How Women (and Men) Can Have It All–Now

Here’s my entry at Daily Beast in this ongoing debate about America’s work/family misery. Looking past stating the problem to fixing it! We can do it!

How Women (and Men) Can Have It All–Now

Thanks to Anne-Marie Slaughter and The Atlantic for making the opening that finally brought the misery of our family-unfriendly work world to the national discussion and the front page of The New York Times. But contra her characterization of the status quo as a problem that can only be addressed in the long term, there are obvious immediate policy solutions to the problems of women’s work/family lives, which Slaughter’s piece and the subsequent discussion have largely ignored (an exception).

These involve embracing educational and workforce policies that would benefit families at all levels, from elites through middle management to clerks and hotel workers. And further, electing the leaders who will enact such policies. The time is now, and those leaders are progressive women and their male allies.

First, education. Lately, we’ve been cutting education to the bone, and cutting our future off at the knees. Cuts to education means no competitive workforce of tomorrow. They mean no informed voters, no democracy, and big-time decline of everything we value and enjoy. There are many ideas on how best to implement positive change, but it all starts with paying a sufficient number of good teachers a decent wage.

As we reinforce K-12 education, we must also expand educational offerings to include kids up to age 4. Currently, millions of children sit in front of TVs for the first five years of their lives—either at home, or in bad child care (because that’s all their parents can afford). No thoughtful interchanges, no challenges to figure things out for themselves, no active play. Add to that a lot of sugary, fatty food, and you have a formula for failure.

Even the best elementary ed is bound to fail kids who enter kindergarten completely unprepared. The damage has already been done. A good, affordable child-care system would provide the fix. A decent education is a nation’s obligation to all its citizens. It would cost money—just north of 1 percent of GDP by one estimate—but the investment would pay off in savings on prisons and in increased productivity and engagement.

If such long-term benefits are not enough of a positive for you: child care is also an immediate jobs engine. Thousands of well-paid jobs would be created for teachers in the centers, for construction workers to build the centers, and for those who teach the teachers. The effect is multiplied when these well-paid teachers spend that money at community businesses.

A national child-care system would benefit us not only in the future but in the present, by freeing today’s grown women, of all classes, to participate more fully in growing the economy. It would do this both by making good child care affordable and, also important, by countering the current guilt-inducing media coverage that misrepresents child care’s role.

Part of the reason our culture still distrusts child care so reflexively is that so much of what is available now actually is bad. But good child care is a different animal, and its wide availability would change attitudes—both toward the care itself and toward the sense of a mother’s relation to care. It would move us toward a wider openness to sharing care—with both paid caregivers and with dads.

To work for all citizens, good care has to be subsidized—or, to phrase it more clearly, invested in by the nation, through a collaboration of taxpayers and employers. That has been the case for Head Start and within our military child-care system, and it is the rule in many nations around the globe, but has not been an option for most U.S. kids. Thus millions of working moms and dads have to put their kids in bad care, full or part time. They lose, the kids lose, and we all lose, because the American workforce ends up enormously underskilled.

Good child care has much to offer kids in terms of socialization, range of activities, structured environment, and skills development, especially if it’s combined with flexible work arrangements that allow parents to cut back on work to be with kids when needed.

A major national attitude change toward valuing the work of child rearing—including the combination of good paid child care and reasonable work rules that allow parents time to be with their kids while still working well for their employers—would improve all our children’s lives. It would also make having children an option for many who don’t see it as one right now.

Along with child care, we need policies that support women and families at all levels. A key step in this direction would be a mandated paid leave for both parents. Data from abroad indicate that such leaves narrow the pay gap between men and women. When men are also required to take leaves, the gap disappears, because employers can’t anticipate that women will be less reliable workers than men and so will not invest any less in them. Also key are paid sick days for the vast network of hourly workers who currently have none and who often lose their jobs when they have to stay home with a sick child.

Critics might say I need a reality check here, that I’m talking pie in the sky, and that policies like these sound especially ridiculous in the current economic and political climate of cutbacks.

That’s where elections matter—not down the line, but here and now. These policies haven’t been taken seriously because there have not been enough women in policy-making roles or with the financial or cultural clout to insist that they be taken seriously. Circularly, as Slaughter indicates, because the support infrastructure hasn’t changed, women haven’t been able to move in sufficient numbers into positions where they could change it.

