Over the past year, as many of my friends began taking maternity leaves, I stepped away from office work for another reason: At 31, I was chronically ill.
The episodic migraines I’ve dealt with since childhood had “transformed,” as neurologists say. By this past February, I was in pain nearly 100 percent of the time, and the drugs that had once helped me had become less and less effective, perhaps from overuse. The sensation was that of a screw being tightened into my left eye. Many weekdays ended with me fighting nausea as I gripped a subway pole on my 45-minute commute and then, once home, immediately falling into bed, using sleep aids to dull the pain.
Something had to give. I asked for, and received, a leave of absence from my unusually compassionate employer, and have since transitioned to freelancing from home. My new schedule allows me to take fewer drugs, experiment with new treatments, and—blessedly—lie down when I am hurting. Still, admitting I needed time away from work I love (and that I might not have been able to take this time out if my husband didn’t have a great job) struck a blow to my feminist self-conception.
So I am grateful to Anne-Marie Slaughter, who has written a big new book called Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family. The book is about what we usually call “work-life balance,” but Slaughter urges us to think instead in terms of “valuing care”: the work we do nurturing ourselves, our spouses, our children, and our parents. “In economic terms, caregiving is investment in human capital, our most precious asset as a society,” she writes. Slaughter seeks to dismantle what she terms “the competitive mystique”—the idea that jobs in finance and law are more difficult and fulfilling than teaching, nursing, or being a stay-at-home parent. “In the long quest for gender equality, women first had to gain power and independence by emulating men. But as we attain that power and independence, we must not automatically accept the traditional man’s view—which is really the view of only a minority of men—about what matters in the world.”
Slaughter is an international law scholar, former State Department official, and current president of New America. (A couple of disclaimers: In 2011, I received a Schwartz fellowship from New America, before Slaughter worked there; Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.) In the blockbuster 2012 Atlantic magazine cover story that seeded this book—provocatively titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—Slaughter recounted how she passed up the chance for a higher level appointment at the State Department in order to return to her job as a tenured professor at Princeton University, which allowed her to spend more time with her troubled teenage son. Although she has long been well known in foreign policy circles, after the Atlantic piece, Slaughter became famous for admitting that American work culture’s insane expectations around face time and 24/7 email mean that even the most ambitious women are pulled away from their careers “not just by duty, but by desire” to focus on their private lives.
Unfinished Business offers a meaningful correction to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which seemed to assume that smart women want, above all else, to rise to the top of organizations as they are currently construed. For Slaughter, it is organizations—not women—that need to change, from the family to the workplace to the government. Evolving to value care would mean that men do as much, if not more, housework and child care as women (and that women learn to cede control at home and allow men to step up). It would also mean that businesses stop punishing workers who demand time for personal matters; they would retain and even promote people who work from home or take parental leaves. The government would help citizens access affordable child care, would make paid leave a legal right, and would ensure that professional care workers, such as child care providers and home health aides, earn a living wage and have access to high-quality training. In other words, the United States would become less “exceptional” on the world stage and would provide some of the supports that are standard in Sweden, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands.
We have a long way to go. When I decided to leave my office job, I got seven weeks of partial pay from short-term disability insurance, a benefit fewer than 40 percent of American workers have access to. Only 13 percent of American workers have the ability to take a leave of absence in which their employer will directly pay some or all of their salaries, even after childbirth. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which became law in 1993, guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but only for the 60 percent of workers who have worked a year or longer for a company with more than 50 employees.
Why is the U.S. so uncaring? If I have a quibble with Slaughter’s book, it’s that her causality is off. Noting that older career women seemed to be some of the harshest judges of her decision to leave her job at the State Department, she argues that feminism, despite being “one of the great struggles for human freedom of the twentieth century,” has helped make “a fetish of income-generating work as a foundation of self-worth.” She asserts that the women’s movement neglected to place value on the labor women have traditionally done caring for the home, children, and the elderly, whether they did so within their own families or as domestic workers.
