Women's work: America's social safety net is built on sexist exploitation

Sociologist Jessica Calarco on how our "DIY society" punishes women — and how changing that will help all of us

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published June 9, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

A registered nurse administers the COVID-19 vaccine into the arm of a woman at the Corona High School gymnasium in the Riverside County city of Corona, California on January 15, 2021. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
A registered nurse administers the COVID-19 vaccine into the arm of a woman at the Corona High School gymnasium in the Riverside County city of Corona, California on January 15, 2021. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

"Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women." When sociologist Jessica Calarco said that in an interview for Anne Helen Petersen's Culture Study newsletter in November of 2020, it struck a nerve in a country still staggering under the weight of COVID. 

Calarco was discussing her research on inequalities in family life and education, which had resulted in two papers on the impact of the pandemic. She concluded that event hadn’t actually created new problems, but rather intensified existing ones. That quote became the interview’s headline, was referenced by dozens of news outlets, and widely tweeted before editor Leah Trouwborst asked Calarco to turn her research into a book. The result is “Holding It Together: How Women Became America’s Safety Net,” which personalizes her research through vivid individual examples and places it in a broader historical and comparative context.

In that 2020 interview, Calarco recalled how legendary sociologist C. Wright Mills “described using a ‘sociological imagination’ as seeing how individual human lives are shaped both by ‘history and biography,’” in contrast to the way our individualistic society "promotes individual solutions to deeply structural problems." In her book, Calarco exemplifies what Mills meant, both in the ways she tells individual stories drawn from hundreds of women and how she weaves them into the larger story of American history from the New Deal to the present, occasionally drawing contrasts with European countries that have more robust safety nets. 

She first lays out the landscape of challenges women face, which does not get dramatically more secure even with advanced degrees and relatively higher pay. She then surveys the myths that keep us from fixing things the way other countries have done, and concludes with a hard look at how we could change that. This interview with Calarco was conducted by Zoom and has been edited for clarity and length. 

Your book begins with the little-known story of how Congress created an affordable national child care system during World War II — and then dismantled it. How did that happen, and why did you choose to start there? 

The child care crisis — the current lack of affordable child care for families — illustrates how we rely on mothers to fill in gaps in our economy and our social safety net. So looking back in time and finding a moment when we did create a child care system on a national level is a way to show that this is possible in the U.S., but that we also have a long track record of pushing this work onto women instead.

During World War II, we needed as many women in the workforce as possible, and that included mothers of young children. But not only did many states have legal policies in place that prevented women with children from working, or made it impossible for them to access all but the most menial jobs, there also wasn't a child care system to rely on. 

So Congress, after some pressure, decided to use funds from the Lanham Act [which authorized defense-related infrastructure projects] to build child care centers in many parts of the U.S. Those offered high-quality, low-cost care for both young children and also school-age children after school and in the summer. The employment rate among mothers with young children went from one in 30 to one in six. 

At the end of the war, almost all of these women wanted to stay in their jobs. But instead we decided to shutter those child care centers and force them back home, in many cases putting back in place those employment bans and using the kinds of cultural attitudes that permeated the 1950s to persuade women their natural place was in the home. 

This laid the groundwork for the kind of policy decisions that we've made subsequently, treating women as this our reserve force of labor, as we saw during COVID. When we need women in the economy, we do things to pull them back in, and when we don't need them in the economy, we're very happy to push them back out again. We treat their labor as something we can toggle up and down depending on the needs and whims of the economy, as opposed to something that we should be investing in and supporting overall. 

In your introduction you describe America as a “DIY society.” What do you mean by that, and how did we become that way? 

Other countries have invested in social safety nets to help manage risk. They use taxes and regulations, especially on wealthy people and corporations, to protect people from falling into poverty, to give people a leg up in reaching economic opportunities and also to help ensure that people have the time and energy to contribute to a shared project of care, to take care of their homes and their children and even themselves. In the U.S. we try to DIY society: We cut taxes, we slash huge holes in the meager safety net that we do have and we tell people that if they just make good choices, they won't need government support to take care of their families or themselves. 