While some businesses have recognized the value of family-friendly policies, and while increasing numbers of men have begun to agitate for more time with their families, it’s still seen as a women’s issue, and that has effectively meant that it could be ignored. Like John Adams who famously disregarded his wife Abigail’s enjoinder to “remember the ladies” as he went off to write the Constitution, our male representatives have largely failed to facilitate change on behalf of their female constituents.

Women now understand, as did our revolutionary founders, that direct representation matters. Only when there is a critical mass of educated women with clout in Congress and in positions to influence Congress (which means with money and votes) will U.S. policy come to reflect women’s interests.

That time is now. For millennia, women were deprived of active participation in democracy by their uncontrolled fertility, which left them no time to gain the education that would lead to influence and policymaking power. By allowing women to postpone children—an evolutionary step—birth control now allows us for the first time ever to participate in the shaping of national priorities as full, directly represented citizens.

Finally, even the trickle up of women into power is making a difference. Though currently only 16 percent of the Congress is female, there’s big room to expand that in November, and constituents can require their male representatives (many of whom are already supportive) to collaborate with their female counterparts. A small but vocal minority of representatives with right on their side and, incidentally, a majority of the electorate, can change the world.

The current war on contraception and abortion is a coordinated effort to stem this tide and to keep the power in the hands of the patriarchs. It’s no coincidence that the big money fighting women’s reproductive rights is all male (or that very few women have that kind of money to spend). But though they look powerful, these geezers are late to this pushback. The huge cohort of college-educated women with high expectations and the interests of the nation at heart has the political muscle to fight back now. If we don’t use it to protect real democracy for those who come after, everybody loses. Our daughters most of all.

Next step? Push back more—with votes, with money, and with plenty of back talk! Elect progressive women this November by working in and contributing to their campaigns. Female candidates won’t agree on everything, but their presence in the race will change the discussion in ways that will make what used to seem impossible suddenly look doable. It becomes harder to forget women’s concerns when they’re there in the same room, voting for themselves. That also makes it easier for our allies, the new-school fathers, to do what they too know is needed.

Though we’re not all the same, we have a lot in common and a lot at stake. Time to put to good use the suffrage and the education that our foremothers of all classes and colors worked hard to win us. It’s our turn now to stand together. Ladies, let’s roll.

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Policy Talk Redux

The Real No-Brainer
Fair Pay, Fertile Future
Childcare as Infrastructure
Remember Mama?
Darn It! Recycling Frugality
Slut Limbaugh
Pushing Babies
Ready or Not?

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Another on the Way!

Happy to say, there’s a new version of READY on the way — due in August. This paperback (with spiffy new cover & Preface) updates the stats and analysis through 2012, with special attention to the recession effect (hint: the later motherhood trend continues, with lots of economic and political fireworks).

You can book your copy by pre-order. Or buy a copy of the hardcover now, for yourself, for one of the later moms (or dads) on your gift list, or for someone considering becoming a parent someday.
Cheers to all!

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Slut Limbaugh and the Virgin Queen

What better state to play out reproductive political battles in than the only one named for a woman’s hymenal status. That’d be Virginia – named for the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth the First of England.

Funny, maybe, but more importantly a reminder that women’s access to direct power has long been linked to their ability to refrain from having … children. Whether or not QE 1 was sexually abstinent (it’s debated), her decision not to marry meant she had no master, no man to take the reign from her hands by assigning her to the world of childbearing. For most women, the fact that sex leads to children (and lots of them) has kept us busy, uneducated and out of decision-making circles for millennia. Reliable and effective birth control transformed the scene that had kept women in political and economic bondage. No wonder there’s pushback. But it’s too late.

Elizabeth was brought to power as a last resort—with no remaining male heir to carry forward her father’s DNA, she looked like a good chance to maintain the family line. But while she did that in herself, she stopped the onward flow of Henry’s genes by refusing to procreate. By practicing an early version of birth control.

With that refusal came a voice in government that she would not otherwise have had—a big voice. No one could forbid her access to her practice, because she was the state. But most women in her day were forced into marriage willy nilly, and little heard from in the public sphere.

Fast forward from 1558 to 2012. The recent rash of contra-contraceptive and anti-abortion efforts on the part of the right aims not just to deny women health care or a sex life, but to actively push us off the path to shared power we’ve been on for the past 150 or so years (since the invention of rubber). Denying young women contraceptives is not just anti-birth control, it’s a coercive pro-natalism, and, within the contemporary context, effectively a silencer.

