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Elizabeth Gregory Headshot

Never Done and Under Paid

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This year Labor Day and Women's Equality Day bookend the week: a timely conjunction, since tension over what properly constitutes women's work is the crux of much of our current public discourse.

That concern feeds the babble about baby bumps that fills the celebrity magazines, lies at the root of the Supreme Court's rejection of Lilly Ledbetter's suit for fair pay restoration, of the push to pass legislation to reverse that judgment and for pay equity overall, and of the efforts by the current administration to cut access to sex ed and to birth control wherever they can find an opportunity. The Democratic primaries operated in part as a labor debate over what kinds of jobs women are allowed to hold (president or clothes presser, in one formulation). The endless stories on fertility and Mommy Wars play into the debate as well.

It's the change in definition that "women's work" has undergone in the past 50 years that generates the controversy. For ages, women's labor, apart from sex and reproduction, was largely limited to care work, whether it was done in the home for free or outside it for pay. Within the family, care work is viewed as private and personal. But this work has a very public aspect too: the nation and the business community depend on mothers to bear and raise children to be good citizens, reliable workers and avid consumers.

In effect, mothers have been underwriting the national bottom line by raising their young for no pay.

Insofar as the business world presumes their efforts, mothers have always been part of the larger economy, but their contributions have been invisibilized by the economists who segregate "production" from "reproduction" and calculate the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by omitting the work that goes on in that most domestic of spheres, the home, because it is unpaid. A more-apt acronym would be GIDP, since it's fundamentally Grossly Inaccurate.

What's more, instead of being recognized for their generosity, mothers have been further punished economically, with low pay and limited benefits when they work outside the home, and with small protection when they divorce. Motherhood is a big predictor of poverty in old age.

Jobs available to women in general have been paid less than the same or comparable jobs done by men. Women's work has been considered just worth less--not because it was but because women didn't have the status to command better treatment. Or the time to fight for it: they were too busy tending the torrent of babies, many of whom died young of ailments now treatable.

But since the advent of hormonal birth control in 1960, the social fabric woven over millennia around the assumption that women were baby machines has been undergoing quick redesign. When offered the chance, women and their partners in the US and around the world have chosen to start their families later and to keep them smaller. Most have kids, but some do not, by choice or default. Birth control has allowed large numbers of women to enter the universities and the workplace in an ever-expanding range of fields. In so doing these women have doubled our national talent pool and strengthened our skilled workforce. When mothers are well educated, the children are too, and the population lives longer in better health. The playing field has changed utterly.

In this new arena, women combine raising the next generation of workers and citizens (often in active partnership with the dads) with actively contributing as workers and citizens themselves -- an overall increase in efficiency.

The new gender realities of employment and national interest call for equal pay for equal work as well as workplace policy that allows people who wish to be parents to build both families and careers. But though women's status has been rising, we're not there yet: women still make just 78 cents for every dollar men make, and 80 cents on the dollar adjusting for occupation and rank. Oppression anyone?

Gradually, the work rules have been changing, as women trickle up into positions in business and government that either allow them to institute change themselves or cause their colleagues to make change in order to retain them. Two much ballyhooed pay-equity bills have made it through the House, and we'll soon see if they make it through the Senate and past the likely veto.

Those who blame feminists for focusing on women's workplace rights and failing to tend the family side of the struggle in the early days might consider whether it wasn't necessary for women first to establish the clout they now have in order to be heard around equity and work/life issues at all.

In the face of the ongoing redesign, there's plenty of push back by the forces of yore. This is exercised both around opposition to pay equity and work-place flexibility and in the recently very-pressurized discourse around that specifically female version of labor -- the work of child-bearing.

A network of real supports for people of both genders would promote the maximization of our potential, as workers and as parents, for personal and national benefit. It would include the usual suspects like fair pay protections, access to affordable good child care, affordable access to and information on birth control and abortion, and paid sick days, and it would expand to fund FMLA, mandate infertility coverage, and create real on and off ramps for women and men who need time off from a career to focus on family, and more.

We've just had a fine example of what a business model focused on short-term profits does for us. A better model would focus on long-term growth and honor all the work that women have done and will do in the home and outside it.

For millennia women's work has been underwriting the bottom line for business and the nation. It's time for some return on that investment.