Saturday, September 24, 2011

You've Come a Long Way, Baby!

When I first read the LA Times August 26, 2011 op-ed piece  by Eve Weinbaum and Rachel Roth, "Beyond Suffrage: How far have women come since?", my reaction was "a long, long way" (even without our own cigarette now,baby).   My first reading of the article was to pick apart all of the criticisms of what women have not accomplished and focus on how much has changed in the last 90 years.  But, in watching the Gloria Steinem HBO documentary again this evening, I was struck by her quoting Susan B Anthony, "Our job is not to make young women grateful. It is make them ungrateful so they keep going."

I needed to reconcile these two views.  While I agree that making women "ungrateful" and ever aware of their second class status is motivating,  I also believe that ignorance of where we have been and what we have accomplished can zap motivation for more change.  Thus I found myself scrutinizing the Weinbaum/Roth article with both a look to what we have accomplished and what still needs to be done.

The op-ed outlined a four point plan by feminist Crystal Eastman in 1920 for women's freedom now that they had won the vote.  Weinbaum and Roth summarize the four points as follows (for the modern crowd):
[E]conomic independence for women (including freedom to choose an occupation and equal pay), gender equality at home (raising "feminist sons" to share the responsibilities of family life), "voluntary motherhood" (reproductive freedom) and "motherhood endowment," or financial support for child-rearing and homemaking.
Weinbaum and Roth then argue that women have not achieved these four things in the past 90+ years.  For example, women on average still only make $0.77 for every dollar men make (and even less if you are a woman of color).  But, I wanted to remind everyone, women did not make anything working 100 years ago and as recently as 40 years ago only made half of what men made, on average.  Women are able to work in almost every occupation and have equal if not greater access to university educations, as a result of the feminist movements so far. But I know that women still are not well represented in the highest ranks of power either in government or in the boardroom.

To me, the problem is that our society does not really accommodate the fact that women are the ones to give birth rather than men.   All of the inequalities of today stem from that fact (and are magnified by inequalities of income).  Women in the United States, on the whole, do not have reasonable access to childcare either right after birth or as work continues.  They have reproductive freedom that was not available 90 years ago--contraception and abortion, but when a woman chooses to have a child, the support is quite limited.  Two states (California and NJ) provide paid family leave insurance to workers covered by state disability insurance in the form of payment (at 55-65 percent (or less) of regular salary. A handful of other states, such as Rhode Island, New York, and Hawaii, offer temporary disability insurance to mothers to recover from the "disability" of childbirth based on a doctor's certification.  For example, when I had my daughter in the late 80s, which was before California enacted its paid family leave insurance, I got this TDI for eight weeks, which was the maximum time any doctor would give unless there were unusual complications.  Most states, however, do not have such TDI or insurance so that they are only bound by Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows the employee to return after family leave to a job but does not pay for that leave and only applies in organizations with 50 or more employees. Only about half of United States employees are eligible for FMLA.

Private sector generally does not  voluntarily provide paid family leave.  According to one 2011 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 16% of private sector companies in manufacturing and service sectors offer  paid maternity or paternity leave.  Private sector provision of child care is no better. 2007 U.S Department of Labor study reports that only 15 percent of private sector workers had access to employer-provided childcare assistance, including funds, on-site or off-site childcare, and resource and referral services.  Even worse, however, is federal government employees who must use sick leave and other leave for childbirth and new infant care.  A recent federal report recommended against providing 6 weeks of paid leave, claiming the current system of cobbling other leaves together for childbirth and new infant care was "generous"

 Reportedly, Fortune 100 companies do better, with about 75% of them offering paid maternity leave, which raises an interesting question of 25% of the 10 best companies for which to work do not offer paid maternity leave.  However,  Fortune 100 companies in 2011, the 100 "Best Companies to Work For", with roughly 1.5 Million employees, only represent less than 1% of the labor force. And childcare in this rarefied stratosphere is not all that readily available or inexpensive. About 25% of the Fortune 100 companies offer onsite childcare for which you still have to pay $400-$700 per month.

Unfortunately, the lack of support for maternity leave and child care in this country is not just financial, although lower and middle income families keenly feel the lack of financial support .  For those who can afford childcare, there is still the lingering sentiment that children need to be raised by their parents, not child care providers.  The corollary to that belief is that women should do the brunt of raising of children because men make more money, or are not naturally good with children or some other rigamarole.  If there are still those who think that the best child rearing environment involves a stay at home parent, let us free men from the stereotypes that they are not able to do it.

As a matter of practicality in this economy, both men and women have to work for families to survive financially.  Given that reality, our government needs to put behind its stereotypes of the past and take responsibility, like most countries, to pay for a reasonable length maternity and new infant care leave.  Until then, women in the United States will not  experience critical equality.

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