Palin and Working Moms

In this Associated Press article from October 1, 2008, working mothers were asked how Sarah Palin has impacted or will impact their lives. I thought this was interesting because even though I think Palin’s politics are a disaster, I actually think that her example has heartened working mothers. To have achieved as much as she has politically while being a woman, wife and mother, is an inspiration to us all. Having said that, I need to qualify my praise; she is not your typical working mother.

For one thing, she appears to have the full support of her husband. How much actual hands-on child rearing he does is not clear, but it is common in large families for the older children to be pressed into service as well. Not only that, but from all accounts, the Palins are not your typical middle-class family either. They have resources that millions of middle-class families do not have. That is not a bad thing, nor something that we should begrudge them, but it does put them in a whole other segment of the middle class than a family that is trying to make it on $50,000 a year. Being able to afford child care is probably not an issue for the Palins.

Palin herself gives off the impression of being a highly enthusiastic, energetic person. Not all of us are so blessed. Her reputation as “Sarah Barracuda” has served her well in her chosen career. But she does show what a woman can do if she is determined enough–and has the support of her political mentors. Because we all know that Palin didn’t make it in politics by her efforts–and money–alone. She has been groomed for the job just as every other politician is, including John McCain and Barack Obama. A supportive political party and campaign can work wonders for a woman’s career. It’s just getting there in the first place. Most of us do not have those sort of contacts.

Another lucky break has been the fact that Palin has been a big fish in a small pond. It might sound strange to call Alaska a “small pond,” but population-wise it is. And she started her career on the small stage of Wasilla, Alaska. That town is so small, even being a city councillor would carry more influence than say, being a mayor of a larger city. But then she went on to become the mayor as well. A high percentage of working mothers in this country are small cogs in huge machines, clustered as they are in the serving and helping professions and under-represented in management positions and boardrooms.

By virtue of the kind of job she has had, Palin has been able to work while having and caring for children pretty handily. Generous provisions for maternity leave, flexibility in her work day, and the ability to pass off some of her expenses and chores to to the government has made her situation totally atypical. Again, I’m not begrudging her these perks, only pointing out that the average working mother’s situation is not so advantageous.

Palin reminds me of another super-mom, Angelina Jolie. When we wonder at Jolie’s ability to be the mother of even more children than Palin (six) and a movie star and all-round celebrity, we have to remind ourselves that money and power do make a difference. So cheer all you want for Sarah Palin–or Angelina Jolie–but don’t expect to be able to reproduce the same results in your own life.

When Palin says that she is for the average American, I hope that includes the average working mother (and not just mothers of special needs babies, either). If she is not for the same things that MomsRising is for, then she is no friend of American motherhood. (See my post, “What About Mothers?” from May 8, 2008.) MomsRising is for Maternity and Paternity Leave, Open Flexible Work, TV and After School, Health Care For All Kids, Excellent Child Care and Realistic and Fair Wages.

If these seem like modest goals, then think again: they are rarely adequately addressed in any woman’s life. Most women get no or very little maternity leave and it is often unpaid; fathers almost never get paternity leave, paid or not; businesses refuse to make concessions to mothers’ needs, even when they would actually benefit from them; latchkey programs are in short supply across the nation, as is affordable, quality child care; health care is a luxury even for America’s children, and realistic and fair wages–well, how fair can they be when women make 67-85% of what a man makes for the same or an equitable job?

Where does Palin stand on these issues? Just because her own life illustrates the presence of all these “perks” doesn’t mean that the average mom’s does. Palin needs to put her political power where her mouth is. She’s either for the average “Jill” or she is not.

Women in the Workplace

A fan of my blog (yes, I have one) told me today that my last post didn’t seem to fit, because it didn’t have anything to do with feminism. I beg to differ, although I agree I didn’t spell it out. Losing your job has everything to do with feminism, because it is women who have the bumpiest road in the job market.*

First of all, women make up 66% of the part-time labor force. So what? Isn’t that by choice? Not always. Many women work part-time because they can’t find full-time employment. They often work full-time, just not at the same job. They may work two or three part-time jobs just to make ends meet. And not get benefits at any of them.

