Maybe they should all drop out.
|May 24||Public post|| 8|
What I’m Writing
The New York Times - Does Anybody Actually Want Joe Biden to be President? Biden is leading in the polls, but is that because voters are primarily worried about “electability” — and assuming that Biden is someone else’s ideal candidate?
CNN - This is the biggest mistake Democrats could make (the answer is looking at Trump’s high disapprovals, picking the “safe” candidate, and then assuming we have the election in the bag).
What I’m Reading
If you read a single thing today, please make it this by Michelle Alexander, on her experience of being raped during her freshman year of law school and then having an abortion. It is incredibly powerful on its own — particularly her points about the lack of family financial support so many black women in America have, and the absurdity of the “rape exception” — but it also has me thinking, again, about the women we lose when we force pregnancy and childbearing on them. Michelle Alexander is a New York Times columnist. She is a hugely influential scholar and prison reform advocate. She is one of our nation’s intellectual gems. Would we have had Michelle Alexander, as we know her, had she been forced to have a baby? Would she have her clearly much-loved 12-year-old daughter if she had been forced to go through with that earlier pregnancy? Decisions build on other decisions. Abortion opponents talk about the pregnancies women end as the big losses — as if women’s lives would be the same if they hadn’t had abortions, just plus a baby. That’s not how it works. There are so many children, marriages, loves, successes, degrees, and lives that exist because abortion does. As individuals and as a whole society, we all benefit when the choice to bear children is left in the hands of those doing the work. Anyway. Read the column.
You’re all reading Judd Legum, right? Subscribe to his newsletter, and check out this list of corporations that are supporting Alabama’s abortion ban and the politicians who made it a reality.
This is one of the smarter things I’ve read in a while, by my friend Ian Milhiser, on the options for countering illiberal nihilists (the answers are… not the best, but important to be clear-eyed about).
The View From Here
Putting this out there in case some magic happens: I’m heading to Uganda on Monday to report on services for refugees who have experienced sexual violence. I’m casting a wide net for sources — please ping me if you know anyone working in country!
Here in DC, I continue to obsess over abortion bans and the Supreme Court, as well as the Democratic Primary and especially all of its gender messiness. This piece in Vox, which asks dads on the campaign trail who takes care of their kids, came out yesterday and it’s been bugging me for the past 24 hours. The piece itself is really good — and we should be asking men these questions. But the answers are predictably infuriating.
Every single one of the men with young children who responded to Vox’s request have a single primary childcare solution: Their wives. And look, parenting is hard, couples have to divide and conquer, everyone chooses their choice, whatever. But what these men illustrate is a systematic privileging of men’s careers that systematically disadvantages women, and that men have a particular incentive to make invisible. They all talk a big game about appreciating what their wives do, and that’s great. “Evelyn really is the rock of our family and without her, everything would fall apart,” said Andrew Yang, whose children are taken care of full-time by his wife, with help from his mother and her mother (apparently no men in this entire extended family do childcare). “We must do more to support and recognize the work being done in our homes and communities each day.” To which I just want to shout, well then YOU do it, Andrew!
It’s not just Andrew. The men in the Vox article all offer lists of wives and mothers and mothers-in-law and aunts who are caring for their children why they pursue their presidential hopes. It’s striking: It is all women (with the exception of Ruben Gallego, who apparently sometimes babysits for Eric Swallwell — Gallego is also Swallwell’s campaign chairman).
I know, I know: We are all doing our best and balancing work and family is hard. But the truth is, men aren’t doing their best, except for themselves. Any individual couple can spell out the reasons why he works and she stays home, or he works and she scaled back, or he travels and she keeps the homefront stable, or he does something approaching 50% of the household tasks but she tells him what those are and keeps all of the appointments and vaccinations and current shoe sizes and which dispenser needs soap and when the toilet paper is about to run out all in her head.
I was also listening to old episodes of the Dear Sugars podcast yesterday, including one on career vs. love. Women (only women) wrote in who were in fairly new relationships with men they loved dearly, but whose plans conflicted with theirs. One was planning to go to law school, but was dating a man in the military whose job would require him to move often; should she put off her plans? The other spent almost ten years in a marriage where her career came second; she followed her husband to cities she didn’t want to live in and did jobs she didn’t want to do in order to make his dreams a reality, and when it was finally supposed to be her turn, he wasn’t on board. They divorced, she moved to city she loved, found a job she loved, got promoted, built a life… and then met a guy who she dated for four months, after he moved to South America, but not before telling her he wanted to spend his life with her and would she come.