"When we need women in the economy, we do things to pull them back in, and when we don't need them in the economy, we're very happy to push them back out again. We treat their labor as something we can toggle up and down." 

But the problem is that we can't actually DIY society. Forcing people to manage all that risk on their own has left many American families and communities teetering on the edge of collapse, really struggling to make it through. And yet I argue in the book that we haven't collapsed, in part, because we've pushed women into the position of holding it together, filling in the gaps both in our economy and in our social safety net. 

You write that the DIY society is an illusion that seems real because of the magic that women perform, and the first three chapters about how we get women to do that magic. It begins with making them mothers-in-waiting: Grooming them for motherhood and turning motherhood into a trap, which you elucidate through the stories of four different women. Tell us about one of those mothers and how she illustrates the problem.

In the U.S. we figured out that one of the most effective ways to push people into low-paying jobs, and into doing a disproportionate share of the unpaid caregiving work, is by officially making them responsible for children and then leaving them with nowhere to turn for support and also nowhere to hide when other people ask them to try to take on even more. 

One woman I discuss wasn't a biological mother herself when she became responsible for young children. She was a teenager when her older brother and his girlfriend became addicted as part of the opioid crisis. So the Department of Child Services had taken their two children away and given them to the woman I spoke to, and her mother, as their primary caregivers. The grandmother was already working for pay as a home health aide, working two low-wage jobs to make ends meet for her family. 

So caring for these two young children fell to the 18-year-old, who had plans of going to college, plans of finding a different life path for herself, but suddenly found herself as a mother at a very young age and ultimately also had to take a part-time job as a health aide. This was the best job available to her, as someone without a college degree and with high levels of care work responsibility, essentially working an overnight shift as a home health aide. That was often deeply demeaning and difficult work, especially in terms of how it was paid, yet she didn't feel like she had a choice. So it shows how women can get pulled into being responsible for the unpaid caregiving labor of supporting other people and their families and their communities, and also how being in those kinds of positions can push women into doing a disproportionate share of the underpaid labor in our economy too. 

Your second chapter, “Leaving Women With No Choice,” starts by saying that once they’re caught in the motherhood trap “it doesn’t take much to get women to stand in for the social safety net. All it takes is denying them access to paid family leave and affordable, reliable childcare." The most extended example in this chapter is a woman called Erin, whom you describe as the typical white, married stay-at-home mother. What's her story, and what does it tell us? 

She never intended to be a stay-at-home mom. But she was pushed into that role by what I talk about in the book as the missing middle of child care. In the U.S. we do have child care subsidies, but they're only for very low-income families, usually with incomes below $30,000 a year in most states. At the other end of the spectrum, if you're going to pay full price for care that's easily going to cost $1,000 or $2,000 or sometimes more per month per child. So millions of American families can't afford to pay for child care, but make too much to qualify for subsidies. 

As a result, and because of gender pay gaps, it's often women who end up sacrificing their paid work when the family figures out that they would actually be cash-negative if they actually pay for child care. That's how we ended up in a situation I talk about in the book, where almost 75% of stay-at-home moms in the U.S. have household incomes under $50,000 a year. It's not because that's where they’ve chosen to be, necessarily, but because it's the best financial option for their families, given the high cost of child care. That was very much the case for Erin. 

"One of the most effective ways to push people into low-paying jobs, and into doing a disproportionate share of the unpaid caregiving work, is by making them responsible for children and then leaving them with nowhere to turn for support."

She and her husband had dropped out of college, in part because college costs got too high — another common story for many of the families we talked to. He was working in a mining job, trying to work his way up, and she was working at a grocery store before they got pregnant. When they did have kids, neither of them had access to paid leave, they couldn't find affordable child care and they didn't have family members who could help them, in part because their own parents were working well into their 60s and 70s to be able to afford possibly having the chance of retiring. So the only way they could afford to have kids was if Erin quit her job to stay home, because she was making less money. 

