Wal-Mart vs. Feminists with Servants

Dear Barbara and Sara,

I must say this discussion has been instructive. I wrote an essay that brought up the point that a large number of female workers—many of whom are working mothers—are not receiving Social Security contributions from their employers, and two prominent feminists have spent the past three days either changing the subject or trying to convince me that this practice is OK. It turns out that the big culprit in nanny abuse is … Wal-Mart. And all along I’d been so sure it was going to be Karl Rove.

Say, Barbara: The nanny’s children most certainly do come up in my piece. What protects a nanny’s children if their mother dies? Social Security. If she’s injured and can’t work? Social Security. If she becomes pregnant again? Maternity leave payments made through disability insurance. I don’t understand why feminists are so hot and bothered about the fact that professional-class at-home mothers are not given Social Security set-asides, yet don’t give a damn when the same thing happens to their domestic workers. It’s really puzzling to me.  

It’s true that the most heartbreaking aspect of globalization is that so many women have to leave their children behind in their home countries; I know many nannies who have done just that. It’s terrible, and I have no idea what to do about it, which is why I only touched on the phenomenon in my essay.

Your post was, as ever, brilliant: compassionate and right. To your point about the importance of people doing their own housework and childcare, I would quote from an interview on the subject that I gave the Atlantic:

I think that caring for children and households is honorable work and that there is no shame in it, nor is there shame in hiring an employee to do it for you. However, in this regard I feel morally inferior to women like Barbara Ehrenreich (who is a hero of mine), who say that they refuse to have someone else clean for them because—in Ehrenreich’s impressive phrase—they just don’t want to have that kind of relationship with another human being.

Sara, you have mentioned Wal-Mart in two posts; you seem eager to talk about it. All right, let’s. Every rich person I know hates Wal-Mart. Every poor person I know loves it. They love the cheap milk, the heavily discounted toys, the DVD players they can buy for $30. In fact, in some poor communities, Wal-Mart has actually raised the standard of living by lowering prices so dramatically. Don’t get me wrong: Barbara’s excellent book has given me a burning hatred of Wal-Mart, and the first-rate reporting that both the LA Times and the New York Times have done on the company has only burnished that hatred. But it’s easy for me to hate Wal-Mart: I wouldn’t shop there even if they treated their workers well; it’s not my kind of place. I can wax endlessly about the worker exploitation that produced the $30 DVD player—but then I already have a DVD player. If my children needed milk and my money was tight, I’d be there in a heartbeat. So it’s a more complex issue, I think, than a lot of people give it credit for.

But the larger question, Sara, is why you discuss Wal-Mart with such vehemence in an exchange devoted to the subject of the proper treatment of nannies. It seems like yet another distraction tactic (a feminist specialty): Let’s not talk about professional-class women exploiting poorer women, let’s talk about bad old Wal-Mart, which everybody hates, and which is easy to get righteous about. Funny thing is, Wal-Mart—whose employment practices are the shame of the retail business—treats their workers much better than a lot of householders treat their domestic workers. Wal-Mart is required by law to pay overtime; most nanny employers don’t do that. Wal-Mart is required by law to pay Social Security taxes on its employees; most nanny employers don’t. Wal-Mart is required by law to provide maternity leave; most nanny employers don’t do that. Wal-Mart’s health-care benefits are shameful—yet I’ve never once met a nanny employer who purchased or contributed to any kind of health-care benefit for her domestic worker. In fact, compared to a lot of professional class women with servants, Wal-Mart is a real prince.

I don’t know how to change things at Wal-Mart. I do know how to change the exploitation of domestic workers by professional-class women. Sara, you have criticized me for not offering “programmatic solutions,” for not discussing the role and responsibility of the government in all of this. What is Social Security? It’s a programmatic solution administered by the government. 

(Sara, nothing in my post implied that United Domestic Workers is an organization that serves nannies and maids.)

Feminism is curious to me. If I’d written an article about how hard it is for working mothers to make partner in big law firms, would the two of you have changed the subject so often? But when I write about women lawyers shortchanging their servants, we end up all over the map, from Wal-Mart to the Third World. Come to think of it, I should really become a feminist—I’m educated, financially comfortable, white, married to a well-employed Princetonian, balancing a white-collar job with motherhood, and shriller than a myna bird. What have I been waiting for? You girls mix the Manhattans; I’ll be there before the ice melts.