What Feminism Missed
Economics tells us the obvious: that when supply goes up, price goes down. And price does not only mean the cost of diamonds or real estate; it also means wages.
In the early 1960s my mother returned to nursing after a break while we children were small. She was the first mom in our neighborhood to pursue a career, but others soon followed. The early adopters of Second Wave Feminism doubled their family income, but when the trend grew and women doubled the workforce, the predictable happened: as the supply of workers increased, real wages fell, and families that had done just fine on one income henceforth needed two.
The drop in real wages is lamented widely and its roots in flawed feminism are rarely discussed. A feminism that maximized the opportunities available to single white women missed an enormous opportunity. An economy built around the needs of children and their parents would not have doubled the size of the workforce and brought down real wages. Rather, such an economy would have shifted how employment is structured, with longer parental leaves and shorter workweeks distributing the existing supply of work hours. Such an economy would have provided women more opportunities for employment, men more opportunities for leisure and parenting, and children the chance to have parents at home. More workers could perform the same amount of work with fewer hours per worker. Health insurance could be mandated for everyone, including part time workers and their dependents.
Instead, by the time the pandemic hit, mothers and fathers had limited parental leave when children were born, and once they returned to their jobs, were expected to work excessive hours. Mothers (or fathers) who decided to focus on their young children lost opportunities and credibility at work (witness the “mommy track” at major law firms, where female associates who chose not to put in seventy-hour weeks are excluded from consideration for partnership). Women were told they could have it all, but too often those women had to decide whether to sacrifice their success or their children.
The pandemic has brought home the significant failures of feminism and of workaholic culture. With school and day care closures, families have a greatly increased responsibility for their children. And not surprisingly, this responsibility has fallen disproportionately on women. More than eight in ten of the workers who have lost jobs in the pandemic have been women.
But at the same time, the simple fact that mothers are at home has greatly reduced the rate of premature births.
It seems that the stresses of commuting, of being in the office and unable to rest as needed, are simply unhealthy for expectant mothers and their babies. This is one clue from the pandemic about where we need to go from here.
In her December 23 Opinion piece in the New York Times, Kim Brooks argues for “a new feminism, one that understands that the politics of motherhood are inherently intersectional for the simple reason that while not all women have or want children, those who do come from every race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background. It would be a feminism grounded in solidarity as opposed to “success.””
What Feminism Missed
From my vantage point as a mostly-retired professional, and a grandmother who is isolated many hundreds of miles from my nearest grandchild, the economic and social crisis brought on by the pandemic also seems like an opportunity. It is a chance to look back and learn from what we did wrong in the sixties and reflect on what we are doing wrong now.
I believe what we need is not a third wave of feminism per se, but rather a new wave of humanism informed, in part, by the experience of quarantine.
- What if we took the opportunity while we are all stuck at home to teach our boys to take the lead in caring for our homes and for one another?
- What if we taught our daughters and our sons that a partnership in raising children is based on shared responsibility and not on X or Y chromosomes?
- What if single mothers formed collectives?
- What if men as well as women all over the country turned their backs on the worship of work and only made themselves available part time?
- What if, as vaccines put the pandemic behind us, we did not allow the expectations of employers to shift back to the endless cheap supply of labor, the fifty- and sixty-hour work weeks of both parents?
- What if political figures pushed to de-link employment from health care, so that part time workers were covered?
- What if all pregnant women were encouraged to work from home from this day forward, not just during the pandemic?
- What if paid parental leave were required here in the United States, as it is in actual first world countries?
It is not too late to structure an economy that prioritizes families. It is not too late to build multigenerational households and a part time workforce that places children at the center of our mission as a society. It is not too late to make effective, loving childrearing the measure of our success as a nation.
What feminism missed is that we grandmothers represent a consistently underutilized resource in this society. The anthropological and archeological record shows that in early societies, grandmothers played a significant role in childrearing, imparting wisdom and freeing mothers for other tasks. Before the pandemic, women past midlife were too often invisible and disregarded in our culture. During the pandemic, older women have been encouraged to lock ourselves away, and in some cases even denied treatment for coronavirus based on age. How much different our experience of this pandemic would be if grandmothers all over the country were sheltering with extended families and homeschooling our grandchildren right now. If the country saw us for our talents rather than our risk factors, so much would be different today and in the future.
The pandemic is a cracked mirror, but it is a mirror of our culture. If we do not like what we see, now is the time to build in change, as we begin to work our way back from the last terrible year.