Secondly, women make only 66-85% of what men make for the same or comparable jobs. (The figure varies depending on the occupation itself, the worker’s race or ethnicity, and the part of the country she works in.) Think about that: that means that if a man makes $24,000 a year, a woman might make only $16,000 for the same job. That’s the difference between a living wage (just barely) and having to seek out food pantries and government assistance, especially if you’re the sole wage earner and have a dependent.

Thirdly, women make up more than half of service sector employees. These jobs are notoriously low-paying. But they are the jobs that are most open to women. And even here, if a man is employed in the same type of job, he will often receive higher wages than a woman does. (Think nursing or secretarial work.) When men “infiltrate” female professions, they receive more pay and prestige, because they are, after all, men. And we all know that men are more important and more productive than women.

Fourthly, women are routinely discriminated against for being wives and mothers. The assumption is that they’re partially supported by their husbands and therefore don’t need as much pay. Or that they’re more likely to take off work for sick children or to have babies. And if a woman happens to be unmarried with dependents, she is in a double bind. Employers don’t look at single women having to support families in the same way as they do men who do. The male needs higher pay, because he is supporting a family. Never mind that he may have a wife who earns a second income.

Fifthly, women don’t receive the promotions that men do. Citing the “facts”–women aren’t as responsible or productive, aren’t willing to put in the long hours or to travel, put their husbands and/or children first–employers collude to keep women out of upper management, partnerships, tenured positions and leadership positions. For example, only 5% of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female. And at good old Walmart, even though 75% of its labor force is female, 90% of its management positions are held by men.

Sixthly, women make up most of the transient jobs. Because they are not valued or seen as indispensable, they are often the first fired. It is assumed that they don’t have the same skills as men (look at the construction trades, or the military), even though they aren’t given the opportunities to develop those skills. And basically, they are fired because they’re women. Never mind that they have a shitload of responsibilities that men don’t have: caring for children and elders, running households, and playing the supportive role of wives and girlfriends.

And lastly, women may be more prone to voluntarily leave jobs because of a lack of good, affordable childcare, inflexible hours, unrealistic demands, sexual harassment and discrimination and insufficient or no benefits.

Is it any wonder that single mothers end up on welfare? And when they are put to work (thanks to the welfare “reform” of 1996), it is usually in jobs that have high turnover, low pay and/or no benefits. In other words, in the types of jobs that are deemed suitable for women.

Now do you see why I felt that the post on unemployment compensation was relevant on a feminist blog?

*Some people would hold that this position is held by people of color, but since there are women in every race and ethnicity, I feel that women suffer more if you cut across such distinctions. Does a black woman suffer more than a white woman? Probably, but make no mistake, both women are at a disadvantage in the workplace. Does a black woman suffer more than a black man? Yes, if you’re considering the issues outlined above.

U.S Department of Labor Women’s Bureau
United Nations Development Programme: Women’s Empowerment

If You Lose Your Job

There is one thing that most states neglect to put right out front and that is that you have to file as soon as you know that you are losing your job!! You do not get paid for any weeks of unemployment that occurred before your filing date.

If this is not the case in other states, please let me know. I didn’t research all fifty states. But I have a feeling it’s the same everywhere, because the government has a vested interest in disqualifying as many people as possible. You do have a right to appeal, but there are deadlines for that, too, and it can seem like a complicated process to the uninitiated (which all people are their first time around).

Unemployment compensation is one of these government “freebies” that the convervatives make such a fuss about. But even they aren’t squawking as much about it these days with unemployment hitting everyone–even them. People are losing jobs through no fault of their own (which is one of the conditions for eligibility–you can’t just quit and then claim unemployment). But those who are the hardest hit are those who weren’t making much to begin with. They rarely have any savings, they were just barely making ends meet and then bam! They’re out of work.

Like most government programs, unemployment compensation is not a cure-all. You only get approximately 50% of what you were getting when you were employed. So if you were barely making it before you lost your job, you’re really screwed, even if you get unemployment. Without it, people could end up on the streets. But frankly, I don’t see how they avoid the streets even with EC, if they were on the edge to begin with. If you find yourself in this position, contact your state’s job and family services department (or whatever they call it in your state). You might qualify for food stamps. You might be able to get your children covered by health insurance. There are options that few people know about, until they have a reason to. Educate yourself. Get on the phone. Surf the Net. And if you’re confused by any of it (and you will be, trust me), keep asking questions.

