The Care Crisis
Goals proposed in 1970, however unrealized, are no longer sufficient for the new century. Even during these bleak Bush years, many writers, activists and organizations have begun planning for a different future. If women really mattered, they ask, how would we change public policy and society? As one writer puts it, "What would the brave new world look like if women could press reboot and rewrite all the rules?"
Though no widely accepted manifesto exists, many advocacy organizations--such as the Institute for Women's Policy Research, the Children's Defense Fund, the National Partnership for Women and Families, Take Care Net and MomsRising--have argued that universal healthcare, paid parental leave, high-quality subsidized on-the-job and community childcare, a living wage, job training and education, flexible work hours and greater opportunities for part-time work, investment in affordable housing and mass transit, and the reinstatement of a progressive tax structure would go a long way toward supporting working mothers and their families. (In these pages in 2003, Deborah Stone documented campaigns on many of these issues by organizations in California, Massachusetts and Washington.)
Democrats don't need to reinvent the wheel; these groups have already provided the basis for a new progressive domestic agenda. And if Democrats embrace large portions of this program, they might attract enough women to widen the gender gap in voting, which shrank from 14 percent in 1996 to only 7 percent in 2004.
This is an expensive agenda, but the money is there if we end tax cuts for the wealthy and reduce expenditures for unnecessary wars, space-based weapons and the hundreds of American bases that circle the globe. If we also reinstate a progressive tax structure, this wealthy nation would have enough resources to care for all its citizens. It's a question of political will.
Confronting the care crisis and reinvigorating the struggle for gender equality should be central to the broad progressive effort to restore belief in the "common good." Although Americans famously root for the underdog, they have shown far less compassion for the poor, the vulnerable and the homeless in recent years. Social conservatives, moreover, have persuaded many Americans that they--and not liberals--are the ones who embody morality, that an activist government is the problem rather than the solution and that good people don't ask for help.
The problem is that many Democrats, along with prominent liberal men in the media, don't view women's lives as part of the common good. Consciously or unconsciously, they have dismissed women as an "interest group" and treated women's struggle for equality as "identity politics" rather than part of a common national project. Last April Michael Tomasky, then editor of The American Prospect, penned an essay on the "common good" that is typical of such manifestoes. It never once addressed any aspect of the care crisis. Such writers don't seem to grasp that a campaign to end the care crisis could mobilize massive support for this idea of the common good, because it affects almost all working families.
Now that Democrats are emerging from the wilderness, there are scattered indications they are willing to use their power to address the mounting care crisis. The Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, one of the largest caucuses, has access to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has supported previous efforts to address the care crisis. The Senate has just created a new Caucus on Children, Work and Family, a sign, says Valerie Young, a lobbyist with the National Association of Mothers' Centers, that "this is no longer a personal problem--it's a national problem." Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd says he will introduce legislation that would provide paid leave for workers who need to care for sick family members, newborns or newly adopted children. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas has just introduced the Small Business Child Care Act, which would help employers provide childcare for their workers. Members in both houses of Congress are reopening the discussion of universal healthcare reform.
The truth is, we're living with the legacy of an unfinished gender revolution. Real equality for women, who increasingly work outside the home, requires that liberals place the care crisis at the core of their agenda and take back "family values" from the right. So far, no presidential candidate has made the care crisis a significant part of his or her political agenda. So it's up to us, the millions of Americans who experience the care crisis every day, to take every opportunity--through electoral campaigns and grassroots activism--to turn "the problem that has no name" into a household word.