How women's work has been pushed up the US political agenda
Hilary Rosen's 'stay at home' mum jibe has led to recognition that all mothers are entitled to welfare for their work - a worthy US import
You can't predict when a breakthrough will come your way, and from what quarter.
For 40 years some of us have been campaigning to convince governments that carers, beginning with mothers, are marginal neither to the economy nor to political life.
Women reproduce the human race (and thus the whole workforce), and are everywhere its primary carers from womb to tomb. Yet we were told even by leading feminists that caring was work in a care home but not in our home, and that childcare was a job like any other – but not if done in families. We were also told that children and their "working mothers" would benefit from daily separation even at the earliest age, even when they hated it, and even that we were backward if we wanted to be with them. Children could not continue to be the priority of a liberated woman any more than they were men's priority. (Nobody noticed that then they would then become nobody's priority.)
But now, virtually overnight, the carer's case has become high profile in – wait for it – the US election campaign.
Democratic spokeswoman Hilary Rosen aimed to discredit Republican candidate Mitt Romney when she said that his wife Ann, multimillionaire mother of five sons, "had never worked a day in her life".
Women were furious, first that the Democrat Rosen had demeaned mothers, and second, that the Republican Romney had the nerve to claim that she did all the work of raising her brood herself. She publicly denied the existence of that army of cleaners, nannies, maids and gardeners that every domestic worker for the well-to-do can describe in detail. Thus the long-smouldering debate about the value of "stay-at-home moms" versus mothers who take on the double day broke cover at the centre of the US election campaign.
What the debate came down to was: should women who were not millionaires have the choice to raise their own kids? The poorest women could not; they could be made to work outside the home without wages in order to qualify for welfare. (This is Workfare, now in the UK as well.) And since good childcare was hard to find as well as unaffordable (ditto the UK), this often means that to get welfare to feed and house their kids, mothers had first to neglect them.
Millions of other women will tell you how physically and emotionally exhausted they are by their double and, with the economic crisis and increasingly low-paid temp jobs, even triple day. They are profoundly aware of how much they and their children are paying for the jobs they must go out to, to survive and/or for a semblance of financial independence. And they're furious.
The match that ignited the tinder, however, was the projected voting figures.
Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press have claimed that 95% of black people will vote for Obama, and only 2% for Romney; 67% of Latinos will vote for Obama and only 27% for Romney; 60% of white men will vote for Obama and 34% for Romney. However, white women's projected vote is 49% for Obama to 44% for Romney: the white female vote is far less racially divided, and thus both candidates know they must be responsive to women's issues. No wonder Mitt Romney rushed to our defence: "All moms are working moms," this devout Mormon uncharacteristically said.
Not to be outdone, President Obama told us: "Here's what I know, that there's no tougher job than being a mom…" and gave the example of his wife Michelle and the labours of his own single mother. Ms Obama added: "Every mother works hard."
This "minor" issue – how mothers are to spend their lives and how our children are to be cared for – had already emerged. Last December, Democratic Representative Gwen Moore tabled the Rise Out of Poverty Act entitling single mothers of children under three once again to get welfare without taking a Workfare job. The Rise Act was to begin to address the desperate poverty, homelessness and destitution of hundreds of thousands of women and children (and of course disproportionately families of colour) in the richest country in the world.
Women were already mobilising in support when the present battle was joined, and a further bill emerged that Rep Moore and other Democrats in Congress are backing.
On 18 April, Democrat Rep Pete Stark introduced the Women's Option to Raise Kids (WORK) Act, "which would recognise that all parents who stay home to raise young children are, in fact, doing important and legitimate work". Rep. Stark went on to say that "Mitt Romney [had been] … forcing low-income mothers into the workforce before he decided 'all moms are working moms'… I think we should take Romney at his most recent word and change our federal laws to recognise the importance and legitimacy of raising young children. That's why I've introduced the WORK Act to provide low-income parents the option of staying home to raise young children without being pushed into poverty."
The class divide is crystal clear. Also clear is the connection between women's unwaged work, poverty and our lack of choice.
Thus it was that a slur on a US multimillionaire mother led to recognition that all mothers are entitled to welfare for their work, enabling them to rise above poverty and to raise their own children if they chose to. And since "welfare reform" in the UK from Thatcher onwards has followed the US model, can we now campaign for the importing of this new enlightenment, this new feminism, from across the Atlantic?
Co-ordinator of Global Women's Strike
Quoted in NY Times Op-Ed: Pay People to Cook at Home!
In the Guardian: From welfare to wages, women fight back against the uncaring market
Listen to speak in Ireland: "How can women defeat austerity?"
Other countries we work with (so far...)
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UK Fri 17th May 13
Letter to The Guardian reporting on launch of petition 'Invest in a caring society. A living wage for mothers and other carers.'UK Thu 16th May 13
Messages of support to launch of petition Invest in a caring society. A living wage for mothers and other carers.UK Thu 16th May 13
Mon 13th May 13
USA Sat 11th May 13