Saturday, April 14, 2012

Eleven ways of looking at Ann Romney

I’m not going to write a huge amount (UPDATE: I'm going to write more than 1,200 words, so actually that's quite a lot) about Ann Romneygate, because every publication on earth has already covered it with not one but multiple stories apiece. I’ve currently got five on my screen in tabs. I’m already way oversaturated myself with what is essentially a minor kerfuffle, and not particularly eager to add to the glut.

Still, this kerfuffle does center around one of my main issues: how caregiving work is categorized. I’d feel remiss not to address it at all. And I have thoughts about both sides, albeit somewhat contradictory ones.
1.)    I call it Ann Romneygate because Ann Romney, in this metaphor, is the hotel where the break-in occurred, not the G. Gordon Liddy of the episode. Liddy, the original Watergate scandal's villainous protagonist, would in this case be Hilary Rosen, a political professional who remarked that Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life." Just as the Watergate break-in could theoretically have occurred in any hotel (though thankfully it didn’t, because “gate” is much catchier suffix for subsequent scandals than “Holiday Inn Express”), this isn’t really about Ann Romney per se. It’s about rich ladies who can afford to stay home with their children without worrying in the least about the financial consequences (even, most likely, long term, in the case of divorce or widowhood), and who have the resources to hire out any or all child-care tasks, as they choose.

 2.)    There’s no question that Hilary Rosen’s comment was inaccurate. Of course Ann Romney has worked a day in her life. Many days. Call me naive, but I'll bet that nobody on earth, no matter how privileged or protected, reaches age 63 (as of Ann Romney's birthday on Monday) without doing any work whatsoever, not just single but, cumulatively, multiple days’ worth. Let alone a mother of five. Even if it’s just interviewing potential servants. So Rosen was wrong, not to mention impolitic. Hey political professionals, rather than having to pick apart every sentence before you utter it—and, when you fail to perform this task successfully, having your offhand remarks become three-news-cycle blunders and targets of national ridicule—wouldn’t it be easier just to stop making rude remarks? Yes, even about people with whom you disagree politically?
3.)    Sure, I’d like to have caregiving work recognized as, you know, work. So when someone dismissively calls it “not work,” I am obliged to be miffed. People are constantly confusing “doing work that doesn’t bring a paycheck” with “not doing work,” and I’ll take any opportunity to point out that child care does, indeed, entail actual work. Not the hardest work in the world, I'm the first to admit, probably not even as hard most days as being president or running a company, but work nonetheless. You’d think any parent could attest to this. Still, the myth endures.

4.)    On the other hand, I’ve probably said something similar at some point. That’s because in everyday speech, “work” is convenient shorthand for “work outside the home,” “work for pay,” etc. I can understand how the verbal slip occurred. I see what Rosen said as less a damning revelation of disrespect for all mothers than a minor faux-pas (or, at most, a damning revelation of disrespect for Ann Romney).
5.)    And let’s not even get into the situation that inspired Rosen’s ill-considered comment in the first place. She was reacting to the news that Mitt, apparently, sends his wife out to find out what is on the minds of that mysterious special-interest group called “women.” Naturally, Mitt can be expected to understand only what regular voters—i.e., men—have on their minds.  ... Where would I start with this?

6.)    I resent Rosen, both Romneys, and the entire mass media for turning this into yet another situation where people opine that only the most privileged women can “afford” to stay home, anyway. Media proessionals are forever indignantly asserting that this is a choice available only to women occupying a narrow stratospheric strata of the socioeconomic tier. First of all, Census studies show that stay-at-home mothers as a group are actually poorer and less well educated than mothers as a whole (many of them, of course, may not have made deliberate choices to opt out of the workforce, but they are working at home). More to the point, I know plenty of stay-at-home mothers of the middle class, women who choose to be with their children even though they have to pinch pennies to do it but also, at the same time, even though they would qualify for good jobs if so chose. You’d think such women were invisible, yet not so far in the past they used to be known to the media and referred to (albeit patronizingly and one-dimensionally) as soccer moms.

7.)    I’m a Democrat. But I’m pretty sure I’d say the same thing if the parties were reversed.

