Strengthening the Case for Policies to Support Caregiving

SIGNS magazine
Winter 2016
By Stephanie Coontz

Women have made impressive gains in the past forty-five years. But progress toward family-friendly social policies has been exceptionally slow. In 1971, Congress actually passed a comprehensive childcare bill only to have Richard Nixon veto it after concerted lobbying by antifeminists and right-wingers. It took until 1993 just to get the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gave workers in large companies up to twelve weeks of unpaid job-protected leave. Yet nearly half of American workers are ineligible for this leave, and many of those eligible fail to take the full period because they can’t afford it. By contrast, every other wealthy country now guarantees more than twelve weeks of paid leave to new mothers.

Demands for better work-family policies have been growing. In February 2016, the Pentagon, which already runs the best affordable and universal childcare system in the country, announced that women in the military will get 12 weeks paid maternity leave. New York State and the District of Columbia may soon join California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, along with more than a dozen cities, in mandating some form of paid family leave.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business did not create this momentum. In fact, the article on which the book was based generated considerable criticism for focusing on issues facing elite white women and neglecting the caregiving dilemmas of men, along with the distinctive work-life challenges facing minorities and low-income workers.

But since then Slaughter has mined the work of pioneering work-life scholar-activists such as Ellen Bravo, Heather Boushey, and Joan Williams and has met with groups such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is spearheading a movement to expand access to caregiving while providing caregivers with a living wage. Unfinished Business now provides an excellent summary of the case for work-life policies for all workers, and the attention it is attracting (the original article got almost 3 million views) will undoubtedly win new converts.

Slaughter correctly notes that it is important for feminists to combat the widespread impression that work-life policies are just a woman’s issue. More than 20 percent of Americans, single as well as married, are caring for aging parents, and men now report levels of work-family conflict as high as women. Men who take time off for caregiving face similar penalties as women in future pay, promotions, and discriminatory treatment on the job. In fact, it appears that a significant amount of the gender pay gap stems not from discrimination against women per se but from discrimination against caregivers. Childless women now earn 96 percent of what men with comparable experience, hours, and jobs make.

Still, women are far more likely than men to take time off for caregiving, and they pay accumulating penalties for that over time. For reasons of self-interest as well as justice, feminists should give paid paternity leave equal priority with paid maternity leave, supporting affirmative action policies to get men better represented in the home. This is a question of equity, comparable to the battles we waged to get more women into the workforce.

This is one of the next frontiers in the fight for gender equity. After Quebec increased parental leave benefits and established a “use it or lose it” five-week quota for fathers in 2006, men’s takeup rates increased by 250 percent. By 2010, 80 percent of eligible men were using the leave, and the duration of their leaves had increased by 150 percent. Even after their leaves ended, these fathers kept doing more cooking, shopping, and childcare, while their female partners showed more consistent commitment to paid work.

Studies in Western Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, also show that men who take longer parental leaves remain more heavily involved with their children years afterward. And they are less likely to channel their daughters into traditional gender roles. In Norway, girls born after paternity leave reform were assigned fewer household chores as teenagers than their counterparts born just before it -- even though their fathers had returned to work years earlier.

Slaughter presents a persuasive, well-researched case for building a new infrastructure of care in the United States. But in trying to reach a broader audience, she sometimes skips over the more controversial measures required to make sure such reforms are not confined to the highly skilled, elite workers whom employers are already courting with work-life perks. She suggests, for example, that we can permit competing approaches, accommodating those who look to market-based solutions along with those who advocate government programs.

This strikes me as unrealistic. Some private-public partnerships may work well, but we should not shrink from pointing out that the only large-scale success in making work-life policies available to American workers of every economic, racial, and ethnic background has been that run by the military -- the biggest and best-funded arm of the government. When it comes to integrating work and family life, maybe a “nanny state” wouldn’t be so bad for the rest of us either.


Stephanie Coontz teaches family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (BasicBooks).

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