This may be an accurate critique of Sandberg’s Lean In or Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, books that Slaughter takes issue with. But prominent women’s right activists, including Jane Addams of Hull House and Anna Julia Cooper, the writer and teacher who was born a slave, have been advancing a care-based women’s movement since the 19th century—one that recruited ambitious women to teaching and child care work while simultaneously demanding that government do more to provide for families. There were moments of hope. During the Great Depression, the federal government launched the Emergency Nursery Schools program, which provided good teaching jobs for women and child care for the kids of working moms. But policymakers stopped funding the nursery schools in 1946, under the assumption that women would prefer to stay home once their husbands returned from World War II. In doing so, they ignored a letter-writing campaign from thousands of mothers, who said they wanted to continue working but were dependent on the nursery schools in order to do so.
Second-wave feminism attempted to resurrect many of these issues. When the National Organization of Women was launched in 1966, its statement of purpose called for “a nationwide network of child-care centers” and “national programs to provide retraining for women who have chosen to care for their children full-time.” The Women’s Strike for Equality, a gathering of thousands of feminists on New York City’s Fifth Avenue in 1970, demanded 24-hour day care for all mothers, in addition to abortion rights and professional advancement for women.
President Nixon came into office supporting the idea of a federal day care program. But in 1971, he vetoed the only universal child care bill to ever pass Congress. He flip-flopped after the then-emerging Christian right organized massive resistance to federal day care, arguing it would usurp parental control over children and favor dual-income couples over “traditional” families in which only the father worked outside the home. During the Reagan years, an attempt by feminist and child welfare groups to reintroduce federally regulated and funded child care died again, in the face of opposition from anti–Equal Rights Amendment crusader Phyllis Schlafly, Reagan adviser and Family Research Council president Gary Bauer, and congressional Republicans.
Since then, tax credits for child care have periodically passed through Congress. The problem with tax credits, however, is that they do not ensure either access or quality, and demand for affordable, high-quality child care far outstrips supply.
In short, the story of feminist attempts to push America to support care-taking is largely a story of repeated failure in the face of organized opposition from the Christian right, fiscal conservatives, and often, from the business community as well (which largely opposed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993). In the view of political scientist Kimberly Morgan, author of Working Mothers and the Welfare State, to the extent American feminist politics ended up focusing on legal abortion more than day care, it was because the pro-choice movement, with its whiff of libertarianism, was more unified across class lines, and its goals more achievable. Many affluent women have no problem procuring the sick leave, maternity leave, or child care they need. Raising taxes to ensure access to these “benefits” is explicitly redistributionist.
Slaughter believes we can overcome this logjam. In a brief, relatively bipartisan chapter on public policy, she considers it hopeful that the Department of Defense provides child care to service members on a sliding scale by income, a possible national model. She doesn’t grapple with the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs maintains an excellent, essentially single-payer health care system, yet political pressure spiked Obamacare’s “public option” early on. The insinuation was that such a program would be akin to socialism.
She also makes a case for electing more female politicians of both parties, pointing out that conservative women, such as Megyn Kelly, are more likely to support paid maternity leave than conservative men are. Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison favor tax and retirement incentives for stay-at-home caretakers. Yet will conservative officials, media figures, and voters support policies that assist poor women of color, and those women’s children, as much as policies that assist Fox News anchors and married, white, stay-at-home moms? The lessons of the 1996 welfare reform bill, which pushed poor women to work without guaranteeing them access to quality child care, suggest not. Slaughter highlights that New Jersey “under Chris Christie” offers six weeks of partially paid family leave. But it was Christie’s predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, who signed that law in 2008; what’s more, Christie opposes mandatory paid sick days. Most of the GOP presidential field simply has an appalling record on family and medical leave.
It’s true that Hillary Clinton, Slaughter’s former State Department boss, has made paid family and medical leave a centerpiece of her presidential campaign. President Obama has called for making more Americans eligible for Family and Medical Leave Act protections. His 2015 budget proposal would provide new child care subsidies for poor families and would triple the child care tax credit for families with incomes up to $120,000. Even Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio is proposing a tax credit for companies that offer paid family and medical leave.
Still, with Congress fixated on defunding Planned Parenthood, these common-sense proposals feel like a long shot. Much of America’s “unfinished business” on gender, work, and family is political and cultural, deeply entwined with racial and class animosity, with resistance to progressive taxation, and with the amount of power that religious conservatives wield in one of our major parties. How will we overcome this during an era of entrenched partisanship? I’m not sure. And unlike Slaughter, I’m not optimistic.