Friday, October 19, 2012

Mitt Romney and the Myth of Women's Work

Thanks Binders Full
of Women tumblr!
Last night, while driving back from dinner, David and I pulled up to a light.
D: "Oh no! Mitt Romney has been here!"
Me: "How do you know?"
D: "Look!" *points to papers and broken binder scattered on ground in middle of road* "Binder remains!"
Me: "But where are all the women?"
D: "This is the Pacific Northwest. They knew they could flee for safety here."
Me: "Run, women! Run for your lives!"
. . . . 

Okay, all binder hilarity aside (and there is some good stuff out there, my favorite being the customer reviews on Avery 1" binders for sale on Amazon -- Thanks to Carli R. for the link), there was something former Governor Romney said in the debates, something inaccurate and truly sexist, and it didn't have anything to do with binders full of women, or even a flexible work schedule being required such that working women can get home in time it make dinner. FN1. The moment that I keep returning to with fire in my belly got buried between those two more obviously tone-deaf moments, and because I can't let it go, dear reader, I'm going to talk to you about it.

Okay, here's the critical snippet of transcript, reader. Let's play a rousing round of "Spot the Sexist!"
Romney: "Now, one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two, because I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can't be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for -- making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said, fine, let's have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you."
Did you catch it? It's probably all those logic puzzles I had to do in preparation for the LSAT, but ever since then, if/then statements really jump out at me. "If" implies a condition, something that may or may not happen. It's only a precedent possibility. It isn't a foregone conclusion. It's something that isn't necessary or inevitable.

"I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible."



This is the torn in my paw, the splinter in my skin, the pea under my mattress, dear reader. And I'll tell you why this bothers me so much.

First, it offends me as a feminist because it implies the work a person - male or female - does at home (keeping a home, raising a family, cooking meals, shuttling kids around, etc.) isn't real work, that they aren't part of the 'workforce.' This argument is, of course, completely nonsensical, as we all know that housekeepers don't work for free, daycare isn't provided gratis, personal chefs don't volunteer their services. These are jobs that have market value. We've determined, even under the most mercenary capitalist calculations, that these services have a value.

This is an assumed benefit, you see. Like a hidden cost, it rides for free in the market place, never being thought of for its true value. However, if every person doing home care shifted one home to the left or right, did their neighbor's work, and submitted a bill to said neighbor who in turn paid them, these individuals would no longer be 'invisible' members of the "workforce." The idea that society requires this sort of task shifting in order to fully acknowledge the monetary value to this benefit is, in a word, stupid.

BUT, even if I set this feminist objection aside, the historian in me is appalled by the sheer willful ignorance of this statement. This historian, with her very expensive education in American women's history, is the yelling voice in my head, and her secondary objection actually gets to the far more problematic part of Mr. Romney's privileged point of view.

As far back as this country has existed, women have worked. Puritans like John Cotton and John Rogers remarked as they settled in Plymouth, Providence, and Massachusetts Bay on the work performed by women of the native peoples. Be they Pequot, Narragansett, or Mohegan, these women completed all agricultural work except the growing of tobacco. All the food stuffs planted and reaped and prepared in those times, you know the ones that kept the settlers from starving in those first rough winters? Women created those goods for gift, trade, or purchase.  These same Puritan men set about building a City on a Hill; meanwhile, their Puritan wives canned goods, wove cloth, dried meats, and preserved and created other goods to be traded, sold, and purchased between the colonies and with the natives.

During the American industrial age, women worked in factories and manufacturing from its beginnings in the mid-1700s all the way to its end in the 1900s. Women worked during both world wars. Poor women, immigrant women, and women of color have worked in domestic positions for white families for pay in this country virtually forever. FN3.

Women have always worked. They have always been part of the workforce, even when you limit the definition of "workforce" to work done outside one's own home. They have been paid teachers, nurses, factory workers, craftswomen, midwives, trade persons. Even during the Victorian period, wealthy white women worked as novelists and writers and educators.

National Women's Law Center's report
on pay inequity is available here.
This notion that there was a magical historical past where women did nothing but kept house and raised their children is a myth. If it has ever existed, it was only for the very, very wealthy white women of the Victorian era and for a handful of years to a select group of middle-class white women living in the suburbs in post-WWII America, a lot of whom had been forced out of jobs they enjoyed when the war ended and they  'went home,' giving their positions to returning veterans. And let's not forget, as documented in detail by writers like Betty Friedan, these women were deeply miserable, to the point that they inspired the second wave of the feminism movement and its efforts to obtain equal access to the sphere of public work and employment opportunities for women. FN4.

There is no "if." This fabled "if" has never existed. Women are an integral part of "the workforce," both in the public and private spheres. The work they have done and continue to do remains underpaid, under appreciated, and often unnoticed, but make no mistake: it is WORK. We are part of the workforce. We have always been part of the workforce. We will always be part of the workforce.

That former Governor Romney believes that this fact is at present -  or has ever been - conditional demonstrates how completely out of touch he is with the reality of the vast majority of women's lives. He also seems crazily uninformed about American history for someone who seeks our highest office.

And that, my friends, is what makes me most afraid. How can we expect someone to govern our country with our best interests in mind when he truly does not even see half of us? He is blind to the lives of all but the most privileged women, and he presumes that the work they do is both inherently less valuable and should come second to their familial obligations, as though men do not have to and should not have to share these same responsibilities. He is fundamentally blind to women and to his own male privilege, in the same way he is blind to poor people and his corresponding wealth, to working class people and his corresponding family purchased opportunities, to people of color and his own whiteness.

No wonder then-Governor Romney and his male cohorts 'could not find' any qualified women to join his cabinet. He never saw them in the first place. FN5. And in his own words, as recently as just this last week on prime time national television, Mr. Romney has revealed that he still doesn't.

"Through their own words
they will be exposed. 
They've got a severe case of 
the emperor's new clothes."
~ "The Emperor's New Clothes," Sinead O'Connor

FN1. Though don't mistake me, all of that was some heinously sexist b.s.

FN2. Yes, a historian, professional feminist, and attorney all sit around, yelling different arguments at me /the world in my head, while the 'fumie just sits in a corner, sniffing at her wrists and muttering, "pretty!" Doesn't everyone's head work like that?

FN3. Well, you know, after we stopped enslaving them.

FN4. Again, it is worth noting here that this 'workplace struggle' was largely lost on their impoverished sisters in arms as well as women of color and immigrant women, all of whom never had the luxurious option of staying home and remaining outside the public sphere of work in the first place.

FN5. And in case this whole binder business wasn't offensive enough, it turned out to contain an incredible amount of spin. The real story involves being approached by a women's group in Massachusetts with a request to include more women in government, not a concerted effort on Mr. Romney's part to find women for his cabinet.


Carol said...


Diana said...

Thanks, Carol, for reading and for commenting.