Time for a new kind of feminism

We need a 'caregiverist' agenda - one that lets men and women move from career to family caregiving, dropping in and out of the workforce as the need arises, without undue penalty.

Mrs Hillary Clinton's securing of the Democratic nomination does not just put a woman in range of the White House. It puts a mother there. And that is momentous.

Over the past half-century, unmarried childless women have overcome every barrier to opportunity you can think of and now earn 96 per cent of what men do. Mothers, on the other hand, are not doing nearly as well. Married mothers are paid 76 US cents (S$1.03) on the dollar.

To me, Mrs Clinton's sheer professional survival is as inspiring as any of her other accomplishments.

A woman with a small child can easily lose faith that she will ever do anything else again. God knows I did. For the first five years of my child-rearing life, I was supposed to be writing a book, but mostly I dodged my editor's calls.

The three-year-old had separation anxiety, so I waited it out on one of the nursery school's kid-size chairs. I lacked the heart to say no to play dates, so I shut my computer and attended to juice boxes. Then there was Ladies' Night, when the mothers on my cul-de-sac got together to drink too much wine. Fun, sure, but really, "Ladies' Night"?

Mrs Clinton (in blue) emphasised paid family leave when she began her campaign and in the opening statements of the first Democratic presidential debate. But her focus is on wage earners. She could be a champion of caregiverism, fighting for parents dissatisfied with a few weeks of unpaid parental leave and adult children responsible for ageing parents. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The fact that I went every week proved that my professional viability was fast disappearing, or so I thought at the time.

How did Mrs Clinton hold on to hers? How did she rebound from the years in which she was raising a daughter, pursuing a law career and serving as First Lady of Arkansas?

She has a steely will, as everyone knows. But another answer is that it was in many ways easier to be a working mother in 1980, when Chelsea Clinton was born, than it is today.

Between the 1980s and the aughts, when I had my children, a cloud of economic anxiety descended on parents, tightening what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called "the time bind".

The workweek of salaried professionals ballooned from 40 hours to 50 hours or more, not counting the e-mail catch-up done after the kids' bedtime.

Union protections, predictable schedules and benefits vanished for vast numbers of blue-collar workers.

Here is a fantasy my daughter and I entertain: What if child-rearing were not an interruption to a career but a respected precursor to it? Both sexes would be expected to chip in, and the state would support young parents the way it now supports veterans. This is more or less what Scandinavian countries already do. A mother might take five years off, then focus on her career, at which point the father could put his on pause. Or vice versa.

Their jobs in the service or on-demand economies now pay so little, and childcare costs so much (168 per cent more than it did a quarter-century ago) that parents have to stitch together multiple jobs.

Meanwhile, terrified that their offspring will sink even lower, parents siphon off time and money to raise children who can compete in a global economy.

Women like me who scale back in the face of impossible expectations feel themselves morphing into caricatures: attachment freaks, helicopter mums, concerted cultivators, neo-traditionalists.

These stereotypes are just plain sexist, but I do not know many mothers whose careers, pay cheques and sense of self-worth have not been eroded by all the compromises they have had to make. Our worlds have narrowed, our bank accounts have dipped below the minimum balance and our power within the family and the world has dwindled.

We would be quick to tell you that we would not have done it any differently. Still.

What if the world was set up in such a way that we could really believe - not just pretend to - that having spent time concentrating on raising children at the expense of future earnings would bring us respect? And what if that could be as true for men as it is for women?

We live in an age rich in feminisms. One celebrates our multiplicity of identities: black, lesbian, transgender. Another has effectively anathematised sexual violence. Yet another chips away at the glass ceiling that keeps women out of the most powerful jobs such as, say, the presidency.


But we need another feminism - and it needs a name that has nothing to do with gender.

Let us call it, for lack of a better term, "caregiverism". It would demand dignity and economic justice for parents dissatisfied with a few weeks of unpaid parental leave and strive to mitigate the sacrifices made by adult children responsible for ageing parents.

Mrs Clinton could be a champion of caregiverism. She has been blunter this electoral season about family-friendly policies than she has ever been before. She emphasised paid family leave when she began her campaign and again in the opening statements of the first Democratic presidential debate.

Last month, she said she would cap the cost of childcare at 10 per cent of a household's income, down from what, for a household supported by minimum-wage workers, can be more than 30 per cent. But she needs to go further.

Her focus is on wage earners. What about the people who want to get out of the workplace, at least for a while? Mrs Clinton should talk to Representative Nita Lowey of New York, who last year introduced a Bill that would give Social Security credits to caregivers who left the labour market or cut back on hours - a public nod to the reality that care is work and caregivers merit the same benefits as other workers.

Mrs Clinton belongs to an earlier generation, one whose objective was to free women from the prison of domesticity - at least the middle-class women who did not already have jobs - and send them marching into the workforce to demand equality there.

But true equality will take more than equal pay and better working conditions. It will require something more radical, a "transvaluation of all values", in Nietzsche's phrase.

Am I calling for a counter-revolution? I do not think so. Feminists have not always seen work as the answer to women's problems. Many who put in sweatshop hours in the textile industry or open-ended days in domestic service fought for the Fair Labour Standards Act of 1938, which established the 40-hour workweek.

Working women "were not just organisable; they were the best constituency for struggle over the working day", write David Roediger and Philip Foner in Our Own Time: A History Of American Labour And The Working Day.

There is also a venerable tradition in feminist history 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. In the 1960s, the largely African-American National Welfare Rights Organisation demanded welfare payments that would maintain a decent standard of living, partly on the grounds that these mothers were working already, raising future workers, and partly because they could not find jobs that would support them.

