Friday, October 17, 2008

Just the usual rant, maybe something better tomorrow

The Washington Post published this letter today, which I really liked:

"I do not care about "Joe the Plumber" ["A Hard-Hitting Final Round," front page, Oct. 16]. What about Josephine? Both of the presidential campaigns target "Middle America." The campaigns apparently see this so-called battleground demographic as overwhelmingly white and male. Yawn.

I protest on behalf of America's women, who often work two or more jobs (one of which may be caring for husbands and children) while striving for education, balancing chores with the demands of work outside the home and, to top it off, wondering whether they are getting equal pay for equal work. I am disturbed by "Joe" and the two campaigns.

I will graduate soon with a PhD from American University. I know women in my field are paid less than men. I know that as a woman, wife, mother and scholar, the challenges I will face in obtaining tenure are different from the challenges that the men around me will face.

I have worked as a waitress, third-shift staffer in a grocery store, secretary and fast-food-restaurant employee. I know how fortunate I am to be achieving my educational dreams. When the campaigns focus on some "Joe" whose life holds no resemblance to mine, I fear that neither Sen. Barack Obama's nor Sen. John McCain's promises about education and employment will come true. I hope I am not the last of a generation to be able to overcome her lower-than-working-class upbringing in Middle America. If I am, I will be even more depressed than I was after hearing Wednesday night's debate.

Kim Moloney (Reston VA)"

I agree.  The last 8 years have been about listening to Joe the Plumber, and his life holds very little resemblance to that of women in this country.  Joe appears to be focused on income thresholds and taxes, on being obstreperous and confrontational.  Joe's vision of the American Dream is what?  Owning a business and being left alone.  Owning a business free of regulatory interference (he's not licensed).  Owning a business and retreating into his own shell.

In the white male America of Joe the Plumber (where everyman is his own New Hampshire--'don't tread on me'), you're supposed to fight like hell against constraint. That's a version of the American Dream, to lead a life free of constraint.  No one says to Joe that if he didn't want to make a high income subject to taxes, he shouldn't have gone into plumbing or tried to own his own business.  No one asks him if plumbing is just too hard a job or asks why he thinks he might be ready to own his own business if the investment's so steep.  No one questions whether it's rational for him to try to achieve his version of the American Dream.

I doubt women (mothers, really, I guess) have any unified vision of the American Dream.  But it's got to involve the reality of raising children and how that impacts education, earnings, marriages, and aspirations.  The realization, for instance, that having a child may give others the opportunity to block your aspirations--and that opposition might come from any quarter of the political world.  That, somehow, children diminish you in a way that they do not diminish your male peers.

It reminds me that I often feel completely at odds with much of the political talk (or lack thereof) about women, from a sense of alienation from the mayhem of the abortion debate to a sense of disbelief that most pundits and other political hacks just don't seem to understand maintaining viable work options for mothers is a critical part of economic recovery.  Women who are barred from career advancement because of the fact of their children are then unable to support their families as the need arises at different stages for different types of women.

Too often, American politicians simply stigmatize, or talk down to, women with children: we don't need economic survival tools, or a level playing field, or flexible work, or healthcare that's both decoupled from particular jobs and offers traditional full coverage.  No--we're just told that politicians respect our "choices" without recognizing our constraints.  How about an education system that allows access to elite schools for qualified undergraduate mothers?  How about a federal educational grant system that takes into account childcare when assessing financial need?  How about real tax credits for childcare instead of the mere gallant gesture that is offered today?  

No, what we apparently need is some kind of weird paternalism that wants to construct the reality of having children as some kind of daffy, misguided 'choice' for which we are held responsible, but not the men who 'chose' to contribute half the DNA for that effort.  Articles I link to above demonstrate some evidence for that fact that employers will always assume that men, regardless of their actual family obligations, will have access to some kind of support from caregivers that will enable those men to be ideal workers.  See, this kind of post-RvW feminist talk is good for men, too.  But female workers with children are conflated with their caregiving responsibilities, and, therefore, not reliable or dependable, or even, frankly, smart.

At the end of Pamela Stone's book, Opting Out, she brings up the work of other sociologists in discussing "the career mystique" and the "tyranny of time norms" as the true obstacles and constraints to women's participation in the workforce in a meaningful, advancement-laden way: "time norms and the time bind they create lay the groundwork for a time divide that is the new foundation for gender inequality."  Is it any surprise that workplace expectations in terms of time commitment and 24-hour availability have coincided with the significant influx of female workers into the professions and highly paid jobs that began in earnest in the 1980s?  This, despite the development of technology that should have eased some of these expectations.  

My version of the American Dream involves being valued for my accomplishments regardless of timetables, being paid commensurate with a broader definition of experience and skills, and having in place social policies that enable workforce participation in a serious, sustained way.  Healthcare and childcare--or social security credit for caregiving--do not make me dependent, they enable me to earn my own way in society, stand on my own two feet, and avoid a life-altering dependence on others.  


K said...

Thanks. Nice comments. I agree. Just like I feel 'soccer mom' was an insult in the 1990s. As if that was the ONLY way to describe a certain group of women voters at the time. Argh.

Kim (the WP author)

jeneva said...

Thanks, Kim! I'm glad you liked the column. I thought your letter was great! Glad you found the post. Best of luck with the rest of your studies. I have a PhD, too. Hope you're through the defense.