If you have a little savings or an income from a spouse or partner, you might make it through until you get another job. But even you are entitled to benefits. So, don’t dilly-dally around: register for your benefits ASAP!

For locations of various governmental offices that have to do with employment, go to the U.S. Department of Labor web site.

Maids

My house is a wreck. No, I’ll admit it: it’s filthy. The only part of the house that even approaches cleanliness is the area rug in front of our couch and that’s only every second or third day when we vacuum the cat hair off it. I could no more invite anyone over than I could fly to the moon. But even so, I just can’t muster up the energy to do anything about it. I have too many other things that interest me or require my attention.

I just went to an open house yesterday and the condo where it was held was spotless. Granted, the owner is a minimalist and my house is full of clutter, which is notoriously hard to clean and clean around. But I have a feeling she keeps her home that way all the time. She is, after all, a professional organizer.

I have a friend who has cleaned houses and offices for a living for over twenty years. She seems to like it, but it must be getting old (because she is!–Just kidding, Deb.) And my sister had a cleaning business for several years. It can be a good way to make money.

But it can also be exploitative and that’s why I bring it up today. As feminists, are we perpetuating the unequal distribution of labor (women stuck in low-paying service jobs) or are we providing someone with a way to make a living when (if) we hire maids to clean our homes? Isn’t there something degrading about expecting another woman to clean a toilet, like we think we’re too good to do it ourselves? Aren’t we perpetuating the stereotype that women do all the shit work?

But then if we didn’t hire maids or cleaning services, we’d be the ones doing the shit work, for the most part. Unless we have husbands or partners who are willing to share the chores equitably. Maybe that’s part of the dynamic: most women are responsible for most of the housework. What they need is their own wife. Lacking that, they hire maids, cooks, and nannies. Because it’s too much for one person to do alone!

I’d love to hire a maid if I could afford it. I suspect that most women are like me. But if I did, I would be tempted to work alongside her. In that way, I’d feel like I had hired someone to help me, not someone to completely take over my responsibilities. But maybe that’s not practical or realistic. Maybe the maid or cleaning lady would want me out of the way so that she can clean her way. If a maid sees herself as a professional, she might not like being told what to do.

Here’s an article about the pros and cons of hiring a maid. But this isn’t taking into consideration the feminist pros and cons. What would those be?

PROS
1. Hiring a maid gives you some relief from the heavy load of your responsibilities. It gives you a “wife.”
2. It also gives another woman a job.
3. It gives you a chance to treat the woman professionally and with respect.
4. It gives you the opportunity to be empathetic and to stand up for her rights.

CONS
1. If you don’t pay enough or you expect too much, you are exploiting the woman (or man) you hire.
2. You may come to think that housework is beneath you and not treat the woman with respect.
3. You may see her as “just” a maid.
4. You may trample her rights as a worker and a woman.

If you find yourself developing any of the “con” attitudes and behaviors you need some consciousness raising. We need to cultivate the “pro” attitudes and behaviors. Women from any walk of life are still our sisters. And we need to act like it.

Mother Discrimination and the Importance of Children

Technically, a woman can’t be denied employment or be fired because she’s a woman. But it’s okay to discriminate against a woman in the workplace because she’s married or has children. Men’s higher salaries are often justified because they have families to support. So why don’t single mothers also get paid more? Because it is assumed that it is her fault that there isn’t a man in the picture taking care of her. She doesn’t deserve a break because she screwed up. It doesn’t matter if she was abused or deserted. She’s seen as a liability not an asset.

Supposedly when men have wives or children they are more responsible, not less. But women are seen as unreliable and less committed. They use more sick and family leave, they hate to stay late to finish work or attend meetings, they don’t like to take work home with them, they’re not as willing to relocate. And that’s not even taking into consideration the women who never make it into the workplace–or only work part-time–because they’re the ones who are primarily responsible for child care.

People who want to deny the existence of mother discrimination are always pulling the house husband out of the hat, as if there are that many of them. But because a man usually makes more money than his wife, it makes more sense for her to be the one who stays home with the children. (If anyone does.) House husbands are few and far between. Then there are those who say that mothers chose to have children, therefore they have to accept what goes with the territory. Why do they have to accept it? Men don’t have to.

