TOWARD SEXUAL EQUALITY: REFLECTIONS FOLLOWING THE MURDER OF ROBERTA CHAFE
Address in the Distinguished Lecturer Series, University of Pittsburgh at Johnston, 19 October 1988. Published on the web, August 2003.
In twenty years of writing about life in our time, never until now have I addressed head-on the situation of women in North America. On the one hand I blush at this fact, since my aim has been to study and write about the most important features of our world. That I have so far treated the stupendous changes in the status of women, and the lingering inequality, only in relation to other topics, undoubtedly reflects the common male disregard of women's concerns. Rulers do not necessarily suppress the aspirations of the ruled. Often they simply don't notice them.
On the other hand, a man who lectures these days on the place of women is probably a fool rushing in. The war of the sexes has heated up. Women are touchy—with good reason, given the male domination from which they are not yet free. Any man who ventures to say something about women, beyond words of repentance, risks being called patronizing or obstructionist. Perhaps he wants to horn in on feminist theory, or cash in on the fairly well funded field of women's studies. Should not women have the chance to analyze and solve their own problems?
Women can no more solve their own problems than we men can solve ours. The reason is fundamental: that the reproduction of our species depends on women and men partaking of a common life. We were meant not for ourselves but for each other. No man need apologize for subjecting women to analysis, nor any woman for critically examining the status of men. Common humanity by nature takes precedence over sexual difference. Indeed, the challenge to our generation is to recognize and realize the common humanity of men and women more than has been the case till now. We have a long way to go, I as far as anyone.
The immediate prompt for this lecture is the woman named in its title, an Ojibway Indian in her late twenties, the mother of two dark-eyed children, who was stabbed to death last March. I knew her briefly one year ago, when I worked with her boyfriend. Tom was one of two carpenters whom my wife and I hired to help renovate the older house we had bought and would soon call our home. Craving a break from my desk, I worked closely with those two men for nineteen days running. Rarely have I enjoyed so enlivening, egalitarian, and productive a relationship. We had no contract nor even a detailed plan. Day by day we hammered, sawed, took turns, argued, and negotiated our way to a surprisingly beautiful result. We behaved as real people to one another, and were all winners in the end—in a sense far beyond the money they earned or the house we now enjoy.
So splendid was that working relationship that, in a paper I wrote afterwards, I used it to help illustrate the noblest ideal I can imagine in human intercourse: mutuality, give and take, indeterminacy, spontaneity, equality, countervailing power, or in the single word I prefer, reciprocity.
In that paper I ignored Roberta Chafe, for the simple reason that beyond exchanging pleasantries I had not gotten to know her. She was often at the house. Several times she cooked dinner for Tom in their camper, parked in our driveway. She swept up some, and when a crisis arose about getting the drywall up, she helped Tom do the job in a wallboard marathon. For this she was paid, possibly through Tom, I do not know, since I paid all the money at the end to the other, more senior carpenter.
What shocked and sobered me about Roberta's violent death five months later was not just the fact of it, a horror by itself, but the fact that Tom surrendered to police the next day, is now charged with murder, and is reported to have confessed his guilt.
If the case is as alleged and Tom did kill Roberta, the brutality and destructiveness of his bond with her does not negate the gentleness and constructiveness of his bond with the other carpenter and me. But it painfully dramatizes the important point that the same person can achieve reciprocity in its noblest sense in one relation, and miss it utterly in another—can be good in one connection and ugly in another connection.
The further lesson gained is that while celebrating the relation we three men achieved I overlooked an obvious other relation, a less admirable one, that was in fact all tangled up in ours. We could not have worked so well had Roberta not done her menial chores. She was, so I see in retrospect, as many a woman has been, a silent, subservient partner in dealings defined by men.
In this instance, I myself failed to notice the common humanity that transcends sexual difference. Roberta's name is in the title of this talk to acknowledge that and to apologize belatedly to her, thereby to build this analysis on the key natural fact: that we are all, women and men, in this together, and the challenge is to arrange our common life in a way that gives every voice, male or female, a more equal say in what goes on.