They actually tried to make it work by having her working a night shift. They worked a split shift where her husband was working during the day for pay and Erin was home with their baby and would go to work on the night shift. But not surprisingly, this was deeply unsustainable. It was hard on their marriage, it was hard on Erin both in terms of lack of sleep and the constant stress of being on call, whether at home or at work. So she ended up dropping out of the workforce to become a stay-at-home mom. She has thought about going back to work many times, but hasn't found a way to make it possible financially. 

In your third chapter you write, “In our DIY society the only way to avoid the risk of precarity is to dump that risk downstream.” You have multiple different stories that illustrate aspects of that. Tell us one of those.

Holly is part of a same-sex married couple. She talks about how she and her wife wanted to divide caregiving responsibilities equally when they were first pregnant and having children, but what they found was, again, this child care crisis. The first spot they were able to find in child care was when their daughter was nine months old. To make it work in the meanwhile, Holly was able to do her work from home, switching to a part-time position where she was working remotely. This was deeply difficult for her, because she wanted to be working for pay full time. She wanted to have her daughter in child care, but there wasn't a good option available. 

When they finally got their daughter into child care, the pandemic hit and child care centers in their community closed. Even when centers began to reopen in late 2020, they were only operating part-time because they had staffing shortages. Holly went to complain and got a lesson in the economics of childcare. The director explained that given the labor intensity of this kind of work, they couldn't afford to pay much more than minimum wage, and couldn't afford to offer their workers health care benefits or paid leave. Many of them had high levels of medical debt, credit card debt and financial precarity within their own lives. So those who had been able to find better jobs during the pandemic had left, and they were having trouble filling those jobs. 

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For Holly, this created a tremendous amount of guilt. She felt guilty that she was only able to get ahead in her own career because of what she saw as exploitation of other women, particularly women of color who were doing this work of caring for her daughter. And yet, at the same time, she couldn't see a way around it.

The second part of your book is called “Why We Haven’t Fixed This and How We Could.” You have four chapters, each dealing with misleading narratives of different kinds. The first of those is the “good choices” narrative. What does that argue, and how do your examples poke holes in it? 

We often tell people in general, and women in particular, that if they just make good choices, if they go to college and major in the right career field, if they pursue a high-paying job, if they find the right guy to get married to and if they wait to have children until after they take all these other steps, they'll avoid the hardships that other women complain about. But the reality is that correlation is not causation, in the sense that these kinds of "good choices" are most available to people who are most privileged.

Even when people are able to make those choices, that doesn't necessarily guarantee they will pay off. One mom, Lillian, was raised in an upper-middle-class white family. She had support from her family going to college and was able to get degrees in counseling and a job working for a social service agency. She met and married a man who is a South African immigrant, and he was struggling to finish his college degree in order to find a decent paid job. 

So she's the primary breadwinner for their family, and they ended up on Medicaid, struggling financially. She wasn't making much more than $30,000 a year when she had to take time off after her children were born because of health complications. She didn't have access to paid leave for that extended period, and her husband wasn't making enough to support their family on his own salary, while also trying to finish his college degree. 

It was deeply upsetting for Lillian that she had to go to these offices to sign up for welfare programs and social service programs, and see many of the people that she had counseled in her previous job, or people that she knew from her community. She felt like a failure facing these kinds of hardships, despite, in theory, making all these right choices, going to college, getting a master’s degree, getting married and waiting to have children. It still didn’t pay out in the end. 

Chapter 5 is on “The Meritocracy Myth,” which encourages us to assume that people who are struggling simply haven't tried hard enough. 

