Forum Final Response
The Problem Is The Sexual Division of Labor
July 2, 2010
With Responses From
Jul 2, 2010
7 Min read time
The sexual division of labor remains the problem
Thanks to these distinguished scholars and essayists for their responses to my essay. With the exception of Melody Berger, the respondents are remarkably uniform in their message: care is important, we have to value it, and government policy must support it, both directly and indirectly by requiring employer policies. In making these points, they simply reassert the views I challenged. Men, I argued, are not doing their part; they need to do more. My case that women should care less was based on that premise. By not addressing it, the responses illustrate the very blindness of care feminism that was the focus of my criticisms.
None of the respondents seem troubled by the fact that women raise children—indeed, they think this is good. The men aren’t interested, they’re not around, or worse, they may leave if we make demands, so let’s look to the state. I argue that we should focus on getting men to do their share of care. When care feminism ignores fathers, traditionalists fill the vacuum by stressing gendered roles.
Lisa Dodson’s romanticized picture of women bringing their kids to the podium fails even to mention the fathers, only the lack of quality childcare. Many of the fathers are no longer in the picture, which is exactly what care feminism should address. If, as Dodson notes, well-paying jobs are evaporating for blue collar men, why aren’t feminists exhorting those men to stay home with their kids? If married and single mothers alike could count on the unemployed fathers of their children to provide care, those mothers would have an easier time achieving professional success.
Lane Kenworthy’s paean to Sweden—the favorite refuge of care feminists—offhandedly acknowledges that Swedish women have not achieved gender equality at work or at home. He suggests that this “may be a matter of choice,” which simply ignores my central point that gender ideology—ideas about appropriate responsibilities of men and women—shapes the pattern of those choices. It is because of such ideology that Swedish fathers don’t take as much leave as mothers do, regardless of “use it or lose it” restrictions.
Ann Friedman’s response is the most puzzling. In her terrific critique of Hanna Rosin’s recent Atlantic article “The End of Men,” Friedman argued that what may be disappearing is not “men” but “the traditional male stereotype.” But she apparently does not see that men’s withdrawal from care is part of that stereotype, that actual men buy into it because it is to their advantage. Moreover, she accepts the flip side of that very stereotype—caring women. But as she said in her earlier article, “I fail to see why these ‘nurturing professions’ . . . must forever be the province of women.” Amen to that.
Anne Alstott and Mona Harrington both advocate government and employment policies that would provide nurturant space for making choices. These views reinforce my uneasiness about care feminism’s assumption that everyone is going to make the “right” choices, as understood by progressive feminists. Alstott and Harrington leave completely unaddressed the fact that men don’t make such “choices.” Harrington’s flexible schedules are a great idea for everyone: people can use that time to take their kids to soccer practice or to play soccer themselves. Such schedules avoid the problem of nontransferable goods that child-rearing produces, an issue that nobody here has taken up (most of these respondents seem to believe that everyone will, and perhaps should, have children). But employers cannot mandate how men spend the time made available for childcare. And making “time for care . . . a national value” has already been tried; it was called “family values,” and feminists were unable to wrest it from conservatives precisely because it feeds into men’s resistance to care work. There’s no reason to think things would be different this time.
Other respondents call for better and increased childcare. But feminists have been unsuccessfully advocating flextime and childcare for 30 years. Were those earlier advocates just incompetent? Insufficiently earnest? Essays this short inevitably lack details, but much that the responses suggest is familiar.
The sexual division of labor remains the persistent problem. Alstott observes that care theory is diverse, and concludes that it cannot fairly be accused of the charges I level: some theories advocate a traditional sexual division of labor, others don’t. But my point is that despite diverse approaches, creative idealism, and sophisticated theories, care feminism has had little effect on gender equality; care feminism advocates a “wide array of choices,” but women’s actual options are still meager. I don’t think institutions are “immutable”; but the assertion that “political change is possible” (“yes we can”) doesn’t get us very far.
Berger is even more impatient than I am with this kind of thinking: “We need to care less about ourselves,” she writes, “and more about the world.” The conceit of care feminism is that we care about the world by caring for ourselves, via our children. That is the same conceit of both suburban soccer moms and Shannon Hayes’s off-the-grid eco-feminism: justifying oneself by exaggerating the social utility and importance of one’s lifestyle. Hayes’s rejection of public education is itself as elitist as the tendencies of the suburban moms I critique. Berger is correct that going deeper within ourselves is intimately tied to gender, an expression of what Susan Faludi called the “virile renaissance” of 9/11, which invokes the image of tough men protecting weak, hysterical women, who flee to the suburbs and beyond. My students’ views can be traced to this trend in particular.
Several respondents fault me for focusing on these college students; feminists, they say, shouldn’t waste their time worrying about elite women, because they are such a minority. We should worry about poor and lower— middle class women. Having devoted a considerable amount of my professional work to a critique of welfare reform, I am sympathetic to this view.
Better-off women turn their backs on poorer women, and care has created a rationale for that abandonment.
But supporting care is not the only, or even the best, way to help lower-class women. We need to improve the economic and employment prospects of lower-income women more directly, instead of supporting their care and letting them struggle up the economic ladder on their own. Harrington says that welfare reform supported women’s education, but in most states, that support lasted just one year. That’s hardly enough to change women’s prospects. Most of the jobs that welfare moms got through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act didn’t lift women out of poverty. If feminists fighting welfare reform had focused less on care and more on individualism, we would have devoted a lot more energy to advancing higher education and skilled-job training for women.
Lik Alstott, I have advocated increasing the Earned income Tax Credit, but the EITC doesn’t help people get better-paying jobs. It just makes it a little easier to live with poor pay. The hierarchy thus remains intact. Alstott thinks commodification, which underpins this hierarchy, is crumbling because food stamps are losing their stigma. Perhaps she should visit where I live, the least-educated and lowest-income suburb of Philadelphia, and see how the moms and dads who use food stamps are treated at my local supermarket.
Education empowers individual women to change their lives. Kenworthy mentions public education, but neither he nor anyone else suggests year-round schooling and longer school days, which would ease the burden on parents and address the increasing education gap between U.S. children and those in other industrialized nations.
Nor has any feminist that I am aware of proposed giving welfare mothers four-year college scholarships on the condition that they seek fulltime professional employment when they graduate and then remain in the workforce. That would have changed radically the economic prospects of welfare mothers and gotten us beyond many of the problems we are arguing about in these pages. The silence on education in this forum is itself significant. Education to enhance employment opportunities fits the individualist model and undermines the unreflective association of women with care.
My belief in the power of higher education is one reason why I targeted those who already have it. Robin West says that poor women can’t opt out, and she is right. So why should upper-class women be “allowed” to? West says I conflate these two groups, but they are intimately related: why aren’t better-off women taking the leadership positions that their resources have prepared them for, and why aren’t they coming up with creative solutions to these intractable problems? They turn their backs on poorer women, and care has created a rationale for that abandonment, particularly among women such as my students. Feminists fighting to end economic disadvantage need the help of those women who currently fail to make good on the social resources that have been invested in them. The solution is not to look to government—an overwhelmingly male-dominated institution. Feminist change can be brought about only if more well-educated women have positions of power.
West correctly quips that “caregiving is too important to leave to the unpaid labor of mothers.” What she leaves us with, perhaps without realizing it, is an individualist market model of professional caretakers. Other respondents object to market solutions, but the huge untapped market for childcare may be a terrific opportunity for employment expansion. And who knows? If the salaries are high enough, some men might even take the jobs.
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July 02, 2010
7 Min read time