Meeting this challenge requires at the start recognition that androgyny is a false dream, that women and men are and must be at once the same and different. Male or female, each of us was born and will die, and requires in the interval certain means of subsistence: air, water, food, protection from the elements, and so on. The sexes are the same also in ability to act and interact consciously, thinkingly, with complex structures of language and meaning, so as to create new things, to make surprises, to transform humanity and its environment, to become within limits more than nature initially allowed. Women and men are like each other, and unlike all else on earth, in our history-making capability.
Yet sexual differences are no less real. They are natural constraints on the kind of history we collectively can make. They are not, by my reading of the evidence, mental or psychological. Women do not by nature think less or differently than men. Women's minds, like men's, come in varied historical shapes. Compare Margaret Thatcher and Mother Theresa, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Jane Fonda. Women can be and are made different from men in their mentalities, as research by Carol Gilligan and many others demonstrates, just as Spanish men think differently than Swedish men. These are social facts, not natural ones.
The main natural differences are two. First, that men are on average physically stronger, taller, broader and faster. Second, that except at the moment of conception, women are solely in charge of physical procreation. Only the mother carries the baby in her womb, labours to give it birth, and suckles it at her breast. Biologically, the father is already superfluous by the time a child is known to have been conceived.
Equality between the sexes cannot mean denial or elimination of these natural differences. If it did, we would have to quit reproducing, our species would go extinct, and we ourselves, women and men, would forego the enjoyment of our mysterious mutual attractiveness. But sameness is the cheapest kind of equality. Empirically, no two humans are alike. We differ not only naturally—by sex, age, size, shape, colour, and so on—but culturally, in the varied historical outcomes of human creativity. Whoever would serve equality by suppressing differences should concentrate on bricks, biscuits, or the heads of screws, not on human beings.
To treat another person as an equal means not disregarding or overlooking but noticing and respecting the ways in which that other differs from oneself, but then, in the context of all the differences observed, responding to the other in a way that affirms the greater truth, the sameness of having been born, of expecting to die, of needing means of subsistence, and of being able to make history. A relationship is egalitarian when it is suffused with mutual acceptance of the participants' common creative capabilities. Thus equality does not deny difference but uses it for mutual enrichment and for coming up with something new. Equality means taking turns talking and listening, acting and being acted upon, accepting and asserting the differences between self and other, for the sake of a result no one could foretell. Equality is thus a condition for reciprocity, whether at work, at home, or wherever else. It means not stepping over another or on another but with another, toward a destination neither can yet know.
Three examples. If I am seated on a crowded bus and a very pregnant woman gets on, or an old man with a cane, equality means noticing the difference between the other and myself, placing common humanity above that difference, and offering my seat. If a man and woman have sex and she gets pregnant, he is free by nature to move on but obliged by a value on equality to support her, in so far as motherhood naturally slows her down, and to share and take turns caring for the child steadily more as it grows beyond infancy, accepting the blessed intrusion of parenthood on his life equally as on hers. If the structure of the economy is such that a woman is cut off from her livelihood indefinitely if she gives birth and chooses to keep the baby with her for the first years, then a value on equality requires efforts to modify that structure, lest the difference of motherhood override the common capacity for gainful economic productivity.
In the natural differences between women and men lies the key to understanding the humanly invented inequalities between them, that is, the general subjection of women to men. The prevalence even now of wife battering testfies to the fact that, except in so far as we rise above nature and intentionally cultivate and enforce human solidarity, might makes right and women get beaten up by men. It is not because the differences are large. A story going around is of two campers asleep in their tent, awakened by an angry grizzly trying to get in. Seeing the one grab shoes and socks, the other says, "What are you doing? You can't outrun that bear." "I don't have to," replies the first, "I only have to outrun you." That is how things go by nature, without culture, and that is why, in Europe two thousand years ago, little differences were the basis of monstrous inequalities.
Not only by sex. Rarely if ever was husbands' domination of wives so harsh or absolute as the domination of slaves by masters, of children by adults, of conquered armies by the victors, or even of serf and peasant classes by aristocracies. But male dominance was indeed a fact. When ways of harnessing nonhuman energy were still few and primitive, economic and political affairs revolved around sheer bodily strength—a basis on which women could not successfully compete. Still more important, the average woman conceived, carried, brought forth and cared for eight to ten babies in her reproductive years. Motherhood on this scale put women out of the running for dominative positions in the intensely hierarchical societies of our past. Nature, this is to say, allowed men to seize the advantage, and so men did. Except in households ruled by men, women had no access to the means of subsistence.
