by Eleanor J. Bader
Writer Suzanne Gordon is a woman with a mission. Fiery though soft-spoken, angry yet pleasant, she wants people in the human services – counselors, nurses, social workers, teachers and therapists – to join with parents and those caring for elderly adults in putting forth a National Care Agenda.
The agenda she envisions is broad and comprehensive. On one hand are the basic services she believes everyone is entitled to: National health insurance; paid parental leave for new parents or those caring for infirm family members; subsidized childcare and educational programs; and adequate, affordable housing. On the other hand are attitudinal changes: A shift in values that respects those who perform caretaking functions as much as we revere businesspeople, political leaders, or the international jet set.
While feminists can hardly be blamed for society’s devaluation of those in the caring professions, Gordon does point a finger at “equal opportunity feminists” who have urged women to accept the rules of the game while climbing to the top of the corporate ladder. These women, she says, have unwittingly become “prisoners of pragmatism.” A more socially beneficial tack, she adds, would be found in a feminist reclamation of pride in the caretaking that is a hallmark of “women’s work”: The childbearing and rearing, the creativity and flexibility, the emotional support and ability to express a range of emotions that many have lost in the last two decades.
Part of the fight, against the “masculinization of American culture,” says Gordon, will require that feminists, progressives and people who care “get out of the caring closet. And don’t go into the closet if you’re not in it.”
A journalist who has, for more than 20 years, made activism around social and economic justice issues a part of her life, Gordon became acutely aware of the “crisis of caring” after bearing two children, one in 1984, the second in 1986. Coupled with caring for her own elderly mother and her husband’s disabled parents, she came face-to-face with the societal putdown of nurturing and concern.
“Public policy in American society is built on a foundation of hostility to care and interdependence,” says Gordon. “If we don’t create a different public policy, if those of us who are deeply concerned about this don’t take the opportunity to educate others and try to reshape policy, we’re going to face a profound crisis. And it’s not just a problem of resources – it’s a problem of conceptualization.”
Case in point: “A while back there was a big piece on Faye Wattleton [of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America] in the New York Times. In it she said she was glad she was no longer a nurse. This attitude becomes self-reinforcing. The message is that people in these occupations are the problem, they are the ones we need to get away from.”
This attitude, says Gordon, has not only hurt those people, largely women, who are in occupations such as nursing, but has also harmed those who rely on the services these workers provide. After speaking with dozens of RNs and LPNs for an article she wrote for the Boston Globe, Gordon realized that the nursing shortage was, at least in part, a result of the feminist call for women to become MDs, and the subsequent diminution of nursing as a respectable occupational choice.
In fact, she says, it was after interviewing these nurses that she got “the anchor” for Prisoners of Men’s Dreams, her most recent book (Little, Brown and Co., 1991). “Issues of the morality of care and how we create institutions for public care giving are huge and fascinating. How do we get caregivers to fight back? How do we get feminists to take up issues like nursing? Where are those CEOs who have heart attacks at 40 going to go for care if they put working women, like nurses, down? Where will parents go for good childcare if they don’t want to pay for the provision of care?”
The “crisis of caring,” she continues, is so bad that “the problems that the poor, the working and middle classes, and some upper-income people face are of degree, not kind. It used to be different. People now, unless they’re immensely wealthy, bear horrible burdens. You just can’t buy your way out of these problems.”
So what’s to be done? “Women have been depoliticized,” says Gordon. “That’s the dirty little secret of the past decade. We have to get political if we want to change this. Clearly, women in the lower classes have got no reason to be political. There’s no one to represent them, so why bother? Middle and working class women suffer much the same way, from the perception that politics takes too much time for too little reward.”
In addition, she continues, the “liberal feminist” candidates whom many feminist organizations support “have done zero for women. Why should women vote for them? Doesn’t Dianne Feinstein [a democrat who lost a 1990 bid to become California governor] know that ‘tough but caring* is the slogan of patriarchy? The feminist movement supported Evelyn Murphy in Massachusetts. She was a business candidate. She was prochoice, but that was the only thing in her favor. She was against requiring developers to build childcare facilities. She was against ‘right to know’ laws that would have identified toxic chemicals in the workplace and the community. Her position on the Family and Medical Leave Act was never made clear. She was bad on women’s issues and terrible on class issues. When feminist organizations like NOW support such candidates, it’s as if they’re saying *beggars can’t be choosers.’ Why don’t we create our own candidates? People believe that it’s progress if a woman is elected. But I don’t believe that you can abdicate your responsibility as a citizen, as a worker, as a member of a community, as a family member, because the right number of women in power will one day magically happen.”
The notion that we have to take what we can get, settling for incremental, tiny victories rather than the large-scale changes that we want, infuriates Gordon. “People feel that they have to pick one from Column A, and two from Column B, but can’t worry about Columns C and D. To create a National Care Agenda Coalition will be immensely difficult because people are so committed to defending their turf and fighting for their own. I want to create a union of care. The trade union movement hasn’t done it. To get people in a room and say that the single issue strategy is bankrupt, and that we’ve got to work together and ask for what we want, not what we think we can get, is no small thing. Everyone in this country depends on someone else to meet their needs.”
Part of Gordon’s work is spreading this message: In political meetings, in speeches to community and student groups, and through the print media. “Women are hearing ‘don’t talk to anyone about caring;’ ‘don’t rock the boat;’ ‘do what men do;’ and ‘maturity is getting off the streets.’ For someone like me to say, ‘talk to each other, organize with each other, work for collective solutions, get involved in politics,’ is news. These are things people aren’t hearing. People need to be socially active. It’s fun. People have lost an opportunity for human enrichment. You don’t get human enrichment by going to the mall. You get it by engaging with others in political work.”
In short, her message is a tried-and true political truism: Don’t mourn, organize.