A baby is born. A child develops a high fever. A spouse breaks a leg. A parent suffers a stroke. These are the events that throw a working woman’s delicate balance between work and family into chaos.
Although we read endless stories and reports about the problems faced by working women, we possess inadequate language for what most people view as a private rather than a political problem. “That’s life,” we tell each other, instead of trying to forge common solutions to these dilemmas.
That’s exactly what housewives used to say when they felt unhappy and unfulfilled in the 1950s: “That’s life.” Although magazines often referred to housewives’ unexplained depressions, it took Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller to turn “the problem that has no name” into a household phrase, “the feminine mystique”–the belief that a woman should find identity and fulfillment exclusively through her family and home.
The great accomplishment of the modern women’s movement was to name such private experiences–domestic violence, sexual harassment, economic discrimination, date rape–and turn them into public problems that could be debated, changed by new laws and policies or altered by social customs. That is how the personal became political.
Although we have shelves full of books that address work/family problems, we still have not named the burdens that affect most of America’s working families.
Call it the care crisis.
For four decades, American women have entered the paid workforce–on men’s terms, not their own–yet we have done precious little as a society to restructure the workplace or family life. The consequence of this “stalled revolution,” a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, is a profound “care deficit.” A broken healthcare system, which has left 47 million Americans without health coverage, means this care crisis is often a matter of life and death. Today the care crisis has replaced the feminine mystique as women’s “problem that has no name.” It is the elephant in the room–at home, at work and in national politics–gigantic but ignored.
Three decades after Congress passed comprehensive childcare legislation in 1971–Nixon vetoed it–childcare has simply dropped off the national agenda. And in the intervening years, the political atmosphere has only grown more hostile to the idea of using federal funds to subsidize the lives of working families.
The result? People suffer their private crises alone, without realizing that the care crisis is a problem of national significance. Many young women agonize about how to combine work and family but view the question of how to raise children as a personal dilemma, to which they need to find an individual solution. Most cannot imagine turning it into a political debate. More than a few young women have told me that the lack of affordable childcare has made them reconsider plans to become parents. Annie Tummino, a young feminist active in New York, put it this way: “I feel terrified of the patchwork situation women are forced to rely upon. Many young women are deciding not to have children or waiting until they are well established in their careers.”