Devaluing care work — and women

Protections for care workers and paid sick days are off the political agenda, and women are paying the price

Topics: Family, Feminism, women, care work, domestic workers,

Devaluing care work -- and women (Credit: Rob Marmion via Shutterstock)

Last week, Mitt Romney made a clueless comment that by rights should have been added to the list of “gaffes” guaranteed to widen his wedge with female voters, but went generally unnoticed.

“It’s an advantage to have two parents,” Romney said at NBC News’ Education Nation Summit, “but to have one parent to stay closely connected and at home during those early years of education can be very, very important.”

Important? Maybe. Feasible for the vast majority of American families, be they two-parent or another configuration? Ha, ha, ha, as Romney himself might put it. As the National Organization for Women’s Erin Matson tweeted with some understatement, “This is not a gender-neutral statement.” Romney’s rhetoric, if not his policy prescriptions, was getting at something fundamental, something that even in the mostly substance-free fracas over whether Ann Romney staying at home was “work,” hasn’t been part of the national discussion.

“Once upon a time, we lived in a world where men engaged in paid work and women stayed home and took care of the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled,” says Nancy Folbre, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the editor of the recent book “For Love and Money: Care Provision in the United States.”

We no longer live in that world, for reasons that go well beyond women’s individual fulfillment (though that matters too!), including stagnating real wages and loss of worker protections in traditionally male jobs that once provided a “family wage.” But you wouldn’t know that looking at the American workplace, still structured as it is around the assumption that someone is at home to care for those who can’t care for themselves. And even in this election year of tailoring messages to women, the failure of the economy to catch up to household realities is scarcely on the table — not for Republicans, of course, but not for too many Democrats either. Given how women still pick up most of the slack on care work, even when they’re in the paid workforce, this is as much a feminist issue as reproductive rights are.

In fact, two policy prescriptions that are catching on across the country – modest by the standards of other industrialized nations, but radical enough to inspire feverish opposition from Chamber of Commerce types — have recently been opposed by Democrats apparently seeking to appear “pro-business.”  One is the domestic worker’s bill of rights, which passed in New York state in 2010 but was vetoed by California Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday. It would have provided overtime pay and meal breaks to the 200,000 childcare workers and housecleaners — disproportionately women of color, many of them immigrants — who are currently filling the care gap in a relatively ad-hoc fashion. Brown claimed in his veto that he had questions about “the economic and human impact on the disabled or elderly person and their family” and whether this would mean fewer jobs for domestic workers overall.

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Meanwhile, the New York City Council has enough votes to pass a paid sick-days bill to override a veto from Mayor Michael Bloomberg — if only Democratic mayoral aspirant and current speaker Christine Quinn would bring it to a vote. A spokeswoman for Quinn told the Times last week, “Given the current economic reality, now is not the right time for this policy.”

“It’s distressing when even Democrats buy into a worldview that is so cruel to low-wage women and their families, and so short-sighted economically,” says Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, which is working to pass the bill. “Supporting low-wage families is good policy. Governor Brown’s veto is a disgrace. Speaker Quinn still has a chance to do better.” Supporters of the bill point to research showing no ill effects for businesses in San Francisco, which has required businesses to offer paid sick days since 2007, and that in the long run, these provisions can make workers better and healthier employees who are less likely to turn over. “They say the sky will fall, business will flee, it will destroy economic development. Well, guess what, it didn’t happen,” says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, who points out that similar measures have also been passed in Washington, D.C., Seattle and statewide in Connecticut.

Both the domestic workers rights and the paid sick leave bills have drawn the attention of high-profile feminists like Gloria Steinem, who has said she won’t support Quinn for mayor unless the paid sick days bill is brought to a vote. That stems from a recognition that care work has been devalued partly because they’re historically done by women for free, and that though all workers can benefit from paid sick days, women tend to be the ones to take time off to take care of a sick child or parent.

So far, even the Obama campaign’s pitch to women has been about access to healthcare and, to a more limited extent, fair pay; family leave policies remain marginal. And even though parenting is a hot-button issue, it’s seen as a private, consumer choice, divorced from policy except in the most cursory way. As Jessica Valenti writes in her new book, “Why Have Kids, “Mommy blogs organize to take down diaper ads but are largely silent on the lack of paid maternity leave. They’ll complain about unfair division of labor at home yet rarely link their husband’s dirty laundry to the larger political system that tells women they’re better suited for housework.”

That’s an order that suits families like Mitt and Ann Romney’s, with one extremely high earner — in their case, and often elsewhere, a man — making possible the private, unpaid care of five children and the private, paid care for Ann when she was struggling with disability and illness. Families like Barack and Michelle Obama’s might theoretically see it differently: Michelle, who became a lawyer juggling family responsibilities, is the daughter of a lower-middle-class worker who became disabled and a stay-at-home mom, and Obama, who by public accounts is an involved dad, is the son of a single mother. And yet paid family leave or increased worker protections still are treated like some sort of progressive pipe dream, an if-only-we-were-Nordic fantasy. (There is, however, a petition underway to get Jim Lehrer to ask Romney and Obama about family leave insurance and sick time in the debate).

“It’s easier to sell rights,” says author and professor Folbre dryly. “The rhetoric of rights for women is relatively cheap, whereas the rhetoric of support for carework involves more redistribution.”

That’s a dirty word these days, what with all the talk of the 47 percent of the country that are allegedly moochers — many of them women — but Folbre argues that it’s about social insurance: productive workers pooling resources for the vulnerable, which they might someday be themselves. And, she says, as long as women are still doing a disproportionate share of care work, either paid or unpaid, the tax code could redistribute that too — from wealthy men like Romney who are invisibly benefiting from all that cheap labor in so many ways.

The current system is fueled by income inequality and helps compound gender inequality, as average workers in uncertain times are afraid to push for more and women tend to be the ones who adjust accordingly. But as Bravo puts it, “There are a lot more men who would be good fathers, sons and husbands if they weren’t punished for it.”

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

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