This, again, gets to the idea that we presume that good choices will save people: If they work hard enough, have the right mindset, they'll be successful. But this is a privilege story, in the sense that hard work often translates into success only in the context of relatively high levels of privilege. The way this myth operates, though, is that it leads people who would benefit from a stronger social safety net, people who are just above the cutoff for these social programs, to perceive themselves as morally superior to those who rely on the social safety net, rather than saying, "Hey, let's expand these programs so I can have access to them.”

"We often tell women that if they just make 'good choices,' if they go to college, if they pursue a high-paying job, if they find the right guy and wait to have children, they'll avoid the hardships that other women complain about."

I talk about a mom I call April, who's a white evangelical Christian. Her current household income is only about $30,000 a year and she would very much benefit from expanded social programs, like free college tuition or expanded food stamp benefits or universal health care. But she rejects all of these possibilities. She even insisted that she and her family didn’t need the COVID stimulus payments they got because — this is where she drew on these meritocratic tropes — she believed other women who received those supports were spending money on things like getting their nails done, or going out partying and hiring babysitters. She insisted that her own frugality, her own good choices, would ensure that her family could get by on a relatively low income and didn't need government support. 

Chapter 6 is “The Venus/Mars Myth,” which refers to a binary, gendered view of skills, temperaments, preferences and needs. This is such a big topic: What's your bottom line? 

The bottom line is that believing that men and women are fundamentally different and that women are happier at home offers a way for men to feel like good guys, and not see themselves as bad guys even when they are exploiting women in their lives or women in their communities to enable them to get ahead at work. We have to acknowledge the role of “ideal worker” norms and overwork pressures in this capitalistic economy, which pressure men to earn as much money as possible to support their families. That pressure is reinforced because of gender paybacks that mean that investing in time for paid work often pays off more for men than it does for women. Unfortunately, the research shows that one of the best ways for men to get ahead in their own careers is to have a wife who does more at home. 

So there's a financial incentive for men to exploit women's labor. But they don't want to feel like bad guys in the process, like they're hurting women by keeping them from having economic opportunities or by forcing them to do a disproportionate share of the housework and child care. One way to do that is by assuming, "Oh, you know, she's just happier doing that kind of work. She's just better at it than I am." That kind of soft sexism, soft sexist ideology, often looks like men praising their wives. 

I talked to one guy who told me, "The day that I'm home with the kids, I can just barely keep focus on keeping them alive. When she's home with the kids, she can do it all. She can do the laundry and housework and cleaning and other things, and keep the kids as happy as possible." That kind of reverence for women's ability to do all these things operates to justify men's underinvestment in their own caregiving responsibilities, and allows them to feel like they're being the heroes even when they're ultimately exploiting women at home. 

The next chapter deals with “The Supermom Myth,” which paints a portrait of children in constant danger, with mothers as the only ones empowered to rescue them. You describe three different forms it takes through the examples of three different women. How do the supermom myth and the lack of a safety net reinforce one another?  

We tell women that they are the natural best protectors of children. This not only shapes the way that men treat women but also leads women to internalize a sense of responsibility to step in whenever they perceive children as being under threat. So one easy way for anyone who wants to manipulate or exploit the labor of women is to create the appearance of a threat to children. 

"Believing that men and women are fundamentally different and that women are happier at home offers a way for men to feel like good guys and not see themselves as bad guys, even when they are exploiting women in their lives or women in their communities."

One way I talk about this is through things like the “critical race theory” panic or the panic around transgender kids, this idea that the public schools are promoting problematic ideologies that are harmful to kids. This is rhetoric that women can be easily motivated by, to feel like they have to stay home, they have to take on more of the parenting, they have to be more vigilant to protect their children from those kinds of potential or perceived threats. 

But it's not the only threat families can perceive. Families also perceive threats to children's ability to reproduce their parents’ class status. A fear of downward mobility can also lead mothers to see themselves as the superheroes, the ones who have to step in to save their children, to rescue them from that kind of potential harm. We can gaslight ourselves into believing that we have to do more than is necessary, and that the only way to keep our children safe is for us to do more of that work, instead of asking how we actually invest in social safety nets to protect our children. 