I’ve moved abroad with a partner pretty early in a relationship. I get the urge to follow love — I am a big proponent of taking big risks for love. But women also need to take big risks for themselves — including requiring more of men. There seem to be significant differences in how men and women think about these questions and their lives. Men move forward. They do their jobs. For women, especially women who grew up with moms who came of age in the second-wave feminist movement (or moms who are younger than that), the calculus is different: We have heard our whole lives that women seek to “have it all,” but this is a mirage, and we are going to have to work very hard to balance work and family. We hear this before we have work or a family to balance. Men, for the most part, feel entitled to jobs and careers, which makes sense, because masculine identity in the United States has long hinged on one’s job (or at the very least on one’s ability to provide for a family). For women, it’s been more complicated. Straight men tend assume that family life will just work out, that they’ll be able to have a full-time job and a wife and however many kids, and things will just work themselves out. They may plan to do their fair share, but they also know in the back of their minds that if they don’t do much at home, a woman will pick up the slack. Most women, too, now assume that we will work and have a family and balance it out; we assume, or at least hope, our male partners will do their fair share.
It’s the men who end up being right. Even in relationships that start out pretty egalitarian, kids come into the picture and the dynamic shifts. You hear over and over that couples make hard choices that inevitably involve her staying home and him working because he made more money and her salary barely covered the cost of childcare (as if it’s only her responsibility to pay for childcare, and so her salary is the number it’s being deducted from). There’s no recognition of the fact that these assumptions that women drop out of the workforce contribute to the gender gap. Or that men with stay-at-home wives tend to pay their female subordinates less and promote them less often. Men dominate nearly all of the top positions across high-paying industries, from finance to business to law. They don’t do that without someone else managing the rest of their lives — not just kids, but their social engagements and their physical and emotional health, too — so that they can have it all, ascend the professional ranks, and make enough money that it justifies their equally ambitious wives staying home.
But here’s the thing: It’s not that these men were rich and then their wives decided to stay home, or, if they didn’t stay home, had to take on the lion’s share of the at-home labor. It’s that these men are rich because their wives stayed home, or took on the lion’s share of the at-home labor.
Having someone who does both the physical and mental work of taking care of children and a home frees men up to just not think about it — to say yes to late nights at the office or the kind of workplace social events that mean more business, a promotion, a mentorship, a new client. That helps to concentrate more money in an individual family. But it also means that the money comes from a single source, who by extension, then, has all the control and all the freedom.
That isn’t to say that breadwinning men control their wives. But the reality in a capitalist society is this: If you are financially dependent on someone else, you simply have less power. You have less of an ability to leave for any reason. You have less negotiating leverage.
And the decisions we make build on each other: If one partner leaves her job to follow the other, it’s easier to stay out of the workforce when kids come. If only the female partner takes parental leave, she learns how to comfort and care for the baby much quicker; it just “happens” that the baby then only wants her, or primarily wants her, and it’s just easier for her to maintain that role of primary caregiver — which means, in turn, that she’s doing more at home, and she’s exhausted, and maybe her going back to work becomes a question.
I’ve seen how this plays out in professional settings, how older men are able to ascend the ranks at any given workplace because they can always say yes: to more work, to the company dinner, to the happy hours, to a late night. I’ve seen younger men look at that and understand they need the same model. I’ve seen women who simply cannot do the same, because highly-educated, ambitious women working in competitive workplace also tend to be married to or dating highly-educated, ambitious men working in competitive workplaces. And there’s no assumption, among these women, that they can do what they want and their male partners will pick up the slack.
This is not just an elite problem. Unequal gender relationships exist across class lines. For all of the conservative handwringing about declining marriage rates in the working class, it’s worth considering that women who are employed but don’t have high earning prospects, and probably aren’t going to be partnered with men who have high earning prospects, perhaps don’t see it as beneficial to marry a guy who is going to add to the household demands instead of lessening them. Less cynically, when an increasing share of working-class jobs have too few hours but hours that are unpredictable, that makes childcare a disaster and marriages (or even relationships) harder — exponentially harder when the assumption (on both sides) is that the female partner will simply do more. What happens when you can’t do more?
On a whole-society level, the outcome of watching so many families that look like Beto’s and Andrew’s and Seth’s is that girls learn that it’s their job to care for boys, physically and emotionally, and to care for the relationship as well — to be the ones who are tasked with choosing to move for a partner, because of course they could never ask him to give up or even postpone his dreams; to be the ones who maintain stability while their partner pursues greatness. These little assumptions scale back women’s ambitions; they allow men’s to grow unfettered, for most men to not even give any of this a passing thought until it’s directly in front of their faces.
These decisions feel so personal that they’re difficult to unpack on an individual level, because we are just doing what we can in a remarkably unjust world, in a remarkably unequal country that offers families, and especially women, so little.
But these individual decisions add up to truly inequitable whole.
I keep thinking about Elizabeth Warren’s story of nearly quitting her job as a young law professor because she had two kids to care for her no help. Her aunt swooped into town and stayed. Without Aunt Bee, Elizabeth Warren as we know her would not exist. Without their wives, Beto O’Rourke, Eric Swallwell, Andrew Yang, Michael Bennet, Julian Castro, and Seth Moulton would not exist as we know them (to the extent anyone knows… Eric Swallwell or Michael Bennet).