Men and women have sex (generally together), this is a fact—some more, some less, and they start at different ages. But where in the past having a sex life often limited one’s options in life, especially for women, with birth-control it need not. An evolutionary change! Instead, women and men can delay their families while they go to school and establish at work, and then have kids if they want them within a context of financial stability and active desire to parent.

On the other hand, women denied contraception have more kids, and earlier. They are less likely to finish their degrees—in high school, college or beyond. In our family-unfriendly system, they’re less likely to climb the ladders at work. They won’t trickle up into policy-making roles. They don’t get a seat at the business table or in Congress, so they can’t voice their opinions in cultural debates in ways that will be heard. They can’t change the system to one that might be friendlier to families or that might require enforcement of equal pay laws. Instead men get those seats and that voice. We know what that looks like.

But this is not our world.

Yes, Congress is overwhelmingly male still, but that’s changing, and new assumptions rule. We have female representatives, and they are getting loud. Sandra Fluke, the student who dared protest the power grab portrayed in the panel photo, has been pilloried by “Slut” Limbaugh, notable for his loose ways with language & facts (turnabout’s fair play). Only a leftover from the hoary past could think that word, with its roots in Elizabethan kitchens, would resonate in the old shameful way in the ears of today. Now the condemnation is of him, as he has just grudgingly acknowledged. How much do these guys not understand about the change that has already occurred?! The world in which women depended on men to feed them while they raised the young and ran the house is over, as much as the throwbacks might wish it were not so and work to turn back the clock. That is not moralism; it’s sexism—plain and simple.

The crazy thing about these patriarchs struggling to hold on to the old ways is that they seem not to know how many of their fellow men benefit from birth control too. Not the priests, presumably, those male virgins with their own special access to power through childlessness. But the men who live and love with the women who take the Pill. Who also don’t want 12 kids in 20 years. Who don’t live on the pre-industrial farms where so many kids were once needed. Whose partners bring home a good wage and up the family opportunity level. Who like talking to their similarly educated wives and girl-friends.

Newsflash: it’s not 1558 or even 1958. A woman doesn’t have to be a virgin or a wife to be respected, any more than a man’s value as a citizen is defined by his sexual activity or marital status. Birth control not only allows individuals to make their own personal romantic choices, it serves the nation by giving women and men time to get an education before starting their families, so they can be the skilled workforce the nation needs. Birth control serves the national interest.

And, as of 91.5 years ago, all these female citizens can vote. As can their partners. Helpfully, these episodes are reminding us how important it is that we do so. Birth control has unraveled the social fabric that bound all but the very exceptional women with shackles of shame, violence and penury. There’s a way to go before we weave a pattern of full fairness, but there’s no going back. Good riddance. The queen is dead. Long live the enfranchised citizen.

This post first appeared on RH Reality Check.

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How Late Is Too Late?, the ongoing question

Here’s more discussion in the “how late is too late?” vein, on a show called Inside E Street. To watch the video, click here.
Is it 50, 60, 75 ….? And is it a different choice if you’re bearing a child via egg donation than if you’re adopting, or taking on the raising of your grandchild? The three people in those three roles may all be the same age — will they be judged differently?
The episode looks in on new-mom-at-51 Lynn Laszewski, as well as mom-in-her-40s Angel La Liberté (whose advocacy blog FlowerPowerMom serves as hub to the later moms community). They both seem to be doing a great job of parenting in the clips!
Bioethicist Bonnie Steinbock and I discuss the dynamics in the second half. I’m on the side of trusting people to get the facts and decide for themselves, with input from responsible (but not prejudiced) advisors and doctors. She doesn’t seem too far from that point of view either, but there’s a doctor with more concerns. See what you think!

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Pelosi on Childcare Reform: “We’re Going to Do It”

Nancy Pelosi

While the common wisdom holds that women need 33% of Congressional seats before we reach the critical mass that can get “our” issues a hearing, maybe we can do it with the current 16-17%. The push-back that even the 16% encounter could itself have a multiplier effect, encouraging more push-back to the push-back.

For instance, if enough people are tired of the many bad effects of our current lack of a national system of good, affordable child care, and rise in support of Pelosi’s initiative, good things could happen. Including education for the kids, work access for the moms, and jobs for the teachers and construction workers involved in building and running the centers, as discussed here recently…..

So far, few details from Pelosi on how and when, but she points to the health care model. Some dispute on the horizon? Better than no discussion at all. Bring it!

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