“The personal is political” is both the most compelling argument for feminism and the movement’s Achilles heel. While feminism provides a way to understand how cultural and social pressures shape our most private decisions, the flip side is also true: collectively, these private decisions shape our society and culture.
How much should we hold women accountable for the political ramifications of their personal choices? This question, which Nancy Hirschmann applies to the issue of care work, is at the heart of the most contentious debates among feminists. She concludes that “care feminism”—the push to place a higher societal and monetary value on caregiving—has become a “description of the status quo, not a prescription for changing it.” But I’m not convinced that we should give up on care feminism, even if that means accepting private decisions whose effects can spill over into wider society.
I have always admired the feminist effort to value care work in part because high valuation of care has the potential to benefit women of all socioeconomic levels. But Hirschmann’s essay, like most interventions into the opt-out debate, does a disservice to this effort by discussing only upper-class women, who can afford to become full-time caregivers (about 10 percent of working women aged 25 to 44). Most American women must balance work with caregiving. Nor does Hirschmann acknowledge the other women with a stake in the debate over care work: lower-income women for whom caregiving is a paid profession. Three out of five children under age six spend an average of 30 hours per week cared for by someone other than their parents. Most of those paid caregivers are women who earn less than $10 an hour.
There are two problems here: that care work is undervalued and that care work is seen as women’s work. Of course, in our decidedly non-post-feminist society, “undervalued” and “women’s work” often go hand-in-hand.
In order to address the first problem, we must push for public interventions that will increase the value of care work, such as raising the wages of care workers and making paid child-care both more affordable for working parents and more lucrative for providers. On the second problem, we must do more to question the gendered nature of care work and raise boys with the expectation that they are just as likely to be caregivers as breadwinners. Continually framing this conversation in terms of women does nothing to change the presumption that care work is their sole province.
Sending the message that child–rearing is not important or valuable work does not further feminism’s broader goals.
Like Hirschmann, I am skeptical that public-policy changes alone are going to solve the care crunch facing most women. But it is worth noting that in the United States we have enacted barely any of the interventions that might stand a chance. Paid family leave is a luxury afforded to few workers. The wage gap and workplace sexism persist, meaning women have greater incentive than men to leave their jobs to become full-time parents. The cost of childcare remains prohibitively high.
There are some simple policies that would make it easier on women to stay in the workforce—the standard things feminists have spent decades arguing for: an expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the childcare tax credit, better flextime and shift-swapping options. Thinking even bigger, what about mandatory maternity and paternity leave? That would eliminate the stigma of taking time off work to raise children. Right now most of our work-family policy primarily serves the people who already have the widest range of childcare options.
Hirschmann advises that women “care a little less,” but this is fairly meaningless for the majority of women who feel they do not have an option to care less. A simple refusal to pick up the slack at home is not any more feasible for many upper-class women than opting out of the workforce is for lower-income women. Who is blamed when the kids miss soccer practice or forget to bring treats for the class? Hirschmann makes a persuasive case that valuing care work reinforces a domestic dynamic that is much harder on women than on men and exacerbates broader sexist trends in our society. But sending the message that child-rearing is not important or valuable work does not further feminism’s broader goals, either.
Care feminism may harm its own public- interest rationale by arguing that child-rearing should be highly valued because the next generation of good citizens depends on it. This is simplistic, and Hirschmann is right to point out that there is nothing inherent in care that produces good citizens. But the debate about whether caregiving produces good citizens seems beside the point. The fact is children need to be cared for. Babies can’t feed themselves. The public should be interested in care work not as a means to create good citizens, but to create citizens, period. In other words, there is a public-interest rationale for care feminism, it just isn’t the one that some feminists, including Hirschmann, think it is. It is wholly unsurprising that parents of all socioeconomic levels are, as Hirschmann puts it, “interested in helping their kids get as much as they can and succeed economically, not in turning their children into public-minded citizens.” I don’t blame them.
Women who already feel squeezed by social and economic pressure to be both caregivers and earners will only be alienated by a feminism that tells them their personal choices are impeding the progress of their entire gender. The solution is to work on multiple fronts: to educate men, to raise the next generation with different gender expectations, to enact social policies that push women to keep their careers and ensure that caregivers are well compensated.
As Hirschmann acknowledges, family dynamics won’t change until “women . . . become stronger on individualist terms”—the very goal of feminism. For those of us who are able to step back and see the broader political ramifications of individual women’s decisions, it can be difficult to respect those decisions. But I don’t want to be a part of a feminism that doesn’t.