To hell with opting out

Finally, we're paying attention to the working women who actually need to work.

By Amy Benfer

Published June 10, 2009 10:11AM (EDT)

If there’s an upside to living in a time when people are feeling more broke than usual, it’s that writers on family life are becoming far more curious about people who sat out the boom years — if that’s what they were — feeling pretty broke all along. Last week, we pointed out that even Lisa Belkin of the New York Times had declared an end to the era of overparenting. Taking a cue from the title of Belkin’s most famous article, a series in the American Prospect this week titled “When Opting Out Isn’t an Option” takes a long overdue look at the women who make up the vast majority of women who work.

“For too long,” writes Heather Boushey in her introduction to the series, “the narrative about working women has centered on professionals with children.” These women, she points out, make up only about 10 percent of women aged 25 to 44. And yet throughout the past decade, the other 90 percent of female workers were largely absent from what we talked about when we talked about women who work. It may be, Boushey concedes, that it was much “sexier” to trump up a false war between those who “chose” to stay at home and those who “chose” to work because at least it gave us something to argue about. “After all,” she writes, “most women must balance work with caregiving. They don’t have the option of opting out. Where’s the debate in that?”

Now that even those high-earning professional couples we hear so much about are having a tough time keeping up with their discretionary spending, it’s a very good time indeed to step back and separate the luxuries from the basics. Writes Boushey:

The recession is an opportune moment to refocus the narrative about women and work on the majority of women who work — those who don’t have multiple degrees or high-power careers. The women who are housecleaners, caregivers, night-shift workers. The women who are stuck in occupations that are primarily female — without union representation or competitive pay. The women who never had a 401(k) in the first place.

You’d think that other publications would have followed suit. But instead, “the dominant story-line about the recession has (surprise!) again been about upper-class women and men.” The New York Times and New York magazine seem to be in an arms race to see who can produce the most stories about laid-off investment bankers (often with retro gender caricatures about the emasculating effects of childcare and the requisite high-maintenance trophy wives). “When hourly wage-earning workers enter these stories,” writes Boushey, it’s usually as ‘perks’ that wealthier families have had to give up — the nanny, the gardener, the nail technician — not as people struggling just to make it through the financial crunch.”

Not so in this package. Far from being “perks” easily redlined out of a downsized budget, the nannies and housecleaners are the focus of Elissa Strauss’ story “Invisible Workers,” which looks at Domestic Workers United’s attempt to unionize New York City’s 200,000 domestic workers, who are not protected by overtime laws, by safety and health regulations, or against discrimination (Broadsheet contributor Lynn Harris' recent Salon interview with the author of "Just Like Family" also touches on this subject.) In “Pink-Collar Blues,” Dana Goldstein points out that the recession might be an opportunity to integrate more women into higher-paying, traditionally male blue-collar professions and lays out concrete ways in which the economic stimulus package could do so. During the years we were reading about professional women choosing to stay home with their children, other families were compensating for the high cost of childcare by doing “tag-team” or “split-shift” parenting, in which family members would alternate shifts — often with one partner taking the evening or late-night shift — in order to have someone home with the children at all times. “Outside the 9-to-5,” by Janet C. Gornick, Harriet B. Presser and Caroline Batzdorf, looks at the special protections needed for the one in five American workers who works nonstandard hours. Low-wage workers are the least likely to get family leave and, since they can’t afford to hire someone else to do it for them, the most likely to need it. In “A Family-Leave Safety Net,” Heather Boushey looks at ways we can catch up to the rest of the developed world and make paid time off an option for all, not just a lucky bonus for a few.

The relentless focus on professional women’s “choice” in work over the past decade has fed the myth that working for pay is somehow more of an optional exercise in self-actualization than what the vast majority of adults must do to quite literally feed and shelter themselves and their families. This series of articles not only rightly insists that we focus our attention on the women who need it most, but also offers well-researched, concrete suggestions that can help get us there. Let’s hope it’s part of a new trend.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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