The good news is that even in the distant past, progress toward equality, sexual and otherwise, was underway. Christianity deserves much credit on this score, despite how feebly many Christian churches serve sexual equality today. For in pre-Christian Roman and Germanic societies, men could take multiple spouses, could divorce almost at will, and were not subject to even a formal norm of marital fidelity, while women enjoyed no such rights. Germanic societies did not even require the bride's consent for marriage. For men and women equally, Christianity forbade polygamy, divorce, and infidelity, required mutual consent for marriage, and commanded spouses to love one another. Christianity also institutionalized for women an alternative to marriage: the religious life in an order composed exclusively of celibate women, still subject to the male hierarchy but with fairly independent access to the means of subsistence. These new rules hardly eliminated sexual inequality, even in principle much less in practice, but they reduced it.
With many ups, downs, and variations, women's common humanity with men has been further recognized and realized in more recent centuries. By its emphasis on individual dignity and freedom, Protestantism gave women a buffer against communities ruled by men. The rights of daughters to inherit property on an equal basis with sons came to be entrenched throughout the Western world. Two of my own great-great-grandfathers, German peasants in the early 1800s, took at marriage the surnames of their wives, since the wives had inherited farms and they had not. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the United States as in Canada and most of Europe, some decades after propertyless men were given a vote in elections, women gained the franchise, too.
Even brief recollections like these bring home the fact that the process of women's liberation, like the movement toward human equality in general, has been underway even for millennia. The replacement of hierarchical, dominative-submissive, animalic relations by egalitarian, reciprocal, truly human ones is an enduring theme of the ongoing human experiment on earth. We who seek to carry the process farther can be confident that history is on our side.
Long-term trends, however, are not necessarily reflected in short-term change. Over the past quarter-century in America, change in the condition of women is unmistakeable: decline of the birth rate by half, legalization of abortion, quadrupling of the percentage of babies born to unmarried women, doubling of the divorce rate, doubling of the percentage of married women in the paid labour force, and the mushrooming of day-care centers. That this change amounts to greater sexual equality is by no means a foregone conclusion. Whether it is an up or a down of history, how much of each, will not be clear until long after we are dead. Yet we are obliged now to make our best guess in this regard, since only in this way can we decide how to live our own lives, which changes to promote and which ones not. Hard and risky though it is, we have to make up our minds in which direction we will push history, since if we do not, history will simply push us.
This requires a critical posture, a refusal to just "go with the flow." To be sure, nobody likes to take the role of Jeremiah, discerning future doom in present trends. On the other hand, I saw last summer some dinosaurs in a cartoon. They were standing amidst the first snowflakes of the ice age and most of them looked scared. "Don't worry," said one cheery dinosaur, probably a well-paid intellectual, "the night is darkest just before the dawn." Forced to choose, we might better play Jeremiah than that dinosaur, since for all their troubles the Jews have survived.
Over the last century, American history shows three successive economic conditions in which the majority of married women, mothers in particular, have lived their lives. In the remainder of this paper, I describe these three conditions, and suggest what has been gained and lost in the transition from each to the next. This analysis thus excludes that minority of women, fewer than ten percent, who have neither married nor had children. There is little doubt that the situation of career single women has generally improved during the past hundred years. No longer are they restricted to such formerly sex-specific fields as nursing or librarianship. The caste-like division between men's and women's occupations has broken down, and despite the unfairness women still often face at work, the principle of equal pay for work of equal value continues to gain force.
In discussion of sexual equality, the main focus is deservedly on wives and mothers. Not just because they are the vast majority. Nor only because the change in their case is more problematic. The main reason is that through marriage and motherhood, women assert their natural difference from men in a way that requires them to be treated differently than men are. Physical stature and strength are by now irrelevant to most jobs, in any of which a single, childless woman can and should be treated more or less the same as if she were a man. In so far as sexual desire and attraction are kept in check, she can work alongside men pretty much as if she were one of them—parting company mainly for trips to the washroom. No special treatment is called for in evaluation of work, remuneration for it, fringe benefits or career path. Indeed, for most practical purposes, equality in this case can mean sameness, and sex-blindness can be held as an ideal for relations between men and women, much as colorblindness is a worthy ideal for relations between American blacks and whites.
