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The Politics of Working Women

Marissa Chickara

Working women in America are in a difficult and complex state. Women in the workforce are encouraged to compete "like men," which conflicts with the demand for their time during "the second shift". Complete dedication is expected both in the workplace and in the home, and little support is provided by the opposite sex and the government. If the government acquired a larger responsibility for working families, it could implement several policies that have already proven to alleviate the burden on working women and promote gender equality in other industrialized nations.

In recent decades, there has been a visible influx of women in the workforce-many of whom are also mothers. In 1975, forty-seven percent of all American mothers with children under the age eighteen worked for pay, and by the year 2000, this number climbed to seventy-three percent. However, the largest jump in employment occurred in women with very small children; in 1975 thirty-four percent of mothers with children age three and under were employed outside the home, and in 2000, this rate grew to sixty-one percent (Hochschild, XXIV). This growth in numbers can be explained by several factors, but the most substantial is that, in most families, a wife's salary is no longer an option.

Even though women may be sharing the financial burden with their spouses, men have not taken the same steps to share the domestic burden with their partners. This is what accounts for a women's "second shift." Women are expected to fulfill the demands of work and home on their own time. The household chores take a toll on working women with or without children. The hours married women spend performing domestic tasks, hours most men neglect to contribute in, total a substantial amount over time. Women work an additional fifteen hours per week in their "second shift"- this equals an extra month of twenty-four-hour days worked in a year. This can explain why women, compared to their husbands, are more tired and get sick more often (Hochschild, 4).

The heaviest burden falls on working mothers, since their "second shift" includes not only housework but also taking care of the children. Our society still celebrates the role of a mother as the primary care-giver. This conviction that women are responsible for children's welfare has become an obstacle for working mothers and gender equity as a whole. The government can have a supportive role in this dilemma, but instead it leaves child care concerns up to the parents- which subsequently falls on the mothers.

"The assumption that the work-family balance is an individual and private problem undercuts any serious efforts of institutional change" (Blair-Loy, 197). Without government aid and adequate financial resource to purchase private child care services, many working mothers are pressured to leave the workforce in order to fulfill their domestic duties. "Feminists concerned with the family have concluded that persistent gender inequality in the labor market is both cause and consequence of women's disproportionate assumption of unpaid work in the home" (Gornick, 3).

In order for the government to take a more active role, there needs to be a change in how American culture views children. As long as children are a "private" concern, there is no reason why the rest of society should invest in child care. "Substitute child care is an essential form of support for parents combining earning and caring roles; parents cannot commit to work outside the home without alternatives for the care of children" (Gornick, 185).

For the working parents that cannot stay at home out of financial necessity, the livelihood of their children is significantly compromised by the present lack of quality child care options available. Currently, there are "no national standards for staffing, health and safety, or teaching curricula" in child care facilities (Gornick, 190). In the end children suffer and "these 'private' problems create social costs" (Gornick, 9).

Children should be considered more of a "public good," since healthy and productive children benefit society in the long run. One can assume there will be less crime, a better future workforce, and a more stable generation of future parents if children's needs are not neglected early on. These are some of the reasons why many European countries and Canada believe it is the role of the government, through financial contributions of their citizens, to provide better child care options. The Nordic countries including Denmark, Finland, and Sweden have established an "entitlement for care" culture for children from the end of parental leave until the start of primary school (Gornick, 199). The important point to make is that "access to substitute care is crucial for the achievement of gender equality in the home and in the market, because in the absence of acceptable alternatives, it is mothers and not fathers who loosen their ties to the labor market to care for children" (Gornick, 197).

While providing quality substitute child care can have the greatest effect on working families, there are several other policies that already exist that the United States government can enact. Making part-time work a more viable alternate form of employment can give both mothers and fathers the opportunity to cut back hours at work. "In this country, part-time jobs, on average, pay lower wages and grant fewer non-wage benefits than do full-time jobs" (Gornick, 153). These consequences of part-time employment repel men who associate themselves with the "bread-winner" role. Currently, workers who wish to work less than the standard forty-hour work week typically have to accept a work schedule of less than thirty-five hours per week, which is classified as part-time employment. This "all-or-nothing" structure of employment "leaves a sizable proportion of women, especially mothers with young children, disconnected from the labor market" (Gornick, 155).

Providing a more flexible work schedule will help both parents allocate more time to tend to domestic obligations. The Fair Labor Standards Act has not been revised since 1938. The government needs to make the appropriate changes to standard work hours in order to meet the needs of modern families. France is one of the European nations that has moved forward towards meeting these needs, reducing the statutory work week to thirty-five hours in the year 2000. In addition, there is a European Union-wide policy that regulated forty-eight hours the maximum amount of hours worked per week. By comparison, the United States law does not set such a maximum hours for covered workers (Gornick, 161-162).

Reducing standard work hours for full-time employment will also have a direct effect on gender equity, "to the extent that limited options for reduced-hour work propel some American mothers who would otherwise seek a part-time job into full-time employment". In a corresponding way, fewer hours in the workplace means men have the time to be more active participants in the home. It is not just working families that support these policies. Public-opinion research proves that a large share of Americans back regulations aimed at shortening the workweek and public investments in child care (Gornick, 171, 19).

Another government policy that exists outside the United States is publicly financed paid parental leave. Several European countries, and Canada, "have policies in place that grant parents time to care for their children, provide a reasonable level of economic security, and include incentives for equal sharing of caregiving between mothers and fathers" The cost of leave benefits, when incurred by the whole working population, are relatively modest.

To encourage fathers to take parental leave, these policies offer high wage-replacement rates, nontransferable parental rights, and public-education campaigns to change society's views on fatherhood. Contrastingly, the option of parental leave in the United States depends much on the families' resources, which creates strong deterrents for fathers to take leaves for family reasons. A majority of American parents who take a parental leave when a child is born are women. This further reinforces a mother's place in the home and responsibility as the primary caregiver.

One must now address the question why the United States government is not following the lead of other industrialized nations if they are so supportive of "family values" and "moral values." Until there is a public outcry that can no longer be ignored, which is fast-approaching, the government can continue playing with words in order to avoid accountability. The problem exists with how these policies are categorized. The common term applied to such policies is "social benefits." This language alludes to the "social welfare state"-an ideal a liberal democracy like America does not strive to uphold. The American attitude for such concerns is usually along the lines of "you have your rights, now work it out for yourself." However, it is crucial to break down the relation between these family-friendly policies and the word "benefits." The progressive policies mentioned above do not predominantly "benefit" working mothers. Without such policies, women cannot pursue their right to earn a living in the same way a man could. Earning a living is not a "benefit," equal opportunity for employment is not a "benefit"- but a "right." In our capitalist culture, "the one right of paramount importance to all human beings" is the right to earn a living, and in accordance with the law, any obstruction to a fundamental right must be remedied by the government (Woolf, 101).

Works Cited

Blair-Loy, Mary. Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives.
(Massachusetts: Harvard UP) 2003.

Gornick, Janet C. and Marcia K. Meyers. Families That Work: Policies for Reconciling
Parenthood and Employment. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation) 2003.

Hochschild Russell, Arlie. The Second Shift. (New York: Penguin Group) 2003.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. (New York: Harcourt, Inc.) 1938.

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