Gender

"Having it All?" The Wrong Question for Most Women

The media seem intent on pitting women against each other in a "Having it All" debate about work inside and outside the home.

Photo Credit: shutterstock

When Anne Marie Slaughter wrote her article for Atlantic magazine on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” describing her decision to leave a top job for Hilary Clinton at the State Department, she acknowledged that she’s talking about a small sliver of elite women. “Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances,” Slaughter noted.

But neither Atlantic, nor the New York Times, nor any of the other major media outlets that has run or commented on Slaughter’s article, spotlight these working mothers—the majority, in fact—who are struggling with daily hardships because our country does not provide basic policies that help value families in the workplace. 

These women are not thinking about “having it all,” they’re worried about losing it all—their jobs, their children’s health, their families’ financial stability—because of the regular conflicts that arise between being a good employee and a responsible parent.  

What these women want are policies that let them be both without having to be superwomen:

  • Paid sick days that protect jobs or paychecks for being a good mother and staying home with a sick child. Right now two in five workers lack even a single paid sick day, and nearly half of those who earn sick time can’t use it to care for a sick child.
  • Family leave for all workers to protect jobs for those with a new baby. Half the workforce is this country isn’t eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides that job protection.
  • Family leave insurance that would keep new mothers from being forced to rely on welfare and other public programs after giving birth. Today nearly half of women in the U.S. workforce do not receive a penny of pay during maternity leave—too often forcing their families into poverty. 
  • Equity for part-timers and predictable schedules so women don’t have to decide which bill will go unpaid because the work schedule changes from week to week, with very short notice and usually too few hours—or just enough shy of 40 to deny eligibility for benefits.

We need to highlight and talk about the daily struggles of women like Kimberly Ortiz, the mother of two young boys on the autism spectrum and a member of the Retail Action Project, who has worked in retail since she was 16. As a full-time employee at the Statue of Liberty for nearly five years, Ortiz still does not earn enough to support her family without food stamps. Here is part of her testimony before a Congressional committee:

Even with the title of “Assistant Manager,” I was only making $9.25 an hour at the gift shop, catering to New York City’s large tourist economy, where approximately 4 million people visit each year, at $20 per ticket. Despite the steady flow of tourists to the Statue and their steady hours of operation, I was only notified of my weekly schedule 3‐4 days ahead of time…Still, I was eager to work hard—I often volunteered to come in early or stay late—whatever was needed to get the job done.

[With the birth of’] my first son Aidan, I took a month and a half off without pay, because that job didn’t offer any paid time off….Once Aidan was born, my manager’s attitude completely changed toward me. I still wanted to work full time, but … because I couldn’t come in at 5:30am anymore, they cut me from 40‐45 hours per week to 15‐20, even though I had seniority, was available for more hours, and desperately needed them.

One time, my son got really sick with a double ear infection, and I had to take 4 days off. My manager told me she couldn’t guarantee there would be no repercussions for this unexpected time off when I called her from the hospital emergency room.

When researchers find that nearly one in four workers has been fired or threatened with firing for taking time to care for themselves or a sick family member, newspapers should be covering this as an urgent economic problem facing our country. And when 95 percent of school nurses who participated in an online poll by the National Association of School Nurses in 2009 say a parent has told them they couldn’t pick up a sick child for fear of losing a job, there should be an outcry from political commentators on the right, left and center about the way our economy fails to uphold American family values.

Anne-Marie Slaughter writes that it’s time to “revalue family values.” I agree. It’s high time to bring workplaces into the twenty-first century, where more than 60 percent of mothers in our country are the primary bread-winners or co-breadwinners for their families.

That requires new workforce standards so that all women and men can be good family members without being punished for it at work.

I don’t think we have to wait for “a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart,” as Slaughter suggested. Our economy needs these changes now—to keep people employed, to strengthen the economy and businesses and families.

Fortunately, women at Walmart and other retail jobs are organizing to win the changes they need, as are nannies and home care workers and domestic workers,restaurant workers and teachers and others.

The more feminist bloggers and mainstream media highlight these campaigns, the more likely we are to win. That should matter to all of us, because raising the floor and supporting a greater voice for the majority of women is what will most help change the culture for everyone.

Ellen Bravo is an activist and author. She serves as executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of 15 state coalitions working for paid sick days and paid family leave (http://www.familyvaluesatwork.org/). The former director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, her most recent book is Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation. She is a WMC Progressive Women’s Voices alumna.