To be treated equally, however, a mother or prospective mother must be treated differently from other women and from men. The reason is that pregnancy, childbirth and child care by nature lessen her economic productivity. Motherhood takes time and energy, lots of it if done well. The hard question is who is going to support women in so far as the work of motherhood interrupts their other work and reduces their ability to support themselves. If we all lived forever and there were no need to reproduce, the natural differences between women and men would be of slight consequence and an end to sex-based discrimination would be a sufficient goal. Because this is not the case, the economic situation of mothers is the single best measure of how much sexual equality a society has achieved.
Until the early decades of this century, the typical or modal situation of American mothers had two key qualities. First, it included a husband to whom the mother would stay married until his or her death. He might not have been her first choice. He might have been dragged to the altar by her pregnancy. Once married, however, he and she were together for keeps. Fewer than five percent of couples got divorced. Fewer than five percent of mothers were unwed. The typical mother lived with the father of her children. She was stuck with him for life, and he was stuck with her.
Second, the typical mother eighty or a hundred years ago worked in a common enterprise with her husband and their children, an enterprise under the particular family's ownership and control. This was in most cases a farm, in others a workshop or store. The divide was thus unclear between work and family life, between productive and reproductive activity. Even physically, the family home and the family business tended to form a single whole. The family gained its livelihood not from the father's earnings, nor from the mother's, but from the proceeds of the family business—both the vegetables, fruits and meat grown for home consumption, and the money from the sale of whatever else. In this business both mother and father had their respective chores, dictated by custom and by however a given couple arranged things for themselves. The typical mother combined care for infants and toddlers with cooking, washing, sewing, gardening, preserving foods, tending poultry, and other work at once skilled and productive. The typical father concentrated on work outside the house, in which he was variously helped and hindered by older children. Periodic major tasks—butchering or the harvest on a farm, or taking inventory in a store—required both parents to drop everything else and work together until the job was done.
In this first of the three main economic situations of mothers in American history, it was the mother's husband, her children's dad, who took up the slack in so far as motherhood diminished her productive capabilities. She was not a full-time mom. Motherhood did not exclude her from economic participation. She remained an integral part of the family enterprise, doing those jobs that fit most easily with child care.
The extent of sexual equality this typical mother enjoyed, how much she was listened to, how much rigidity of sex-role definition she and her husband overcame by sharing tasks and taking turns, how much mutuality and reciprocity she, her husband, and their children achieved, varied greatly by ethnicity, religion, type of business, and above all by the particularities of a given marriage. Some men beat their wives and tyrannized them. Some women belittled their husbands and ruled the family roost. There were more of the former than the latter, I suspect, but I do not know how many more. We need careful empirical research on how many mothers fared well, and how many fared poorly, in that earlier economic situation. My hypothesis is that most fared relatively well. The structure of the economy lent itself to marital equality, a democratic culture encouraged it, and many women themselves publicly demanded it.
One such woman was my grandmother, a penniless
Missouri farm girl, the fifth of eleven children. In 1892, at the age of sixteen,
she wrote in an essay:
People nowadays express surprise if any girl protests against her enforced inferiority, and she is called brazen, manish, strongminded, if she dares to rebel against the settled order of things that so degrades the very name and nature of woman. ... For one, I will rebel. I will be no pensioner in my womanhood. I will earn my way to independence and I will demand the right to work, to speak, to strive, wherever I can do the most for my own advancement. If this be treason, make the best of it, and I call on all girls to do the same.
Grandma was a fortunate feminist, for she fell in love with a man who loved, respected and affirmed her as much as she did him. But Grandpa, the fifth of nine children, had no money either. They set to work on a small, mortgaged farm, had three children in their first six years of marriage, and then she fell ill with tuberculosis. And so the family pulled up stakes and headed West, hoping that Colorado's thinner, drier air might restore her health. Needing means of subsistence like anybody else, they homesteaded far out on the prairie, raised cattle, and lived in a tarpaper shack. Her end came there five years later. In the words of my Mom, their eldest child then thirteen years old, "With a deep groan Papa took her hand from his and placed it motionless upon her breast. Gathering us into his arms he wept, saying over and over, 'Mama's gone, oh my, oh my.'"
