Am I Exploiting My Nanny?

The Male Privilege Problem
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Feb. 18 2004 8:41 AM

Am I Exploiting My Nanny?

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Dear Sara and Caitlin,

Congratulations on the baby, Sara!

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I first came across Caitlin's article while caring for my delightful 2-year old granddaughter at my daughter's house—just to show that I still have a hand in this business. I discovered the magazine while clearing off the kitchen counter and reeled back in horror from the cover line—"How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement." For a moment I took it personally, as a vicious parody of the themes Arlie Hochschild and I address in our anthology Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy. When my daughter got home from work, she picked up the Atlantic, which I had forgotten during the fun game of carrying-Teddy-around-on-my-head, and commenced an icy diatribe against stay-at-home moms who have nothing better to do than bash their hardworking sisters.

All right, Caitlin, I've read it now and know you didn't mean to satirize me or attack my daughter, who is, incidentally, the best mom I have ever seen in action, despite—and, I would say, also because of—her demanding job as a law professor and human rights advocate. In fact you praise and echo some of Global Woman's themes in your article: on the growth of a servant culture among upper-middle-class Americans and the tragic invisibility of the underpaid, overworked servants themselves. Thanks for that; we're on the same general wavelength here except for one big thing: You leave out men. As for you, Sara, you pick up on this but note it only in parentheses. It's a huge and telling omission.

As Arlie and I wrote in our introduction to Global Woman, the upper-middle-class use of domestics does not represent "simply an arrangement among women"—the affluent female employer and her nanny. Our goal as "old libbers" ("old," yes, but please don't trivialize our movement by calling us "libbers"!) was to share the childcare and housework among the adults in the household, boyfriends and husbands included. We lost on that one, or gave up the battle, or whatever. As Arlie found in her book The Second Shift and other sociologists have confirmed, when women moved into the workforce, men never picked up on their share of the domestic work—and, speaking as a total fool for anyone under 3 feet tall, I would add domestic pleasures.

To continue to quote from our introduction: "Rather than saying that immigrant domestics enable relatively affluent women to enter the workforce, it might be fairer to say that they enable affluent men to maintain their privileged status within, or in relation to, their families." If it didn't sound so dog-bites-mannish, the cover line for an article on nannies could have been: "How Female Serfdom Saved Male Privilege." Surely, there was a Mr. Zoe Baird, just as there is a father for Caitlin's twins and for Sara's baby, and they are as much a part of the "nanny wars" as are Caitlin, Sara, or my daughter. Leave out the men who also enjoy the nanny's and maid's services and you are into plain old woman-blaming—in this case, for fairly hideous global inequalities.

All right, it's feminist nanny-employers who are vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy in a way that a lot of clueless men are not—very vulnerable, judging from the defensive tone of Sara's letter. You remember Zoe Baird—the lawyer whose nomination by Clinton for attorney general fell through when it was discovered she hadn't paid her nannies' Social Security. If she, at $500,000 a year, was a feminist and employed her immigrant nanny at $5/hour (these numbers are true), I would be the first to charge her with rank hypocrisy. But is she, was she, a feminist? You do a sneaky or perhaps unconscious bit of elision in your article, Caitlin: You confuse feminism, which is a political movement, with the movement of (upper-middle-class) women into the workforce.

There's a connection, of course: Feminist activism helped open up the professions to women, and many young female aspirants to the professions were feminists. But they're not the same thing. Feminism is not a particular lifestyle, defined by having your own job and checking account, for example. It is a moral stance and one that has always valued the stay-at-home mothers just as much as the corporate strivers. Hence, for example, the feminist resistance (coming from NOW and not just from lefties like me) to welfare reform in the mid-'90s. We felt poor women, like affluent women (and ideally men too), should have the option of staying home with their kids—that the work of caring and nurturing should be valued just as much as flipping burgers, sorting inventory, or cleaning offices at night.

In the golden days of the feminist second wave, our moral vision included high-quality childcare for all. What makes this "nanny war" talk seem a little precious to me is that only about 20 percent of Americans are in any position to contemplate employing a nanny; the rest are scrambling for other, often group, forms of childcare. I was in the latter demographic slice when my kids were tiny. A nanny was simply out of the question, over the top, unaffordable. So, my husband and I put a lot of energy into helping create an infant-care center on the campus where we worked—for students and campus workers as well as faculty like ourselves. One thing that really bothers me about the nanny trend—in addition to the exploitation of so many nannies—is that it has removed the upper-middle class from the struggle for decent, universal childcare, just as the turn to private schools has removed them from the struggle to upgrade our public schools.

And that's an outcome you can't be happy about, Caitlin, if you can seriously advocate that feminists "devote themselves entirely to the real and heartrending struggle of poor women and children in this country." Let's do so, starting with a campaign for safe and loving childcare options for all of our children.

Yours,
Barbara

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author most recently of Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, as well as co-editor of Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy,and the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

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