A Gender Strategy for the Nation

Brought to America by the tradition of the European Enlighten­ment, the belief in human progress easily fit the open American frontier, the expanding national and international economy, and the movements for racial and gender equality. Like most Ameri­cans over at least two centuries, most of the men and women I in­terviewed for this study said they believed “things were getting better.” They said they believed men “are doing more at home than before.” In small measure, this is true.

But the young do not promise to usher in a new era. Corpora­tions have done litde to accommodate the needs of working par­ents, and the government has done little to prod them. The nuclear family is still the overwhelming choice as a setting in which to rear children. Yet we have not invented the outside sup­ports the nuclear family will need to do this job well. Our revolu­tion is in danger of staying stalled.

Certainly this is what has occurred in the former Soviet Union, the other major industrial society to draw a majority of its child­bearing women into the labor force. Since industrialization, Soviet women had worked outside the home and done the lions share of the second shift too. “You work?” the Soviet joke went. “You’re liberated.” A stalled revolution has been mistaken for the whole revolution. And some commentators in the former USSR argued that there, too, the extra burden on working mothers is behind the rising rate of divorce.5

As more women enter the labor force, will the divorce rate rise in China? In Japan? In India? In Australia? Cultures differ, but this fundamental problem is the same.

Can we do better than this? The answer depends on how we make history happen. Just as individuals have gender strategies, so do governments, corporations, schools, factories, and mens clubs. How a nation organizes its work force and daycare centers, how its schools train the young, reflects the work and family roles it en­visions for each sex.

While we hear much rhetoric about families, we hear very lit­tle talk about government policies that would actually help them. Indeed, comparatively speaking, we are a backward society. In 1993 President Clinton signed the historic Family and Medical Leave Act that gave workers the right to twelve weeks of leave for a new baby or a family medical emergency. But that left out the roughly 50 percent of workers employed in companies with fewer than 50 workers. It didn’t apply to part-time workers, most of whom are women, and the leave isn’t paid.

After giving birth, a German mother receives fourteen weeks of leave at full pay. Italian mothers receive twenty weeks at full pay. In 2002, Canadian mothers won the right to take a full year off from work after childbirth at 60 percent pay. Mothers in Nor­way can take a year at 80 percent pay. Worldwide, 127 coun­tries—including virtually every industrial nation—mandate some sort of paid family leave. But in the U. S., the richest nation in the world, working parents are not guaranteed a penny of paid leave to stay home with a newborn baby. In 2002, twenty-seven states have started the uphill battle to institute paid leaves. As I write, the California governor has just signed a bill enabling new work­ing mothers to take six weeks of leave at 55 percent of their salary up to $728 a week. But neither companies nor the government contribute to these leaves.

An honestly profamily policy in the United States would offer paid parental leave to parents—married, single, gay, or lesbian— of natural or adoptive children, and paid “care leave” to tend the elderly. Through comparable worth, it would pull up wages in “womens” jobs. It would go beyond half-time work (which makes it sound like a person is only doing “half” of something else that is “whole”) by instituting lower-hour, more flexible “family phases” for all regular jobs filled by parents of young children.

The government would give tax credits to developers who build affordable housing near places of work and shopping cen­ters, with nearby meal-preparation facilities, as Dolores Hayden describes in her book Redesigning the American Dream. It would create warm and creative daycare centers. If the best day care comes from elderly neighbors, students, grandparents, they could be paid to care for children. Traveling vans for day-care enrichment could roam the neighborhoods as the ice-cream man did in my child­hood.

In these ways, the American government could create a “safer environment” for the two-job family. It could draw men into chil­drens lives, reduce the number of children in “self-care,” and make marriages happier. These reforms could even improve the lives of children whose parents divorce, because research has shown that the more involved fathers are with their children be­fore divorce, the more involved they are with them afterwards. If the government encouraged corporations to consider the long — range interests of workers and their families, they would save on long-range costs due to higher incidence of absenteeism, turnover, juvenile delinquency, mental illness, and welfare support for sin­gle mothers.

These are the real profamily reforms. If they seem “utopian” today, we should remember that in the past, the eight-hour day, the abolition of child labor, and the vote for women once seemed utopian too. Among top-rated employers listed in The Hundred Best Companies to Work for in America, many offer country-club memberships, first-class air travel, and million-dollar fitness cen­ters. Only a handful offer job sharing, flex time, or part-time work. Not one provides on-site day care and only three offer child-care deductions—Control Data, Polaroid, and Honeywell are excep­tions. In his book Megatrends, John Naisbitt reported that 83 per­cent of corporate executives believed that more men feel the need to share the responsibilities of parenting; yet only 9 percent of cor­porations offer paternity leave.

Public strategies are linked to private ones. Economic and cul­tural trends bear on marital tensions in ways it would be useful for families to understand, and we need to apply an interpretation of marriage that highlights the links between the two. When I talked with Nancy Holt about working two jobs and raising a child at this period in history, I talked about “the uneven rate of change,” about the greater difference between her life and her mothers than that between Evans and his father’s. We discussed the differ­ences between her gender ideology and Evans. We explored the cautionary tales that might be holding each version of manhood and womanhood in place. I pointed out her strategies—a sharing showdown, cutting back at work—and I named Evans—resist­ance. We discussed how Nancy’s resentment at Evan’s refusal to share the second shift might have emerged in how she handled Joey. We explored how the give and take of credit for each part­ner’s contributions to the second shift created imbalances in their marital economy of gratitude. The questions I asked the Holts are only a start in exploring how family life is situated in a wider cir­cle of influence; such questions begin what for each couple would have to be a long, careful look in the cultural mirror.

The happiest two-job marriages I saw were between men and women who did not load the former role of the housewife-mother onto the woman, and did not devalue it as one would a bygone “peasant” way of life. They shared that role between them. What couples called “good communication” often meant that they were good at saying thanks for one tiny form or another of taking care of the family. Making it to the school play, helping a child read, cooking dinner in good spirit, remembering the grocery list, tak­ing responsibility for the “upstairs.” These were the silver and gold of the marital exchange. Up until now, the woman married to the “new man” has been one of the lucky few. But as the government and society shape a new gender strategy, as the young learn from example, many more women and men will be able to enjoy the leisurely bodily rhythms and freer laughter that arise when family life is family life and not a second shift.

Updated: 11.11.2015 — 21:07