Free Female Labor Is The Plan
Paid family leave is out because male power and independence requires female subordination
Thanks to Democratic-ish senator Joe Manchin, the United States will remain one of the only countries on the planet that does not offer paid leave to women who have just had babies, forcing new mothers — nearly all of them recovering from childbirth, which may involve major abdominal surgery — to either quit their jobs upon the birth of a child, or return to work while still in significant pain, and with a brand-new infant at home who needs round-the-clock care.
Greatest Country On Earth, right?
It’s hard to overstate how infuriating this is. Democrats have control of Congress and the White House for what may be the last time in many years. We are still in a pandemic that pushed millions of women, most of them mothers, out of the workforce or into part-time employment, an economic devastation that will reverberate for the rest of these women’s lives, and in the lives of these children. The women who dropped out or scaled back will see lower lifetime earnings. They will have less money in retirement. They are more vulnerable to domestic violence and financial coercion from a partner. They are more likely to live or wind up in poverty. Their children will lose out on all of the benefits that come from having a working mother, from greater financial stability to more success in school to more gender-equal homes when they grow up.
And other women suffer, too. When women are forced to drop out en masse because they have children and no help, the assumption builds that women are less reliable and loyal employees, and less worthy of investment and mentorship. We also know that men with stay-at-home wives are worse bosses — they are less likely to promote female employees, and less likely to pay them as competitively as they pay male ones.
Men broadly benefit. Women broadly lose. Men maintain power and enjoy the fruits of women’s free labor. Women remain dependent. That is the point.
There isn’t some big conspiracy here, but there is a set of transparent motivations. There is a plan. The plan is: Women work for free so that men can work for money, in a capitalist society in which money is necessary for safety, independence, and power.
The latest family leave failure is only one part of a conservative strategy to maintain male power at women’s expense. If you take away or even simply compromise women’s ability to prevent unwanted pregnancies and plan wanted ones, you take away a woman’s ability to plan her life — you keep her vulnerable and dependent. That is exactly what the anti-abortion movement and the Republican Party have long been doing: Trying to outlaw abortion to be sure, but also trying to make it much, much harder for women to access contraception, and much, much easier for (mostly male) business owners and religious leaders to decide whether their female employees can get birth control the same way they would get any other medication (through their health insurance).
If they had their way, the Republican Party and American conservatives would force women into pregnancy and childbirth against their will by making it illegal to end a pregnancy, illegal to use some of the most effective methods of preventing pregnancy (go ahead and check out how many anti-abortion groups define IUDs and birth control pills as “abortifacients”), exceptionally difficult to use even less-effective methods of pregnancy prevention, and difficult even to refuse unwanted sex (many conservatives and Republicans opposed outlawing marital rape; many still oppose outlawing child marriage).
Then: Make it incredibly difficult for those women to be both parents and workers. Make this particularly true if those women aren’t married. Extract costs for maternal independence.
Then: Make it incredibly difficult for mothers to get the kind of social support they need to leave a bad marriage or stay financially solvent in retirement. Keep basic life necessities — a home, health care, food, retirement savings — tied to either being employed or being married to someone who is employed.
Then: Reward people who work as if they have nothing else going on in their lives.
There is a unifying ideology here, and it’s not life, or economic growth, or fiscal responsibility, or strong families. It’s a kind of male power at home, in the workplace, over money, and in politics that is only possible with unpaid feminine support, a lack of competition from women, and externally enforced female subservience.
Paid family leave policies are widely beneficial, including on the issues that Republicans and conservatives say they care about, and definitely on the issues that Democrats and liberals care about. They make for healthier families. They promote marital stability. They make for healthier kids who do better in school and are less prone to all sorts of anti-social and suboptimal behavior and outcomes. They provide an incentive for women to choose to give birth instead of ending mistimed pregnancies. They get more people in the workforce and increase productivity and result in wildly positive economic benefits — one estimate from McKinsey says that paid family leave could add $2.4 trillion to US GDP. They incentivize the kind of risk-taking that fuels innovation. They even juice the birth rate a bit, making for more babies!
