Am I Exploiting My Nanny?
Dear Caitlin and Sara,
Caitlin, you haven't been dipping into those Manhattans prematurely, have you? If your 10,000 word piece was about how employers should pay their nannies' Social Security taxes, then my reading skills are in serious decline. And if Sara and I "changed the subject" from Social Security, I think I speak for both of us when I say you have no argument on that subject with us. It is in fact illegal not to pay the nanny's Social Security tax, and I somehow doubt that the readers of the Atlantic are such a bunch of scofflaws that they needed any reminding on that point. Yes, by all means, pay that tax—and don't run any red lights either!
If we're allowed to stray from the subject of Social Security, I'd like to take up another point you make somewhere in this exchange: that women naturally hire other women to do housework and childcare, rather than getting their husbands to pitch in, because men don't do it right, or don't have as high standards as women. Is this a known fact? If so, I am a tragic exception. In fact, the biggest complaint the men in my life have had (I hope the biggest complaint!) has to do with my somewhat sketchy standards in the housekeeping department. (A good reason not to lionize me for doing my own housework; in my case, it isn't exactly a high-stress job.) Recently I remarked on how neat my son's apartment is, saying, "You didn't get that from me." "Well, umm, Mom," he replied, "Actually, in a way I did." Which was kind of devastating, I must say.
Furthermore, you say you love men. Well, I love and have loved a few of them myself—enough to know they're not such dummies that they can't learn the technology of a vacuum cleaner or remember to pick up the artwork as well as the kid from nursery school. The tiredest old excuse men have for not doing their share is "But honey, you do it so much better." To which the correct response is, "But sweetheart, you can learn!" My guys always have learned, or, more commonly, had the appropriate skill set when I took up with them. Call me a feminist dinosaur, but I'm not willing to let men off the hook yet!
Also, what makes you think that the person you hire possesses, just by virtue of being female, the same upper-middle-class standards that you have? Sorry; these things are not genetically imprinted, and I tend to think your husband, Caitlin, has more in common with you standards-wise than, say, an immigrant woman from rural Mexico. In respect to childcare, my collaborator Arlie Hochschild has been interviewing immigrant nannies and finding some of them amazed at how attention-intensive upper-class American childraising is. It's not how they were brought up, nor of course how they bring up their own children—should they get to see their children at all.
Finally, you say you're ready to join the feminist movement. Welcome! But you don't need to submit a résumé and a credit report to get in. In fact, I'd like to introduce you to some of the toughest feminists I know, none of whom come close to your class credentials: My pink-collar sister, for example, or my aunt in Oregon who's just retired from her secretarial job and raises her grandchildren. (Try any snideness about feminism with them and they'll bite your head off!) Or the 102 Yale hospital and clerical workers with whom I got arrested in December, protesting Yale's failure to provide childcare. Or the doughty gals who are bringing the sex-discrimination suit against Wal-Mart. Or the stalwart moms of the welfare rights movement. Or the restaurant worker I wrote about in Nickel and Dimed, who took me aside to warn me about the perfidies of the male sex. And on and on.
We feminists never said, as you assert in your article, that women comprise a single, homogeneous "class" and are proud to have built up a movement that includes women of different classes and races. You'll like us. But instead of Manhattans, we might, on average, prefer white zin.
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.