“Why this? Why now? And what does this say about the state of the feminist zeitgeist?” That’s the focus of the newly launched #SignsShortTakes. In April, the platform used Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family to address “broader questions of reach and resonance” about work/family policies in the United States. The symposium was hosted by Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, which has been a leading journal for critical examinations of feminist issues since 1975.
A number of reviewers from the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) joined in the dialogue, with insights that are expanded upon in CCF’s briefing paper series on housework, gender, and parenting.
Several commentators highlighted concern about what was interpreted as an elite target audience for the approaches Slaughter recommends. Nancy Folbre, University of Massachusetts’ economist and a CCF scholar, argued that wealthy women already have “much better family-friendly policies in their workplace than others do.” Improvements secured by privileged women who are most able to demand them might not be enough for low-income women and their families. Calls for women to simply demand time off from an employer, for example, “are premised on the notion that workers are indispensable,” and “wield some leverage in the workplace,” even though “the problem of women’s economic advancement is largely one of working-class women and occupational segregation,” according to Premilla Nadasen. Proponents of what Tressie McMillan Cottom named trickle-down feminism imagine that, “caring about the well-being of elite women means elevating powerful women who will take care of the interests of less powerful women.” Cottom suggested that wealthy white women may be just as antagonistic to the needs of low-income and non-white women and their families as are wealthy white men.
Anne-Marie Slaughter agrees with her critics: trickle-down feminist approaches to achieving progressive family policies are “unlikely to succeed precisely because the most powerful women tend to lead such radically different lives from the majority of our sisters.” The answers to achieving progressive work-family policies for everyone lie in structural changes—ones that are at stake in our upcoming national election. Joan Williams, former CCF board member, provided an ambitious to-do list for policy makers: “high-quality affordable child care, paid family leave, the right to request flexible and part-time work, a major investment in early education programs, job protection for pregnant workers, higher wages for paid caregivers, part-time equity, financial supports for single parents, better enforcement of age discrimination laws, and reform of school schedules.” These structural changes, according to Williams, are a pathway to equity.
As broad as that check list is, Equitable Growth Executive Director and CCF scholar Heather Boushey, along with Coontz, Folbre, and Cottom, don’t think reaching Slaughter’s goals is impossible, and each outlined policy initiatives already underway in other countries and in certain areas of the United States that have proven effective for reducing work-family conflict among and between men and women.
Coontz, director of research and public education for CCF, illuminated the necessary connection between structural changes and individual-level cultural changes relating to work-family conflicts. She reviewed a “use it or lose it” universal paid paternity leave program in Quebec that resulted in an equalization of care-taking behaviors among men and women, which enabled women to better manage the competing demands of work and family. The policy change—paid and non-transferrable paternity leave—was crucial to changing men’s behavior. Otherwise, men would not “be free to choose to be caregivers without encountering the flexibility stigma,” that, according to law professor Joan Williams, is disproportionately felt by women.
Overall, the symposium suggests more acceptance than ever of the fundamental importance of women’s labor and care work as part of the macro economy. This is echoed by several other valuable books out this spring that draw our attention to family policy, including Coontz’s revised and updated The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, and Boushey’s new Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict. The way I see it, experts from diverse disciplines— economics, law, history, sociology—largely converged on the idea that we need universal family-friendly work policies.