"I am 45 years old. I have raised six children," wrote the group's chairman Johnnie Tillmon in 1972.

She added: "A job doesn't necessarily mean an adequate income. There are some 10 million jobs that now pay less than the minimum wage, and if you're a woman, you've got the best chance of getting one."

Around the same time, Marxist feminists Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James began a campaign called Wages for Housework that called for the overthrow of a capitalist order subsidised, in their view, by the unpaid slog of homemaking and, yes, sexual services. This did not mean that women should necessarily go out and find jobs. "Not one of us believes that emancipation, liberation, can be achieved through work," they wrote. "Slavery to an assembly line is not liberation from slavery to a kitchen sink."

Liberal feminists accused them of wanting to push women back into domestic drudgery, but they denied it.

So what did they want?

I asked Ms Silvia Federici, a founder of the New York chapter of Wages for Housework who writes prolifically on these questions.

Actual wages for housework aside, she said, the movement wanted to make people ask themselves: "Why is producing cars more valuable than producing children?"

The expectation that all mothers will work has been especially hard on single mothers.

When then United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the welfare programme Aid to Dependent Children in 1935, it was a given that poor single mothers would tend to their young. (Poor single white mothers, I should say, because black women were expected to hold jobs.)

By the 1970s, that presumption having vanished, Mr Ronald Reagan could argue that welfare mothers were "lazy parasites" and "pigs at the trough", laying the groundwork for welfare reform.

The programme put in place by Mr Bill Clinton in 1996, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, cuts off benefits after five years or less, forces women to hold or look for jobs, whether there are any to be had, and allows states to shunt welfare funds into other programmes.

And so, from 1996 to 2011, the number of families living in extreme poverty - on US$2 per person a day or less - more than doubled. A majority of those households were headed by single mothers.

In an important new book, Finding Time, economist Heather Boushey argues that the failure of government and businesses to replace the services provided by "America's silent partner" - the stay-at-home wife - is dampening productivity and checking long-term economic growth.

A company that withholds family leave may drive away a hard-to-replace executive. Overstressed parents lack the time and patience to help children develop the skills they need to succeed.

"Today's children are tomorrow's workforce," Ms Boushey writes. "What happens inside families is just as important to making the economy hum along as what happens inside firms."

Knowing that motherhood can derail a career, women are waiting longer and longer to have children. In the US, first-time mothers have aged nearly five years since 1970.

As of 2014, they were 26.3 as opposed to 21.4. Some 40 per cent of women with bachelor's degrees have their first child at 30 or older.

Fathers are waiting along with the mothers. What else can they do? I had my children at 39 and 40.

(Mrs Clinton was 32.)

I recently got into an argument with a professor friend about the plausibility of restructuring higher education and the professions so that women - and men - would not have to hustle for positions like partner or associate professor just as they reach peak fertility.

Many universities, I said, now stop the tenure clock for a year when assistant professors have children. My friend laughed. A year is nothing when it comes to a baby, she said. She would never have won tenure if she had had her son first.

I did not know what to say. At least she had a child, unlike friends who waited until it was too late.

Here is a fantasy my daughter and I entertain: What if child-rearing were not an interruption to a career but a respected precursor to it?

Both sexes would be expected to chip in, and the state would support young parents the way it now supports veterans.

This is more or less what Scandinavian countries already do. A mother might take five years off, then focus on her career, at which point the father could put his on pause. Or vice versa.

Vice versa was the deal struck by characters on the Danish TV series Borgen, an MP and her husband.

He would schlep and clean for five years, then she would do the same. (As it turned out, she became prime minister and their marriage went to hell. But that is a problem few of us would ever have to face.)

What really makes the Borgen model a mismatch for the US is that American families, particularly low-income families, cannot do without a double income, given wage stagnation and the cost of children in a country that will not help parents raise them.

But having to work should not be confused with wanting to work, at least not without some stops along the way.

"It takes 20 years, not 12 weeks, to raise a child," as feminist legal scholar Joan Williams has written.

Those 20 years are what made Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's exhortation to women to "lean in" or work extra hard before and after they started families seem so ludicrous.

(Ms Sandberg has softened her stance since her husband's death last May. "I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home," she wrote recently.)

When Ms Marissa Mayer, now chief executive of Yahoo, reported that when she was in Google's employ, she slept under her desk, disgusted feminist Sarah Leonard wrote, "If feminism means the right to sleep under my desk, then s***w it."

But what should feminism mean instead? One thing it should not mean is a politics of the possible. We are fighting for 12 weeks of leave when we need to rethink the basic chronology of our lives. We live longer than we used to.

A caregiverist agenda should include stretching career paths across that longer lifespan, making it easier for parents of both sexes to drop in and out of the workforce as the need arises.

Automation may eliminate jobs in all sorts of fields.

Perhaps we should lobby for a six-hour workday, yielding both more jobs and more time for family.

It is a little late for me, if not, thank goodness, for my daughter.

I fled my cul-de-sac before I should have, in part because I convinced myself that it was becoming a lovely, leafy, azalea-pink prison. City life is great, thank you, but I have regrets.

I should have gone on longer rambles with the babies, blown more deadlines, been quicker to heed my son's demand to "see train" at the nearby station.

The articles could have waited, the sight of a little boy clapping as a train squealed to a stop could not.

As for Ladies' Night, it took me a long time to assemble a coterie of mothers as genial and supportive. If I am ashamed of anything now, it is how little I appreciated them then.


•Judith Shulevitz is the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses Of A Different Order Of Time, and a contributing opinion writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'Time for a new kind of feminism'. Print Edition | Subscribe