And what about child care? In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Childcare Act (CCA), providing national day care to women who needed it. (Such a law wouldn’t have a chance today.) President Richard Nixon vetoed it that December. Using Cold War rhetoric, he argued that the legislation would harm the family and turn American women into their Soviet counterparts — that is, working drudges. His veto was also payback to his religious supporters in the South who opposed women working outside the home, and so using child care. It set childcare legislation back until, well, this very moment.
Ask any young working mother about the nightmare of finding day care for her infant or a space in a preschool for her child. Childcare, as feminists recognized, was a major precondition for women entering the labor force on an equal footing with men. Instead of comprehensive childcare, however, this country chose the more acceptable American way of dealing with problems, namely, that everyone find an individual solution. If you’re wealthy, you pay for a live-in nanny. If you’re middle class, you hire someone to arrive every day, ready to take care of your young children. Or you luck out and find a place in a good preschool — or a not-so-good one.
If you’re poor, you rely on a series of exhausted and generous grandparents, unemployed husbands, over-worked sisters, and goodhearted neighbors. Unlike every nation in Europe, we have no guaranteed preschool or after-school childcare, despite our endless political platitudes about how much we cherish our children. And sadly, childcare has remained off the national political agenda since 1971. It was never even mentioned during the 2012 presidential debates.
And let’s not forget women’s wages. In 1970, women earned, on average,59% of men’s wages. More than four decades later, the figure is 77%. When a university recently invited me to give a keynote address at a conference, they asked what fee I expected. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. The best advice I got — from my husband — was: “Just tell them to give you 77% of whatever they’re paying the male keynote speaker.” That response resulted in a generous honorarium.
But what about all the women — widowed, divorced, or single — who can’t draw on a second income from a man? How can we claim we’ve reached the 1970 equal pay demand when 70% of the nation’s poor are women and children? This isn’t about glass ceilings. What concerns me are all the women glued to the sticky floor of dead-end jobs that provide no benefits and no health insurance, women who, at the end of each month, have to decide whether to pay the electricity bill or feed their children.