And so we come around the circle again. Why can’t we just agree that any family that has children in it, whether headed by a man or a woman, deserves all the support it can get: flexible work hours, the right to refuse extra (uncompensated) work, quality and affordable child care, health insurance coverage for the children? Those who don’t have children complain about this proposal, because they figure they shouldn’t have to pay for those who do. But what they don’t realize is, if they don’t make allowances now for families with children, they’re not as likely to have healthy, well-adjusted, productive people to run our country and our institutions and to support and take care of them.

When we’re relatively young, all we can see is what we’re doing, as if we’re responsible for everything. We think that we run the world. Our parents are too old and children are too young. We’re the ones upon which everything hinges. Well, guess what? Sooner or later we’re going to be the ones who need taken care of, in one way or another. Those former children are going to be our doctors and health care providers, our politicians and legislators, our policemen and firemen and on and on. If too few of them become competent, caring, and responsible, our lives are going to be hell.

Most of us take the time to plan for our retirements, but short-sightedly we don’t plan for our future. Children are investments. They will mature when we are old. We need them and we need them to be in as good a shape as possible. So why do so many of us balk at doing what it takes to make sure that they are? Let’s make sure that all parents have the support they need to raise their children to be healthy, mentally and physically. It shouldn’t matter if the parent is male or female: it’s the well-being of the children that is the ultimate goal.

Taking Motherhood Seriously

I’ve been reading The Maternal is Political and it’s filling my head with all kinds of ideas. It’s basically about how being a mother both informs and heightens one’s political awareness. And the potential power of mothers as a group. I think there’s been a disconnect between mothers and feminism since the 60s—or maybe always—when it seemed that the feminists were saying that motherhood was the height of enslavement. And in a way it is. But that enslavement can politicize a woman by making her chafe under its constrictions and get mad enough to fight her way out and for other “slaves.”

Any service job has the potential to enslave the person who’s doing the serving. And motherhood is the quintessential serving job. Why else does the motherhood job description include chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning, money management, activity scheduling, child care, nursing, laundering, home renovation, grocery shopping, menu planning and on and on ad nauseum? (Is there an end to this list?) And I’m not just talking about SAHMs (Stay At Home Mothers); even mothers who work for wages are expected to fulfill all these roles. It goes with the territory.

 

Anyone who thinks that SAHMs have it easy—they don’t have to punch a time clock, answer to a boss, get along with other employees, commute, do menial work for little pay—has never been a mother of any kind, let alone a SAHM. Children are the ultimate taskmasters and the most challenging people in the world to get along with. You have to be on the job 24/7, most of the work is menial and the pay is not just negligible, it’s non-existent. None of this is news to a mother. That other people—even sometimes fathers—don’t seem to know this about motherhood is one indication that its concerns need to be politicized. Consciousnesses need to be raised, action needs to be taken. Mothers deserve all the help they can get. Not because they are enslaved—most mothers don’t describe themselves as such—but because of what makes them mothers: their children.

 

It’s not just that mothers care about their children; it’s that they care more than others do. I’m not denigrating fathers or non-parents, but there’s something different about being a mother. The adage that a mother would save her child if she had to choose between saving her husband and her child is, for the most part, a true one. Fathers would, more often than not, save their spouses first. Of course, I’m generalizing here, but the evidence speaks for itself: mothers have different priorities. Society has a vested interest in protecting and nurturing its children, but mothers are doing it, every single hour of every single day. Instead of penalizing women because they have children, they should be supported, in any way possible, to make it easier for them to raise our future generations.

 

One thing that feminism has achieved has been a universalizing of the importance of parenthood. Fathers have benefited from the privileges that women have been awarded. Time off for new parenthood is now available to both sexes. (Even though, in most instances, it is not paid time off—America’s record in this area is abysmal compared to other countries.) Ideally, both sexes would always benefit from things like quality and affordable day care, decent pay, flexible hours, and family leave. But as long as women are the primary caregivers—not just of children, but of the ill and the elderly as well—they deserve special dispensations that men may not get. If we’re not going to pay mothers for the services they provide, then let’s at least take them seriously and give them what they need to do the job.