 8.)    All that said, it’s important to note that the experiences of a stay-at-home mother who possesses, for all practical purposes, unlimited financial resources are inevitably going to be drastically different from those of a stay-at-home mother who can’t afford to hire out work. To pretend that insulting Ann Romney in a work-related way is the equivalent of insulting all mothers at every income level in the exact same way is disingenuous in the extreme. Sure, even if you’re Ann Romney, you still have to figure out how to balance a busy schedule (which Ann Romney undoubtedly has) and time with your children, which can be a struggle, emotionally and practically, at any level of wealth. But what you’re not doing, if you’re Ann Romney, or what at least you would not have to do, is the labor that typically comprises at least of half caregiving work. The drudgery. You’re not wiping the spilled mac ’n’ cheese off the floor with a paper towel. You’re not dashing to the basement to throw in a load of laundry at naptime. You’re not running to the supermarket midweek because you’re out of milk and lunch meat, taking the kids with you because there’s no one else to watch them, plunking them in one of those giant fire-engine carts and hoping like hell that the plastic emergency-vehicle inexact replication will keep them entertained long enough for you to grab those items before they start hitting each other or creating chaos in the checkout line. If you’re Ann Romney, you don’t do any of those things. Or I would guess you don’t, anyway—remember, we’re really talking generic rich lady here, as I have no idea what Ann Romney’s actual day-to-day life is like; for all I know she loves pushing a wire cart full of squabbling toddlers through a crowd of frowning onlookers, so always insists on taking care of those midweek runs herself. My point is, she doesn’t have to do those things—or anything else—if she doesn’t want to.

9.)    I debated No. 8 pretty intensely with a friend. For what it’s worth, my friend does not have children. Her income, she says, is just the amount she would pick if she could have her pick of incomes (though this, as an addendum to saying she would not want to be super-rich). My friend argued that it’s not as easy to hire servants as I might think. And that there no longer exists a Downton Abbey-style servant class from which to hire. My counterarguments were a) Oh, boo hoo b) I admittedly don’t know that much about life in the Romnesphere, but I bet that, given 8 percent unemployment, it’s not impossible to find qualified people who are willing to hang out in a luxurious mansion all day doing easy-ish tasks for what must be at least semi-decent pay (because at some point their salaries will probably come under scrutiny). Heck, I know ordinary upper-middle-class people in Minneapolis—affluent, but still within the 99 percent—whose lives are made easier by nannies and the like. Notice I say easier. Probably rarely downright easy.
10.)    My friend pointed out that Ann Romney has health problems, which make everything harder. No argument here—I’d take almost anything, including poverty, over poor health. Still, according to Wikipedia, Ann Romney’s MS does not much limit her lifestyle, and she’s been cancer-free since a lumpectomy in 2008.
11.)    Verdict: Umbrage in a teapot.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why do a right-wing legislator and a French feminist agree about the wage gap?

Wisconsin Sen. Glenn Grothman

Yesterday, a Facebook friend from Wisconsin posted a link to the story below, commenting, "Really? Here we go again.”

Wisconsin State Senator Says Women Are Paid Less Because ‘Money Is More Important For Men’

I clicked on the link to Think Progress, ready to start fuming over the latest Republican anti-woman idiocy. And sure enough, here was news that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had repealed the state’s equal pay law. Yep, plenty to be enraged about.

But what about that ridiculously stupid quote by the faintly Gingrichy looking state Sen. Glenn Grothman? I initially assumed he was referring to the antiquated idea that men need money more "because they have families to support." Instead, Grothman declared that the existing wage gap results from women prioritizing childrearing over breadwinning.
“Take a hypothetical husband and wife who are both lawyers,” he says. “But the husband is working 50 or 60 hours a week, going all out, making 200 grand a year. The woman takes time off, raises kids, is not go go go. Now they’re 50 years old. The husband is making 200 grand a year, the woman is making 40 grand a year. It wasn’t discrimination. There was a different sense of urgency in each person.”
Now this is truly horrifying. Really, deeply horrifying. But it's not because Grothman’s quote is so idiotic.

It's because I agree with him.

I rarely find myself siding with a Republican these days about anything, especially regarding women. Especially a Wisconsin legislator, one who would dismiss a wage-gap study by calling the nonpartisan American Association of University Women "a pretty liberal group.” I’m nodding along with this guy? Just kill me now.

Oh, I don’t totally concur with Grothman—in the Daily Beast story that Think Progress quoted, Grothman said, “What you’ve got to look at, and Ann Coulter has looked at this, is you have to break it down by married and unmarried. … (then) the differential disappears.” Oh god, please tell me I’m not agreeing with anything Ann Coulter ever said.

Luckily, no. Grothman and, presumably, Coulter are both wrong. The AAUW study found that even after controlling for marital status, hours worked, number of children and all kinds of other factors, there was still an unexplained 5-percent difference in the earnings of male and female graduates one year after graduation, and an unexplained 12-percent gap after 10 years in the workforce.