I doubt that my grandma was atypical either in her aspiration for sexual equality or in that great extent to which she achieved it in her everyday life in an independent business with her mate. I suppose she did most of the housework before she got sick. Grandpa must have done most of it then, since there was no one else but little kids. Grandma even had the vote in Colorado, since that state—along with Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, states dominated by farm families on the frontier—led the way in women's suffrage.
By 1960, most American mothers were in an economic situation markedly different from that of my grandmother. What had been in the nineteenth century a minority phenomenon, the full-time mom supported by a husband employed by some company, became the dominant way of life. By the workings of an uncontrolled free market, large companies had steadily bought up family enterprises or squeezed them out of business. Only a shrinking minority of citizens any longer owned producitve property or had direct access to means of subsistence. The result, in what was by 1960 the overwhelmingly most common case, was that the husband left home five or six days a week to work for a wage or salary in some urban office or factory, while the wife stayed home to do housework and care for the children.
Clearly, in the transition from the first to the second dominant condition of American mothers, sexual equality declined. The standard of living increased, health and longevity as well. A wedge, however, was now driven between wife and husband. No longer did they work in a common enterprise, by a plan and schedule under their control. Taking turns at the various common tasks, or deciding jointly how to at once care for the children and get work done, was now out of the question. His boss would decide when and how the work would get done. Home and workplace were now miles apart, and in the latter only the husband belonged. The family's livelihood no longer came from an enterprise in which the mother played an integral part, but from the job held by the "sole breadwinner." For him it became a source of pride, balm for the humiliations of employment, to earn enough money to keep his wife off that labor market to which he was now condemned. She, meanwhile, in the city apartment or suburban bungalow, had trouble finding productive, paying things to do that could be coordinated with child care. As a result, also because of home appliances and processed foods, the mother lost many of her skills and the accompanying dignity. George Bernard Shaw described the situation in these harsh words: "as Capitalism made a slave of the man, and then, by paying the woman through him, made her his slave, she became the slave of a slave, which is the worst sort of slavery."
Between 1900 and 1960, moreover, divorce became about four times more common. Fathers could not be counted on so much as earlier to stay with their families. Motherhood had become an intensely vulnerable way of life. No wonder that in this new circumstance, the cult of woman as sex object flourished as never before. Notwithstanding the reciprocity thousands of couples achieved against the odds, out of sheer love and commitment, the majority of mothers were in economic terms "kept women." They depended utterly on their husbands' cheques—and for the greater part of their adult lives, since the modal number of children per family was still four or more. It became important as never before for the woman to satisfy her man in bed. The Mrs. America contest, begun in 1938, judged wives 50 percent on beauty, grace, form, and figure, and 50 percent on cooking, crocheting, and house cleaning.
Just as the developing capitalist economy underlay the transition from the first to the second main condition of mothers in American history, so does it underlie the transition from the second to the third, the condition most mothers are in today.
Four developments have been crucial. First, as husbands lost ownership of productive resources and settled into lifetimes of employment, their enthusiasm for progeny declined. Instead of helpers in the family business and its prospective inheritors, children became just mouths to feed, and for more years than ever as the period of schooling lengthened. The expense of parenthood increased, the returns on it declined, and couples' interest in it waned. Second, the development of easy and effective means of contraception allowed wives to restrict child-bearing to a few years of their lives, or none, while having sex more often than before. Third, the cost of the goods required for subsistence rose, due in part to incessant advertising, in part to a restructuring of everyday life. The definition of a respectable livelihood came to include one or two cars, at least one bathroom, central heating, a refrigerator, a color TV, and much more, all of which take lots of money. Fourth, controlling for inflation, the earnings of American husbands actually went down. Between 1970 and 1985, the average household where the woman stayed out of the paid labor force suffered a loss of real income of about five percent.
For these and other reasons, steadily more mothers over the past quarter century have ceased to be "just housewives" and reclaimed the economic participation that was lost in the earlier transition. By now the typical wife, like the typical husband, is a paid employee, and it is this above all that defines the new condition of American mothers.