In Chapter 8, you call attention to the fact that during the COVID pandemic we actually did create a more robust safety net, and came close to creating something more permanent with Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan. You reflect on the failure to do that in light of opposition from billionaires and corporate interests, which leads to your conclusion. So tell us about the way forward. 

We had this moment during the pandemic where we thought we might “build back better.” We actually put in place a number of programs and policies that deeply helped families, things like rent moratoriums that made it possible to stay in housing without worrying about rent payments every month, or the extended child tax credit that lifted millions of kids out of poverty, or even things like universal free lunch. All these protections had huge benefits. 

Yet rather than invest in those and make them permanent, rather than take the kinds of steps promised with Build Back Better — things like universal child care, a higher national minimum wage, guaranteed paid family leave — we abandoned all those efforts. We even pulled back on some of the protections we used to have for families, in terms of things like Medicaid eligibility, things like the Dobbs decision and the rollback of reproductive freedom. 

What I show in the book is that we did so in part because the engineers and profiteers who have orchestrated our current system don't want us to have a stronger social safety net. They profit from the fact that we don't, and that we rely on women's unpaid and underpaid labor to fill in those gaps. It means we don't have to raise taxes to the level you'd need to fund those kinds of safety-net programs. 

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In the introduction, I link this back to how we got here, which in the wake of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had a lot to do with the National Association of Manufacturers — a major lobbying organization for big business — trying to figure out how to persuade Americans not to buy into the need for a stronger social safety net. What they found was a group of Austrian economists who were developing what we now call neoliberal economic theory. The core idea is that societies not only don't need a social safety net but they're better off without one, because without that kind of protection people will make choices that will keep themselves safer from risk. 

These ideas have been thoroughly debunked, but they were widely promoted in the U.S., in part because the NAM and its members paid to import those economists and set them up in high-profile academic positions. They trained people like Milton Friedman, who went on to orchestrate massive changes to U.S. policy throughout the second half of the 20th century. They also helped orchestrate massive propaganda campaigns, things like “General Electric Theater,” a widely popular TV program hosted by Ronald Reagan that helped promote these distorted myths, this idea of people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. It persuaded many Americans that we didn't need a social safety net. 

They also orchestrated changes to campaign finance laws that have allowed wealthy people and corporations to leverage their wealth into political power, as we saw with Build Back Better, with people like Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and all the Republicans who voted against the bill receiving large sums of money from big Republican donors or representatives of corporations through super PACs. That's ultimately what killed Build Back Better in Congress.   

But the key is to remember that at least as long as we remain a democracy, there are more of us than there are of them. We could, in theory, vote for politicians and policies that would help us to build a better social safety net. One of the best ways to get there is to reject the myths that delude and divide us, and one of the best ways to do that is to see how care links our fates. All of us need and provide care to others at various points in our lives, and we could all be better positioned to participate in that work, and benefit from strong care networks, if we see that that work affects other people, and that our work is affected by other people's ability and availability as well. 

My hope is that by helping people to see how care links our fates — across race, across gender, across class — and how that kind of a stronger care network or stronger social safety net would benefit all of us, that we can come together across those differences. We can fight for things like universal health care, universal child care, universal paid family leave, which would help to ensure that all of us, regardless of gender, have more time and energy to commit to the shared project of care. 

Finally, what's the most important question I haven’t asked, and what's the answer?

One question I get sometimes is, “Aren't we too big and too diverse to pull this off?” Many Americans perceive that Europe might be able to do large social safety net programs because these are mostly smaller countries that are more homogeneous. We've actually proven that we can do this here. We have Social Security, we have Medicare, both of which were tremendously successful, And we've shown, during World War II, that we can even do this with child care, we can put in place these large national systems and do so effectively and cost-effectively. So that gives me hope. It’s possible to make these kinds of broad-scale changes that will leave us better off, despite the challenges that might be involved.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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