But let’s face it. That’s not the full wage gap (which is 23 percent). And Grothman’s quote about the lawyer couple is, unfortunately, supported by simple logic. If a woman drops out of the workforce while her husband keeps making money—earning raises, getting promoted—then down the line, when she eventually returns to work, there’s a good chance she’ll be earning less than he does. And in some way that gap, as Grothman says, resulted from “a different sense of urgency in each person.”

What that doesn’t explain is where the “sense of urgency” comes from.

As a group, women unquestionably do spend less time working—for pay, it's important to stress—than men do. Stay-at-home mothers outnumber stay-at-home fathers more than 30 to one. Research by economist Karine Moe and anthropologist Dianna Shandy, both of Macalester College, showed that even when mothers don’t drop out of the paid workforce entirely, they often sacrifice earnings on behalf of their children: they work part time, go into lower-paying careers with flexible hours, waive promotions to more time-consuming jobs.

Meanwhile, even as we liberal, progressive, feminist women get all up in arms over Grothman’s ill-informed sexism, we (some of us, anyway) are applauding a French feminist intellectual for saying essentially the same thing.

French feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter
In her new book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (a best-seller in Europe) Elisabeth Badinter argues that today's mothers sacrifice careers and self-fulfillment for unnecessarily time-intensive nurturing involving lengthy breastfeeding, attachment parenting, providing children with nearly constant availability and attention.

I haven’t read The Conflict, though judging by what I have read about it, including a New Yorker profile of Badinter, I probably wouldn't agree with every single thing she says. But overall, Badinter makes a good point. And she’s addressing the kind of mothers who typically wouldn’t be caught dead agreeing with right-wing Republican senators.

Just moments after my Facebook friend posted the Grothman story, another Facebook friend posted a link, with favorable comment, to a Slate blog item about Badinter’s book. Feminist writer Amanda Marcotte examines “the taboo around criticizing the oppressive nature of competitive mommy devotion” reflected in the anticipated backlash against Badinter’s ideas, mainly from progressives defending women’s choices.
“The problem," Marcotte writes,"is that said choices are usually made on pain of being considered bad, unnatural mothers if you opt out of them and choose to keep a bit of your life and body for yourself."
Now, Grothman and Badinter disagree about one really important thing. Grothman implies that this decision comes from within; he seems to feel we females are naturally hardwired to care less about money than mothering. Badinter blames mothers’ behavior on parenting trends and external pressures. Grothman may be partly right—it's possibe women are somewhat more inclined that way by evolution and biology—but the impulse can’t all be innate, or how do you explain our spending more time with our kids than our mothers and grandmothers did?

Research shows that modern mothers as a group devote 40 percent more time to their children than mothers in 1965—even though we also spend way more time at paid work. The study found that employed mothers carve time from other activities—housework, leisure, sleep—to devote to their children. Yet half said they felt they still weren’t doing enough with their kids.

As the pressure builds, it stands to reason, women will want to  cut back on paid work, or give it up entirely. Sure enough, a 2007 Pew Research study found that only 21 percent of working mothers want full-time jobsdown from 10 years earlier, when 32 percent liked the idea of working full time. Preference for part-time work was up over that same period, from 48 percent to 60 percent. (And this is no grass-is-greener situation: stay-at-home mothers became less interested over that decade in working outside the home, full or part-time.) Among men, meanwhile, a solid 72 percent say full-time work is ideal.

It's undeniable that women, as both Grothman and Badinter say, feel more compelled than men to sacrifice pay for time with their children. The reasons are complex, multifaceted and, I suspect, involve a mix of internal and external motivators. They deserve much further study. There simply isn’t enough honest public discussion about this stuff.

Wait—what?   Don’t we talk about this stuff pretty much constantly? After all, the so-called “mommy wars” (the supposed battles between working and at-home mothers) certainly get their share of media coverage. So does “helicopter parenting,” the idea that today's parents spend too much time controlling every moment of their kids’ lives. But both of these discussions typically center on how these choices might affect the child, not the parent (in the latter case, children are perceived to be warped by too much coddling, but the effect on mothers' lives and livelihoods is generally not part of the discussion).

These media obsessions distract from other real, pressing issues: like whether children really are such delicate flowers that they require (or are harmed by!) constant parental attention; how much financial security mothers should be expected to sacrifice to provide it; why it’s mostly mothers, not fathers, who make such sacrifices; and why as a culture we encourage women to make them without fully connecting their “choice” to its potential results, including women’s far greater likelihood than men to live in poverty.

Bashing Republicans is fun and usually warranted. But in this case a bumbling Wisconsin right-wing state lawmaker and an esteemed French feminist intellectual are at least somewhere on the same page. And their point is worth closer examination.