Employment sharply distinguishes today's mother not only from the full-time mom of the fifties but from the partner in a family enterprise of the late nineteenth century. For as an employee, the typical mother must leave home to work, follow a schedule set by her employer, and devote herself fully to her job during working hours. The terms of her economic participation prevent her from intermingling reproductive and productive work in the way most mothers did for millennia. She cannot keep her children with her at work, but must relinquish their care to others for the greater part of the day. Of preschool children of women employees, only 5 percent are cared for by their mothers at work. Fully 70 percent are taken to somebody else's home or to a group day-care center.
Today's employed mother differs from the earlier business partner in a second way. Work does not draw her and her husband together but instead pulls them apart. They are not joined in a common economic enterprise whose proceeds pay their bills. Now they have separate livelihoods, and the demands of their jobs often clash. Their vacations may not coincide; their shifts may be different; advancement of one may require a move to some city where the other must "start all over." Couples today devise ingenious schemes for reconciling their separate careers and saving their marriages. The fact remains that employment in different jobs for different companies, subjection to two different employers' demands, militates against a common life. Appropriately in this new situation, the wife sometimes goes by her family name, prefacing it with Ms., instead of adopting the husband's surname and calling herself Mrs. This innovation is indeed a symbol of equality, but it is also a symbol of separateness.
In the typical case, however, the wife still takes the husband's name and for the sake of the family settles for a lesser job than his—a less skilled and responsible job, requiring less travel and evening work, a job that pays less, gives fewer fringe benefits, and offers less chance of moving up. He has a career, that is, while she has a job. For even with day-care, motherhood naturally takes more time than fatherhood—much more time, by the social conventions still in place. Housework, too, continues to fall disproportionately on the mom. She may indeed leave the paid labor force for some years, with dire consequences for her long-run career success. Thus the typical mother's contribution to the family income is substantially less than the father's.
This matters quite enough if the marriage lasts, but it matters still more if, as half the time by now, the marriage fails. Once separated or divorced, the typical mother supports herself and her children on her wages or salary. Child-support payments from the ex-husband are seldom enough to prevent a drastic drop in her standard of living, and she is often forced onto public assistance. If she remarries, as most divorced mothers do, the new husband may not be able to provide much support, burdened as he may be by child-support payments to his ex-wife. The net effect is that mothering has become a more solitary undertaking than before. Fathers are often out of the picture, except on weekends. Indeed, almost a quarter of babies are now born to unmarried women, and do not even begin their lives with a legal dad around the house. Thus if one asks today who takes up the slack in so far as motherhood slows a woman down, the answer has several parts: often the father takes up the slack, and often the public treasury, through the various social welfare programs, but increasingly and to a great extent, it is the woman herself.
The change in the condition of mothers over this past quarter century is staggering in its magnitude and rapidity. Collectively, in our sexual, marital, and parental lives, we have sailed at full steam into uncharted waters, and it is anyone's guess whether we shall end up on the rocks or someplace we want to be. The latter is more likely, the more we get our bearings, assess our movement, and take control of it as best we can.
How much equality and reciprocity the typical mother today achieves in her life depends in the main on how she fares in three relationships: first, her relationships at work, with fellow-workers and whoever their work serves; second, with her husband; third, with her children.
In her working life she confronts, like almost everyone else these days, a harshly competitive labor market and a sharply hierarchical occupational structure. Companies are large, bureaucratic, and organized by and large on the distinctly nonreciprocal principle of the pecking order, the chain of command. The top jobs confer high salaries and much opportunity for giving orders to other people: most professional and managerial positions, for instance. The jobs at the bottom pay the minimum wage and consist of taking orders, as in many services and retail sales. The root problem is the inequality, the dominative-submissive relations, fostered by this structure of work. The particular problem for mothers is that they are disproportionately on the submissive end, in the more routine, less interesting, and lower-paying jobs. There is lots of variation, but mothers are concentrated in jobs that lead nowhere.
This is not so bad for those mothers who have rich and fulfilling home lives—and many do, thanks to not just love and respect but ingenuity and luck. Yet the typical home is an emptier place than formerly. A century ago, the whole family worked there. Then dad had to leave every day for work. Now so does mom, usually in a different direction. The building of any reciprocal relationship, in marriage above all, takes not just time but prolonged joint involvement in serious activities. The divorce rate is evidence that the typical couple today have trouble finding time for each other, and common outlets for whatever energy is left after working hours. It is hard to argue that the typical mother's marriage is so enlivening as to make up for an enfeebling job.
