally. It includes affordable healthcare not tied to employment. It includes measures to address the continually escalating cost of education and the resultant debt burden. It includes paid family leave, as well as Betty Friedan’s idea, proposed again by Hillary Clinton in 2016, to provide Social Security credits to those who are out of the workforce because they are acting as caregivers.

Many of the proposals currently being floated, though, aim solely at defraying the cost of paid childcare. These take various forms. Some entail increased tax credits for those purchasing childcare. Others propose more direct governmental involvement in providing universal daycare. An infusion of public cash could indeed make it possible for childcare workers to earn more without parents having to defray anything like the true value of the care provided. But my response to these proposals is that the tens of billions of dollars required annually would be better directed towards making it possible for parents to afford whatever is their preferred approach to meeting their income-earning and caregiving responsibilities. As the organization Family and Home Network observes in its Campaign for Inclusive Family Policies, families use “diverse and dynamic” strategies to meet these responsibilities. This could mean mothers and fathers both working full-time and hiring paid childcare. It could mean parents working part-time and tag-teaming the childcare. It could mean one parent working full-time and the other staying home. There are millions of stay-at-home parents in the United States, including a small but increasing number of fathers. Contrary to popular belief, these parents do not tend to be from privileged demographics.

Is it possible that some of these stay-at-home parents would choose to be in the workforce if childcare were more affordable? Yes, but it is also possible that some parents currently employed would cut back on or leave employment if those options were more affordable. In response to a Pew Research Center survey, only 16% of American women said it was ideal for both parents in a two-parent household to work full-time. Forty-four percent considered it ideal for one parent to be at home. Even among mothers who were working full-time, Pew found that only 22% considered that situation ideal. Gallup likewise found that the majority of mothers of minor children, both those employed outside the home and those at home, would prefer to stay home.

Economic constraints work both ways. The birth of a child brings every family a responsibility which will in some sense be costly to meet. Some families pay for childcare. Others “pay” by having one parent forego a paycheck. Either route may create financial strain. But to relieve certain families and not others from the costs associated with their choices is not an equitable use of government funds.

Better simply to give parents of young children money with which they can offset childcare costs or pay other expenses if they opt to care for the child at home. In that light I see a bill currently pending before Congress as a positive step. Called the “American Family Act of 2019” (S.690; H.R. 1560), it would enhance current child allowances in the Internal Revenue Code, giving families a refundable tax credit of $3,600 per year for each child under the age of six and $3,000 for each older child. The credits are subject to cost-of-living adjustments but phase out for higher-income taxpayers. They are to be paid to families, in advance, on a monthly basis.

The bills are co-sponsored by over two hundred senators and representatives, including all the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination who are members of Congress. Passage would significantly reduce child poverty, which is why Canada, Australia, and almost every European Union country has a similar child allowance program.

I would like to think that there would be enthusiastic progressive support for this program, if not for an even more generous version. But in fact progressive organizations still seem to be focusing their advocacy on support for subsidized childcare – the approach that eases only the path by which mothers remain in the workforce. Even some of the candidates who are co-sponsoring the American Family Act still discuss the childcare issue in terms which recognize only that there are women who need government help so they can go to work. Families which prefer to have a parent at home, or the value of what parents are doing there, go unmentioned.

One candidate’s website is a refreshing exception. At Cory Booker’s site we read that “Through his Rise Credit, an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, Cory proposes paying family caregivers for the critical work they do, because traditional wage earners aren’t the only Americans working hard to support their families.”

That’s a message that I can get behind – one that accords value, and respect, not only to those “traditional wage earners,” female and male, but also to those doing the traditional work of women.