There is, however, one thing paid family leave policies do that conservatives don’t want: They increase gender equality. And that further erodes the male monopoly on power, money, and independence.
And that is indeed a downside for a lot of men. Gender parity in the workforce means men will face more competition from women, who are increasingly better-educated than men. More women in the workforce means that fewer men will be able to rely on a full-time wife at home who enables them to work full-time. It’s hard to overstate how huge of a professional benefit a stay-at-home wife is: Unlike nearly every working woman (stay-at-home husbands are growing in numbers but remain very rare), working men with stay-at-home wives can focus nearly 100% of their time and energy on work. They can go in early, stay late, and go to last-minute drinks with colleagues and clients. They can attend events on evenings and weekends. They can say yes to last-minute projects and work trips. They face very little personal or professional judgment for their choices. They have maximal professional freedom because there is someone else at home making sure that the kids get to school, that dinner is on the table, that the dry cleaning is picked up, that the parent-teacher conference is attended, that the playdate is set, that the laundry is done, that the house is clean, and that the family has plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas and the kids’ spring break. Working women, even married ones, overwhelmingly don’t have that same benefit — the tasks of kids and the home and the schedule and the detritus of life are, at best, divided in half between two adults, and more often divided more like 70/30.
The American culture of overwork would not be possible without this free female labor and the men who rely on it. And this free female labor would not be so readily on offer if our political and workplace policies didn’t transparently incentivize it.
Paid family leave does not fully solve any these problems. But it’s one big, huge step toward solving them. It’s one big, huge step toward keeping more women in the workforce, and by extension affording women greater independence, more personal freedom, greater life stability, and more power. And that, for conservatives (including, apparently, conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin and the constituents he believes he represents) is the problem: More women in the workforce means fewer men who benefit from an artificially small pool of competition, who can rely on women’s unpaid labor to enable their careers, and who derive their power at home and at work from their status as breadwinners.
And yes I know I know, this is (or was) paid family leave, not paid maternity leave. But we know that most men don’t take parental leave, and many won’t take it even if it’s on offer — that’s why the enlightened feminists of Sweden had to create a use-it-or-lose-it model of family leave to essentially force men to take paid time off. We know that the overwhelming majority of unpartnered caregivers in the US are women. We know that the overwhelming majority of partnered primary caregivers in the US are women.
We know that the overwhelming majority of people who are pushed out of the workforce because someone has to take care of small children who cannot look after themselves are women. We know that this is financially disastrous for women and for the country as a whole. And I, at least, do believe that most men are not completely ignorant misogynists, and that many of them understand that they would benefit from paid family leave, too — men are spending more time with their children than ever before, and increasingly say that they do not feel like they are balancing work and family as well as they would like. And while men might not all take paid leave, but the hetero among them might at least appreciate that their female partners could.
This is not a conspiracy of men vs. women. But it absolutely is a clear and uncompromising plan of conservatives, including some conservative Democrats, to maintain a whole series of unearned male advantages and unfair female vulnerabilities.
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Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash
The men who benefit from this system are not going to change their ways voluntarily in response to this cogent and accurate analysis. The benefits to them are immediate and attractive. The costs are not felt immediately and seem abstract. As long as there are willing laborers, the system will survive.
Consider the ‘professional’ mother/housewife. She is on-call 24-7. Her work is requires skill and creativity, at times, in some ways, but consists mostly of unskilled labor. She has great responsibility, overseeing the welfare, growth, and development of children, but meeting this responsibility does not require her direct personal attention all day everyday. Mostly, she’s a domestic servant, playing a subordinate role in her spouse/breadwinner’s life, and has the attendant social status, mythology to the contrary notwithstanding. Her ‘pay’ is room, board, and whatever expenses she negotiates with her breadwinner partner. The arrangement warps the couple’s relationship and limits the ‘professional’ mother/housewife’s possibilities and value. Want the gig, girls?