So yesterday I was reading Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and underlined this: “Until men are ready to share the responsibilities of full-time universal child care as a social priority, their sons and ours will be without any coherent vision of what nonpatriarchal manhood might be.” Rich, the mother of three sons whom she loved dearly and fiercely and mothered with difficulty as she tried to navigate her own needs as a poet and a person, goes on to discuss the reasons men must divest themselves of patriarchy for themselves: “Every woman who takes her life into her own hands does so knowing that she must expect enormous pain, inflicted both from within and without. I would like my sons not to shrink from this kind of pain, not to settle for the old male defenses, including that of fantastic self-hatred. And I would wish them to do this not for me, or for other women, but for themselves, and for the sake of life on planet Earth.”
Rich was writing, in 1976, of the new masculinity that equality requires, and the new men who must inhabit it. Nearly forty years later, we are still struggling to achieve equality, and we are still working to free ourselves from a masculinity that encourages men to dominate others and avoid self-reflection and emotional growth. And yet. We have made some progress in how we see men, especially fathers. Otherwise, Paul Ryan, upon proclaiming his willingness to serve as Speaker of the House, wouldn’t have demanded a flexible work schedule that allows him to spend time with his family. Instead, he would have seen himself as Laura Ingraham apparently wishes he did—the absent breadwinner, sacrificing the comforts of home for the greater good, confident in his wife’s ability to keep those home fires burning without him, and willing to be nearly absent in the lives of his three children. I am glad we’ve made at least this much progress: a male politician may require time with his family without being laughed or sneered at by other men. But the very way in which Ryan negotiated this “perk” reveals just how far we have to go.
I didn’t even need to read this article to know that Ryan wouldn’t consider himself a hypocrite for negotiating personal family time while opposing national policies that would establish family leave for everyone—and I bet you didn’t either. We’ve all heard the term “free market” enough times to understand how this is supposed to work: you work very hard in the free market, plus you’re awesome at what you do, and then you negotiate for what you want. You dominate that bad boy with your prowess, and then your kids get some good stuff, like time with their dad. If you can’t dominate the free market? Well, not everyone wins, you know—but getting the good life should be enough of a motivator to try a bit harder. That’s how the free market works—the spoils go to the victor.
This is not what Adrienne Rich had in mind—not for childcare, and not for masculinity. To consider universal childcare a social responsibility we’d have to understand that Walmart employees do not have anything like the negotiating power of Microsoft employees, or government employees for that matter. Consider the experience of Benet Holmes, a Walmart employee who was not granted lighter work duties during her pregnancy despite Walmart’s stated policies and her repeated requests supported by her doctor, and subsequently miscarried her child. The “free market” did not—and will never—support her negotiating power. She must work to create it herself through political advocacy, which is exactly what she is doing.
The work world is starkly divided by class and shaped by sexism, racism, and homophobia. Ryan’s refusal to support policies that would help the majority of working parents—along with the illusion of a marketplace that is unaffected by institutionalized discrimination—ensures that it stays that way.