Thursday, July 19, 2007

Advocacy for working mothers

The Washington Post today ran a front-page article about the ten US Congresswomen who currently have children under the age of 13. The article was front and center on the front page, with a colour photo, and its continuation occupied one full page inside the front section. It was all about the challenges these Congresswomen face as they try to balance work and parenting requirements.

It's true that members of Congress do face an exceptionally difficult set of constraints on their personal time, given that they are not permanent residents of DC but have to spend four night a week here. For this reason, and given that mothers overwhelmingly tend to be the primary caregivers in American families, the article interestingly mentions that these Congresswomen consider themselves advocates for their working mom constituents.

It goes on to cite several examples of this "advocacy": Debbie Wasserman Schultz introduced a bill designed to increase swimming pool safety. Carolyn Maloney is trying to ensure the rights of women to breastfeed in public. Deborah Pryce wants to increase federal funding for childhood cancer research.

All of those things are great. I totally agree: it's bad when kids drown in swimming pools. Women should be able to feed their babies when the babies are hungry without worrying about public stigma or violating the law. Nobody wants kids to die of cancer.

But come on. These women know firsthand exactly how difficult it is to manage the stresses of childcare with a full-time job. They claim to represent the scores of working mothers across the US. And yet they limit their representation to little issues, tiny trees in the forest of the near-impossibility for American women, especially lower-income American women, of having a successful career while ensuring that their children are always in good, reliable, safe care.

Working women in the US earn less than their male counterparts. Often, they have to take on second or even third jobs to help cover the costs of childcare. The US is one of only two industrialized nations (Australia being the other) not to mandate paid parental leave for members of the work force. Most countries in Europe offer high-quality, state-funded childcare that allows for both parents to work without diverting large portions of their income to pay for childcare that is often sub-par.

These things are basic. A democratic, tax-collecting government should be using some of its funds to counteract hindrances to its citizens' ability to remain contributing members of the public sector. Working mothers, exactly the group that is most often forced out of the public sector due to the limited options provided to them by their government, now have ten representatives in Congress who are currently living out similar experiences to their own. These representatives even state publicly that they consider themselves advocates for working moms.

If that's the case, they need to start introducing bills that might be more controversial than "let's try to keep children from dying," but will also have a stronger impact on this disproportionately affected group of working mothers. American women should not be forced into the position of deciding between their careers and their families. It's up to our representatives to do what they can to prevent that from happening. Until they do, they don't deserve this self-ascribed title of "advocate."

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