Using "Iron My Shirt" to Talk About the Issues

Much has been made of the fact that Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton has been taunted by the cry "Iron my shirt." Candidate Clinton herself pointed out that this demonstrates that "the remnants of sexism are alive and well." Chelsea Clinton wrote about how this insult brought home the depth of sexism in this country and the need for activism. Robin Morgan, feminist activist, fiercely objected to the fact that commentators responded with amusement instead of outrage.

I wonder though what would happen, if in addition to responding with anger and outrage, we also saw it as an opportunity to talk about real issues affecting all Americans regardless of gender?

What if the response had been, "you know I am much better at advancing health care policy than I am at ironing shirts. It seems to me that whether the shirt you are wearing is wrinkled or pressed, you will be a lot better off if the body wearing it doesn't have to worry about whether it can afford to see a doctor."

A jeer like "Iron my shirt" is meant to reinforce sexist stereotypes. Women, according to the heckler, should be home doing domestic work, not in the public sphere running for President.

But this taunt also reflects deep and real anxiety about important issues such as: Who is going to take care of the children? Who is going to take care of the homes we live in? Who will be there waiting for us when we come home from school or work?

The truth is that most of the work of child-care and cleaning continues to be done by women, and they do it for free. Increasingly, in this economy they do it in addition to the hours they put in for paid work because their families cannot afford to have either parent stay at home. For many women, paid work outside the home is not a choice -- it is an absolute necessity. For the poorest women, a centerpiece of welfare reform was the mandate that they work outside the home -- whether or not they had the means to ensure safe and loving care for their children. Even women with greater wealth who might be able to afford to stay home, are not necessarily making a "choice" to stay home, since our work place policies and our tax structure virtually always makes it the logical choice for the lower wage worker -- the wife -- to be the one to stay home.

Some economists have estimated that if we had to pay for all of the unpaid labor that women do, caring for children and the aged, cleaning clothes and houses, chauffeuring kids from place to place, shopping and cooking, and preparing children for the world around them -- our country would go bankrupt.

So what do we do about this? How do we address the fact that people, men and women alike should be able to fulfill their aspirations regarding education and work, should have opportunities to learn and contribute outside the home, should be able to develop their talents and dreams -- and at the same time address the fact that children need to be cared for, homes need to be maintained, and someone needs to iron the shirts, or at least do the laundry every now and then? And, how do we take on this issue knowing that for some people, staying at home full-time to raise a family is in fact what would fulfill their greatest aspirations?

We don't have all of the answers, but we have some. We know that providing universal health care coverage would ensure that those moms who do stay at home are not left without a way to pay for their health care. We know that the U.S. is virtually alone in the industrial world in its refusal to provide any paid parental leave -- and that such support, taken for granted elsewhere in the world, would undoubtedly ease some of the burdens on working families. And we know that a failing U.S. economy will only further limit the options individuals and families have.

We also know that for too many low-income women, -- as a result of racism, lack of educational opportunities and the inflexibility of other jobs -- the only paid work they can get is ironing shirts belonging to other families.

So the next time someone shouts, "Iron my shirt" let's challenge the sexism -- but let's do more than that. Let's ask how much the person shouting is willing to pay for the work of ironing shirts. And, let's use it as an opportunity to start a real conversation about how to ensure that both men and women, mothers and fathers have access to meaningful work and family life opportunities.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) works to secure the human and civil rights, health and welfare of all women, focusing particularly on pregnant and parenting women, and those who are most vulnerable - low income women, women of color, and drug-using women. NAPW seeks to ensure that women do not lose their constitutional and human rights as a result of pregnancy, that addiction and other health and welfare problems they face during pregnancy are addressed as health issues, not as crimes; that families are not needlessly separated, based on medical misinformation; and that pregnant and parenting women have access to a full range of reproductive health services, as well as non-punitive drug treatment services. By focusing on the rights of pregnant women, NAPW broadens and strengthens the reproductive justice, drug policy reform, and other interconnected social justice movements in America today.

Lynn M. Paltrow, J.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women ("NAPW"). Ms. Paltrow is a graduate of Cornell University and New York University School of Law. She has worked on numerous cases challenging restrictions on the right to choose abortion as well cases opposing the prosecution and punishment of pregnant women seeking to continue their pregnancies to term. Ms. Paltrow has served as a senior staff attorney at the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, as Director of Special Litigation at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, and as Vice President for Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood of New York City. Ms. Paltrow conceived of and filed the first affirmative federal civil rights challenge to a hospital policy of searching pregnant women for evidence of drug use and turning that information over to the police. In the case of Ferguson et. al., v. City of Charleston et. al., the United States Supreme Court agreed that such a policy violates the 4th amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

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