The same point applies to the mother's (and the father's) relationship to their children. No hour or two of "quality time" can substitute for long periods spent together, attending not so much to each other as to common tasks in which the child gets to be a "helper." There is a lesson in the fact that when a wife or husband finds a new lover, it is often a co-worker, somebody with whom a routine of tasks has been shared day by day for months or years. That is how real human relationships are built, and how parents for millennia have introduced their children to the possibility of such relationships. What the typical mother today is asked to forego, for the sake of access to the means of subsistence, is the same thing the typical father was asked to forego a half century ago: intense and prolonged interaction with the children, in the midst of work, the chance thereby to teach them how good and important they are, and how capable of taking part in the human project.
In the late nineteenth century, when capital was becoming harder to acquire and steadily more husbands were being pushed onto the labor market, Karl Marx lamented their lack of autonomy at work. He called their class the proletariat, from the Latin proles, meaning people whose only contribution to history is through children they raise at home. This word proletariat is too generous for the dual-employment couples of our time, in so far as the terms of their economic participation undermine family life, break up marriages, discourage child-bearing, and leave the children who are born to be raised by day-care workers, teachers, and TV. The fault lies not with mothers, nor with fathers, but with an economic structure that has somehow overtaken all of us.
For improving the situation of mothers, the current direction of public policy, reflected in even the Republican Party's platform, is toward subsidizing more mothers' access to day-care. It may be that day-care workers can do as good a job as parents in helping children grow up. It is a fact that many parents in the past blew the chance to raise their children lovingly and well. On the other hand, day-care workers do not even begin with a natural bond to their charges, they care for lots of them at once, and rarely do they develop long-term relationships with them. The alternative is at least worth pondering, for the sake of both children and parents, of revising by law the terms of economic participation so as to bring homes back to life, to allow parents—mothers especially but fathers as well—to raise their own children in their own varied ways. If we regard mothers as our equals, surely we should give them the option, without being forced into unemployment, of mothering their own children. Indeed, if public policy made it easier for mothers to mother and for fathers to father, if it encouraged couples to work together at parenthood, without losing their jobs, probably fewer couples would split up, and both parents and children would be spared a lot of grief.
Employers, that is, need to be forced by law to recognize and make allowances for the marital and family involvements of their employees. The United States is now the only major Western country that allows an employer to fire a woman for taking a few months off to have a baby, and the only one that does not give this mother a few months of support from public funds. Similar measures already enforced by law in some countries and by some collective agreements here in the United States include: time off for mothers or fathers to care for their children at home when the kids are sick; day-care centers in the workplace, so that a parent can be close to his or her little children during the day and visit them at lunch or coffee break; flexible working hours, so that husband and wife can coordinate their schedules for the sake of a home life; the option of unpaid leave of absence during school children's summer holidays if a parent wants to be at home with them; and the option of working half-time for half pay, without loss of benefits or job security, for the sake of meeting parental responsibilities. Provisions for parenthood like these are modest and inexpensive. The fact that they are so hard to win is a measure of how dominative employers have been allowed to be, and how disrespectfully and unequally the economic structure is allowed to treat parents, mothers in particular.Perhaps the only adequate way to advance the equality of mothers, as well as fathers and single women and men, would be to decentralize the economic structure, to break up as many large corporations as can reasonably be replaced by small-scale enterprises, owned mainly by the people who work in them. The majority of Americans were not employees in the nineteenth century. There is no need for 90 percent of them to be employees today. If the goal is to free women and men to take part in constructive, productive, egalitarian, reciprocal relationships, then the reasonable first step is to ensure that as many women and men as possible have direct access to the means of subsistence, that they hold title to productive property, that they have the chance to run their own businesses, family businesses if they wish, and to combine work, play, sex, marriage, parenthood, and all the other things they want to do in their own respective ways, using their own ingenuity and creativity. In Shaw's terms, women have moved by now from being the slaves of men to being slaves like men; the appropriate further move, for both sexes, is into the freedom reserved in a capitalist society to those who own capital and share control of the conditions of their work.