Where To Start the Revolution?

Dear Caitlin and Barbara,

Thanks, first of all, to Barbara for making the obvious point about men. My own parenthetical about their absence in Caitlin’s piece began as a longer critique, which I ended up saving for a later entry. I (and several of my friends) worried that I shouldn’t start with so, well, tired and feminist-y a complaint: “Where are the men?” etc. Shame on me for fearing that reaction. Though I think it is indicative of how timid many women of my generation are—in contrast to the trailblazers among Barbara’s—about asking that men shoulder their fair share of domestic duties. (These days, when women continue to note that men have yet to step up to the plate, they’re often accused of “nagging”—a stinging charge conjuring up that hideous caricature of the unhappy housewife, which many women, myself included, want to avoid.) It’s part of the way “lipstick feminism” has turned the movement into fluff.

As a writer, I find the problem particularly intractable—because, in the marketplace of ideas (and there’s a marketplace there as anywhere else), it’s easy to interest editors in stories about how women should be able to, say, wear short skirts and be feminists, too—as if this remotely mattered in any world that wasn’t trivial. But try to pitch a story about how working-class women are exploited, and editors’ eyes often glaze over. How, then, does one keep making the same point, decade after decade, without the argument beginning to fall on deaf ears?

Maybe some nannies will read about their rights, as Caitlin hopes, on Slate. But alas, I fear that they will be too busy at jobs that, unlike ours, don’t provide time for online surfing—and that’s assuming they can afford computers. As for Domestic Workers United: Given all the enormous obstacles to organizing in this country—workers routinely fired for even thinking the word “union,” labor laws gutted of teeth—the idea that domestic workers are going to just go on the Internet, sign up for a union, start wearing DWU buttons, and presto, Viva La Revolution, is a little far-fetched. Oh, I’m sure I, Caitlin, and Barbara would greet such buttons warmly. But the stereotypical employer Caitlin imagines wouldn’t. Polls routinely show that most Americans would like to join unions. It’s not for not wanting to that they haven’t.

In her reply, Caitlin refers to ethnic groups renowned for being “cheap” (I honestly don’t know what she’s talking about) and immigrants who hire other immigrants, and “hew to the practices … that Americans would find shocking.” But that’s not, in fact, what her piece was about. Such households never come up in her 10,000 words. Instead, the scorn—and I think we must acknowledge the piece’s smug tone toward working mothers’ choices, even when Caitlin has made many of those same choices—is reserved almost entirely for professional-class women—journalists even, for the most part who aren’t but could be (as you suggest) my friends, not one of whom, I’d be willing to bet, mistreats her nanny, if she even has a nanny. (As Barbara rightly notes, many of my friends—along with most Americans—can’t afford nannies.) I’m not saying that professional women aren’t capable of being bad employers. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors? But the piece, in that sense, is a bait and switch: You, Caitlin, point to Susan Chira, an editor at the New York Times, and then talk about the mistreatment of nannies at far different hands. The piece, in other words, is guilty of the very thing it criticizes feminist theorists for: using the grave problems of the working poor, women like Ms. Deng, the sweatshop worker Caitlin refers to in the piece, as cover for a story about professional moms—their guilt, their hypocrisies, their anxieties—which is her real subject.

Given all the bad employers out there—all the Wal-marts and sweatshops and hotel chains that employ dishwashers and maids at minimum wage, no benefits—surely there are better places to start the revolution. Take paying social security taxes, which seems to be Caitlin’s real pet peeve. Employers in this country don’t have to retreat to the furtive recesses of their bedrooms to get out of such obligations. Wal-mart, the biggest employer in America, is the subject of a class-action law suit that it subcontracted out its cleaning services to shady companies it allegedly knew were employing workers off the books as a means of cutting costs. (This is only one of several unfair labor practices Wal-mart currently stands accused of.) These workers were typically illegal immigrants working 60-hour, seven-day workweeks for minimal wages. Predictably, Wal-mart’s defense is that it didn’t KNOW the workers were being exploited, blah, blah, blah.

The forces arrayed against low-wage workers in this country are immense. Even companies (for instance, Wal-mart’s competitors) that want to do the right thing are subject to gale winds beyond their control. I don’t hold up much hope of solving the larger problems without systematic reforms. I have my own ideas what those might be—toughen labor laws, organize!—but this is one of those moments when I begin to fear readers’ eyes glazing over. How, for instance, do we make the labor movement of importance again?