During a discussion of the economy following Barack Obama’s speech on Thursday, January 8th, Chris Matthews made an amazing joke. His guest was discussing the concept of the velocity of money - how quickly dollars change hands - and Matthews suggested that husbands should pay their wives for cooking dinner, to "move the money around."
The assumption that husbands can take their wives' unpaid work for granted, is stunning. The joke is also telling, in its recognition that such work would have value, were it not performed by women for their husbands.
It's a testament to how far we haven't come: 45 years after The Feminine Mystique, this unpaid obligation is so easily assumed. To me, it exposes a fault line I see between truly radical feminism, and the liberal feminism that has become mainstream.
Liberal feminism focuses on opportunities for women in the public sphere, especially the workplace. Success is defined as greater numbers of women achieving professional, wage-earning status. The result has been a "second shift" when these women come home.
Radical feminists have long dared to speak the unspeakable - that perhaps the work that women do should be recognized as work, and compensated in some way. To them, Matthews' statement is not funny.
The work of Selma James, who started a "Wages for Housework" campaign, dared to ask the question that has the potential to unite both sides of the "Mommy Wars." That is: are women really liberated by greater access to the paid workforce, if their unpaid contributions to the economy are unrecognized and taken for granted? James talks about the "myth of liberation through work."
Key to this question, is overcoming the common perception that work done inside the home is "private," and not relevant to the community.
Later feminists have added to James perspective; e.g., Marilyn Waring, a feminist economist, has spent decades trying to get the UN to recognize the majority of the world's work that is done by women, as contributing to the world's economies.
Catharine MacKinnon, a feminist legal scholar , points out the problems with the legal definition of "equality." In her "difference vs. dominance" concept, MacKinnon explains that the law only promises equality of treatment when men and women find themselves in equal circumstances. Since men never confront pregnancy, breast-feeding, and the child care issues these conditions imply, equality can often become an empty promise.
Ann Crittenden has pointed out that how our culture pays lip service to motherhood being crucial, while assigning almost no value to the actual work of raising children.
And finally, Martha Fineman writes about the 'myth of autonomy." In short, she argues that we arbitarily assign the label "dependency" to say, welfare mothers, when "we all live subsidized lives." Working husbands are dependent on their wives' household and child-care tasks in order to do their workplace jobs; co-workers are dependent upon each other's child care arrangements - whether paid or unpaid - as well.
The work of these feminists sheds a different light on Chris Matthews sex-stereotyping comment: Yes, Chris, the unpaid work of wives and mothers does contribute to the economy. Perhaps it's time we started acting like it.
President-Elect Obama is well know for stressing two popular values: 1) the “dignity of work”; and 2) the importance of responsible parenting. The former is often taken to foreshadow Obama’s intention to follow in Bill Clinton’s footsteps, aggressively moving recipients off the welfare rolls - as his ad which uses the phrases alludes to. Taken literally, the latter is an absolute crucial contribution to society - but, not being “work,” it falls short of providing “dignity.”
I hope Obama decides not to take the road President Clinton took, asking parents to sacrifice parenting in order to achieve "dignity." We need to re-structure our economy, to take into account the work that subsidizes us all.