While I was reading Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict (reviewed previously), I cast around looking for reviews to see how other people had responded to the book. In doing so, I happened upon this review in the New York Times by Judith Warner (author of Perfect Madness, a journalistic skewering of the ideology of the perfect mother as practised among middle and upper-middle class white women in the USA). Warner actually reviewed two books: Badinter’s, with which she had some issues while simultaneously being seduced by the elegant writing, and former Vermont governor and US ambassador Madeleine M. Kunin’s 2012 book The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family. While Warner compared Kunin’s dry plain-speaking style unfavourably with Badinter’s, she much preferred Kunin’s ‘concrete, realistic’ politics, writing:
Kunin’s is not a book of literary value, like Badinter’s. The writing is unremarkable, and there are no big, interesting philosophical ideas. Yet whereas Badinter’s argument is beautiful and essentially wrong, Kunin — Pollyanna-ish faith in the family-friendly nature of female politicians aside — is almost unimpeachably right, as she diagnoses what we in America need, why we’ve never gotten it, and how we may have some hope of achieving change in the future.
I too had some issues with Badinter’s book, although not quite the same ones as Warner, and thought it might be interesting to likewise read Kunin’s book in order to gain some insight into ‘concrete, realistic’ solutions. Unlike Warner, however, I was less enamoured of Kunin’s book. I concede, however, that this may well be because I am not from the United States. I don’t mean that in an obnoxiously knee-jerk anti-American way. I mean rather that I found this book, while interesting, of limited use to those outside the US. Instead, it made me very glad that I lived in a country that does not do the following:
- have no paid parental leave whatsoever (the only OECD country which does not)
- have slim to no paid sick leave for anybody, let alone parents of small children
- fail to protect unpaid parental leave for more than three months (after three months, parents seem to be at the mercy of their employers)
- fail to provide free healthcare for small children
- fail to provide new parents with professional support in the first weeks after having children
- consider a forty-hour working week to be ‘part-time’
- have no right to request flexible working legislation
- tax spouses (usually mothers) at a marginal tax rate meaning proportionally more tax is taken from them, thus making it even more unaffordable for women with children to work
- does not provide proper regulation of early childhood education leaving some of it dangerously inadequate, and ensures that this sector remains one of the most poorly remunerated in the country (unless you are privileged to work for the Department of Defense)
And the list continues (and I will concede that there are New Zealand politicians now in power who seem hell-bent on eroding some of the protections we currently do enjoy, particularly in respect of single parents on benefits). Quite properly, Kunin is outraged at this laundry list of societal failings and her pragmatic aim is to set out a programme for women to take up the call and demand change. She even begins her book describing her anger:
in my seventies I’m still dissatisfied with the status quo and harbour a passion for change. Old age allows me the luxury of being impatient - there isn’t much time left - and it permits me to say what I think, to be demanding, and, best of all, to imagine a different world where there is true gender equality in the workplace, the home and the political arena. (p 1)
Kunin then details a list of her expectations, developed through her involvement in second-wave feminism, that she sees as remaining unfulfilled. At the top of this list is the elusive goal of balancing career and family. Indeed, she was motivated to write this book by concluding that ‘many women who have careers that we could never imagined for ourselves are still flummoxed by the most age-old problem: how to have a job and take care of the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled.’ (p 2)
She then proceeds to systematically deliver the evidence of maternal disempowerment in the US, both in the workplace and on the home-front. She looks to international models (France, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Canada, the UK, and Australia) not simply to find the US lacking but to compare and contrast how other countries’ social policies would translate in the US environment (with difficulty, apparently). Her political acumen is to the fore here and the programme she develops from this analysis is nothing if not pragmatic: don’t go for ‘paid parental leave’ (who will support the idea of women being ‘paid to do nothing’ - aarrgh!) but ‘family leave insurance’ (a tactic which was apparently successful in New Jersey); appeal to business’s self-interest rather than their moral duties (here she looks at examples of companies who have implemented family policies and how it has benefitted rather than disadvantaged their businesses) and building bipartisan coalitions across different interest groups (people with disabilities, the elderly and men) in order to re-define what the rhetoric of family values means in practice.
She is obviously way more cognisant of the terrain of US politics than I will ever be, and her proposed programme sounds sensible. And yet even Kunin recognises that it may be too unachievable: “Could we hold a march for family/work policies in Washington? Would anybody come? Or would they be too tired, too busy, too scared of losing their jobs to attend?” Warner thinks what’s needed is a new glamourous multi-tasking Gloria Steinem as a figurehead to inspire and rally everyone. I’m not so sure.
My issue with Kunin’s programme is that it still deeply enmeshed in specific ideas about what constitutes ‘real work‘ and looks primarily to self-interest (particularly in the business world) to provide the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for paid parental leave, flexible working and so on, and I think business has a key role in this - but not to the exclusion of a strong social safety-net provided by a functional welfare state. And I’m frankly disappointed that her pragmatic suggestions appear to perpetuate the myth that stay-at-home parents don’t work (which is why looking solely to business will only ever provide part of the solution).
As unpaid - or low-paid - carers of children, the chronically ill and the elderly, stay-at-home parents (usually mothers) work too, and in doing so contribute immeasurably to the economy. ‘Immeasurably’, that is, in the sense that it isn’t systematically measured - there are many examples of calculating the costs of a mother’s unpaid work: here in Canada and here by the International Labour Organisation. Where is the part of Kunin’s programme that calls for the substantive recognition and valuing of this work? Sure, she gestures at in places - for example in the chapter, ‘New Family Portraits’ which looks at shared parenting, stay at home dads, and how to explain ‘resumé gaps’ - but when she espouses calling for ‘family leave insurance’ because people will be turned off by ‘paid parental leave’ (because who wants to pay someone for ‘not working’ - aargh!), it may be pragmatic and politically palatable but it’s still reinforcing the idea that the unpaid work of caring is not productive work at all.
I recently had some insight into this distinction. Having just bought our first house, my husband and I decided it would be prudent to look into life and income protection insurance. Our insurance advisor - a working mother herself - recommended insuring my husband’s income only (even though I too am working). While she was aware that this might come across as offensive to me, nonetheless the advice was couched in terms of the problems we could face if my husband couldn’t work for whatever reason. I’m not disputing that: it would totally suck if we didn’t have access to his income. But later on it got me thinking - well what if something happened to me and we not only lost my income, but my ability to care for our child for no pay whatsoever? If we had to pay someone to care for her without my income to cover it, or for my husband to reduce his hours so he could do it, then we would also face problems (which would, admittedly, be ameliorated to some extent by the safety-net of the welfare state - as would his unemployment or disability). But that unpaid care is apparently not worth insuring because it has no monetary value.
This is patently nonsense. In a family with dependent children - and overwhelmingly so in the US, I would guess, with the thin social safety net provided - the unpaid work of the primary care-giver enables the other partner to be economically ‘productive’. And this is even more the case for single-parent families: participating in the paid economy is somehow - unbelievably - valued more highly than being able to provide parental care in the home. The limits of Kunin’s analysis in this respect are problematic, yet how to recognise the value of unpaid or low-paid care-work is canvassed at length in earlier work by Ann Crittenden in The Price of Motherhood (2001) and New Zealand’s own Marilyn Waring in If Women Counted (1988).
While there is much of interest and value in Kunin’s book, perhaps this blind-spot shows up the limits of a politically pragmatic approach, rather than one that takes fundamental issue with the ways in which a national culture operates, and, on that basis, demands laws, policies, practices and institutions to show it values families in fact, not just in rhetoric. After all, if your starting point is compromise, then surely you only end up with small wins at best.