In my book Care and Equality, I tried to link those two imperatives in feminist terms and to avoid the position Nancy Hirschmann criticizes—elevating care to the point that it undermines gender equality. So I sympathize with her frustration at the failure of feminist efforts to offer a clear public stance that emphasizes care and equal responsibility for it in families and in the workplace. I applaud her success in igniting a new feminist conversation on the politics of family care.
But while Hirschmann is right to frame the issue of family responsibilities as political, I don’t agree that individual women should march out of the home and into the workplace as a strategy for forcing the renegotiation of long-gendered family caring roles. I don’t endorse a widespread action of individual walkouts—no meetings, no protests, no flags. And I don’t think negotiations between individual women and men on responsibility for family care can achieve the goal of women’s equality. Rather, like many others over many decades, I see the workplace itself as the necessary site of change. Only pressure on employers can enable the changes that would allow women and men to act as equals in dividing up responsibility for family care.
So I am at odds with Hirschmann’s view that government cannot be trusted to act consistently in the best interests of women. Government must be a key actor in mounting that pressure. The power to effect change lies there, not with multiples of individual women, however determined.
Ideally, government action would not impose specific changes but would create a supportive context in which women and men could face the issue of divided responsibility for care. This action would be spearheaded by a feminist campaign that claims time for care as a national value and care for families and for caregivers as a national interest. The national value and the national interest together would provide government with the authority to intervene in employment arrangements. The federal government could thereby define a national norm that makes creating time for care—within certain guidelines and meeting certain requirements—the responsibility of employers.
Most important, to address systemic inequalities for women, governmental standards for time-for-care systems would be based not on the crisis model of the Family and Medical Leave Act, nor on models of economic support such as state paid-leave laws, but on the cross-class need for day-in and day-out family and community care.
The standards that employers would have to meet would apply to:
• all workplaces over a minimum size
• all workers, women and men, on the understanding that care needs gobeyond direct daily care to indirect care that extended families and communities provide
• workers, men and women, in all types of employment and at all employment levels from hourly workers to administrative staff, professionals, managers and executives
• workers, women and men, throughout a period of employment, not limited to periods of particular difficulty or particular economic need.
Of course any campaign for a broad extension of workers’ rights would face predictable and powerful opposition. Particularly in a time of economic uncertainty and high unemployment, such a project seems to fly in the face of political reality. But failure to produce results in the short term would not mean a failure for the time-for-care project. Rather, the campaign’s first goal would be to widen familiarity with the concept of time-for-care in employment as a response to harmful pressures on families and on caregivers, mainly women.
Feminist thought and action have in the past been instrumental in campaigns protecting women workers—from the first maximum-hour legislation to the Violence Against Women Acts that protect the safety of women in the workplace. And feminist efforts have helped to extend legislative purpose from protection to equality, for example, in the recognition of the responsibility of both women and men for family care in the Family and Medical Leave Act.
A feminist campaign that promotes legislation requiring employers to provide time for family care would be the next step. Modeling clearly the principle that women and men hold equal responsibility for families, the campaign would be an opportunity to spread widely the idea that Nancy Hirschmann finds missing in feminist work today: the essential connection between equity in family care and gender equality in all aspects of society.
The success of such a campaign may seem improbable, even in building awareness of roadblocks to women’s equality and harm done by unequal responsibility for care. But family care as a workplace issue already is widely discussed in major organizations including 9to5; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Service Employees International Union and other unions; the American Federation of Teachers; Business and Professional Women USA; and the Society for Human Resource Management.
Recently the issue reached the White House, which held a Forum on Workplace Flexibility at which both the President and First Lady spoke. The forum was based on a major report from the Georgetown Law Center, Workplace Flexibility 2010, a five-year project including contributions from labor, consumer, and business representatives, as well as researchers, academics, and former senior policy advisers. The report and the forum focused on the connection between workplace flexibility and family care in light of the increasing numbers of women in the workforce. Both the report and forum speakers cited findings, including a report of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, on the economic feasibility of widespread flexible hours.
No speaker explicitly connected thoroughgoing systems of workplace flexibility and women’s equality, but with such a high-level discussion concerning women, families, and work underway, linking flexibility and equality should be easy for a determined feminist campaign.