There are many, many more of these men — men whose public lives have been made possible by invisible female labor in the background — than Elizabeth Warrens. Think about what we’ve lost there, whose voices never broke through the surface. Most women don’t have an Aunt Bee, even if most women do cobble together informal networks of help. And Elizabeth Warren couldn’t have been Beto, or Andrew, or Seth, or Julian, or any other of these Bright Young Things whose youth we collectively find so exciting — because she didn’t have a partner at home taking care of everything else when her kids were young.
(As an aside, it’s no coincidence that so many women who run for office do so after their children are grown; it’s no coincidence that of current Supreme Court justices, all of the men have children, and only one of the women does — RBG, and she was appointed after her kids were adults).
The young men running for president acknowledge the work their wives do. That’s great. But they also sell this false vision of equality, this condescending cliché that motherhood is the most important job in the world. The men who want to lead the Democratic Party — a party that is disproportionately female, and disproportionately not white — know they have to be a little sheepish about their home set-ups. It’s one thing to adequately perform being feminist-ish, to know that you’re supposed to feel a little bad about your treatment of this whole work-family thing where you pursued political power and your wife, who may be just as smart and ambitious, did nearly all of the family stuff. It’s quite another to actually make different choices.
One wonders why, if men believe parenthood is the most important thing one can do, they don’t do it full time, and instead elect to run for president.
If work at home is so important, why don’t men do more of it? If your family would “fall apart” without your wife, why don’t you act as an equal reinforcement and bear half of that weight?
It’s because the current setup benefits men. Women hear so often that we can’t “have it all.” I don’t think men hear about “having it all” either way — “having it all” is just “life.” No one tells them they can have it all, because a man’s ability to have both a job that acts as a cornerstone of his identity and a family that does the same has long been a male birthright. We didn’t think about it until women wanted in on having this “it all” thing. We didn’t think about it until women wanting a little more made visible the fact that men got “it all” because women were working behind the scenes.
I know it is not Beto or Andrew or whoever’s personal decisions that created the vast imbalances women still face. I don’t think any of these men are raging misogynists who control their docile and submissive wives. I trust that all of these couples had serious conversations about who would take on what, and that the wives of all of these men would say that they made the choices that were the best for their families. That’s probably true. I mean, look where they are.
I also think most people, when faced with the inequities in their own homes, would probably say that it wasn’t intentional. It just so happens it turned out this way.
But this is the heart of inequality, of all the female ambitions unrealized, of all of the women who could have been Elizabeth Warrens or Stacy Abramses or RBGs, right here, in the “just so happens.”
An End Note
…because I can’t think of a smoother way to transition to this. Look, I know this was a very cranky post. I’m sorry! I may feel more generous about the whole thing tomorrow, but at the moment, I am very, very tired of hearing about all of the ways men want to be more helpful, except any single one that might actually require them to make any sacrifices at all.
To that end: It strikes me that one major reason Biden remains the frontrunner is that the field is so saturated no one else can break through. A similar dynamic happened in the lead-up to 2016 — no one had quite the lead of Biden, but all of the candidates ended up creating a big heap of white noise. Then Trump came in, I believe right around summertime, and he dominated the polls thereafter.
I’m not sure there’s a Democrat who can do that (Oprah, I love you so much, but please no). And this election has become so crowded that it seems every Democrat with a book to sell or hopes of a national platform is jumping in. They aren’t all playing to win; a lot of them are playing to boost their profiles.
All of that is directing us to Joe Biden. Which, if that’s what the party chooses, great, we should all vote for the guy. Alternately, a suggestion: If other second- and third-tier Democrats think Biden isn’t the best candidate, maybe the best thing they can do is drop out of the race. Who are the first-tier candidates? Everyone other than Bernie, Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg. If we’re being cool about it, let’s say clearing 1% is the threshold and we can keep Booker, O’Rourke, Klobuchar and Castro in there. That’s still a lot of people, but it’s a more reasonable number, and offers the chance for any one of them to get some real oxygen — something that is just not going to happen for, say, Seth Moulton.
I know everyone is screaming “STACEY ABRAMS!” right now and… maybe? I dunno, she may not want to risk it in a field that’s already this crowded. It’s SO. HARD. for any of these campaigns to get serious, deep attention and to really harness any excitement, I think because there are just too many of them. Which is why the stragglers need to throw in the towel, and do it now.
I’ve been a very loud proponent of a competitive primary. We don’t need a coronation. We do need a serious debate about ideas and priorities. But I’m not sure much of that is breaking through beyond the obsessive few of us. I think it all looks and sounds like a lot of noise. And I think that’s hurting every otherwise promising candidate who wasn’t the vice president or the surprise challenger four years ago.
Ok time to watch VEEP, improve my bad attitude, and go to bed.