Lessons from the Baby Boon: "Family-Friendly" Policies and the Ethics of Justice and Care
Hayden, Sara, Women's Studies in Communication
Over the past three decades, feminist activists have promoted a wide range of "family-friendly" policies in workplaces and in the public sector. In The Baby Boon, Elinor Burkett appeals to feminist principles to challenge these efforts. I argue that the debate can be explained through an examination of the ethical stances underlying the differing claims, concluding that to create workplaces and public policies that are both fair and humane, we must bring justice and care into dialogue.
Keywords childfree, childless, ethic of care, ethic of justice, family-friendly, work-life
Maternity leave, publicly financed day care, flexible work schedules--feminist scholars and activists typically extol the value of such benefits. Indeed, "family-friendly" polices often are presented and discussed as unquestioned feminist "goods" (Buzzanell, 2003; Buzzanell & Liu, 2007; Dow, 2008; Liu & Buzzanell, 2004; Rosen, 2007). They are central, it is argued, in the ongoing battle against sexism and the struggle to create a more just and humane society. In contrast to feminists' claims that family-friendly policies serve to abate ongoing discrimination, a growing number of people have begun to argue that such policies themselves are discriminatory. Connecting through groups such as No Kidding! and Internet sites including www.childfree.net, www.overpopulation.org, childfree resource network, childfreebychoice.com, and childfree and happy, advocates for the "childfree" argue that "family-friendly" policies discriminate against people without children. (1) Elinor Burkett (2000) offers one of the most complete statements of the childfree argument in The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. (2) Given that Burkett argues against policies grounded in feminist philosophies and supported by major feminist organizations, it is somewhat surprising to note that Burkett identifies herself as a feminist throughout her book.
Of course, it is possible to present oneself as a feminist while making antifeminist claims. Among others, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1996), Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge (1994), Katie Roiphe (1993), and Christina Hoff Sommers (1994) have engaged in this slight of feminist hand. Numerous scholars have debunked the arguments put forth by these "faux-feminists," (3) noting that they frequently use anecdotal arguments, ad hominem attacks, and hyperbole often presented with a strong dose of sarcasm--in order to misrepresent feminist ideas and proposals (e.g., see Faludi, 1995; hooks, 1994; Pollitt, 1994; Wood, 1996). Pollitt (1994), for example, characterizes the tone of Katie Roiphe's The Morning After: Sex, Fear. and Feminism as "unpleasantly smug" (p. 159), and Faludi (1995)challenges Roiphe's use of evidence:
Roiphe never reviews the statistics on rape, never interviews any rape researchers, never talks to a single woman who has been raped. The only "evidence" she marshals to disprove the statistic that one in four college women experience a rape or an attempted rape is her astonishing remark that, as far as she knows, none of her college girlfriends has ever been raped. (p. 37)
Like the authors mentioned above, Burkett's tone is frequently sarcastic. Thus she characterizes nineteenth century feminists as "ga-ga over motherhood" (p. 151), and she portrays former Representative Patricia Schroeder's 1988 five-state tour promoting family-friendly policies as "'the kind of high concept some wet-behind-the-ears screenwriter pitches for a made-for-television movie" (p. 118). Additionally, like her faux-feminist predecessors, Burkett's arguments are sometimes suspect. She is prone to presenting exceptional cases as if they are the norm and then using those cases to challenge the legitimacy of public policies. For example, she questions the value of then-pending H.R. 3531, the New Mothers' Breastfeeding Promotion and Protection Act, through reference to the story of Emma Cuevas, an army helicopter pilot. Burkett informs her readers that Cuevas received a West Point education that "'cost the taxpayers more than five hundred thousand dollars" (p. 49), however, when Cuevas's daughter was born, she sought to be "relieved of duty and transferred to the reserves" on the grounds that her overseas deployment violated her daughter's right to be breastfed. When her request was denied, Cuevas sued. H.R. 3531 had not been enacted when Cuevas filed suit, and Burkett does not inform her readers whether the suit was successful. Designed to ensure that mothers who choose to breastfeed at work are not discriminated against, Burkett instead uses this extreme case to paint H.R. 3531 as a means for mothers to abdicate on significant promises without penalty while taking advantage of the goodwill and good faith of others.
The similarities between Burkett's and the "faux feminists'" work including the sarcastic tone and sometimes questionable argumentation--make it tempting to reject Burkett's claims out of hand. 1 argue that doing so would be a mistake. While I do not accept Burkett's overarching condemnation of family-friendly policies, I nonetheless maintain that in her book, Burkett draws attention to important feminist issues that have yet to be satisfactorily addressed. A perusal of both popular media stories and academic essays written since her book was published suggests that the issues Burkett identifies remain problems today (Barden, 2008: Dow, 2008: Dunteman, 2006; Grove, 2008: Kirby and Krone, 2002: Tracy, 2008: Westcott, 2006). In this essay, then, I tease out the threads of Burkett's argument, noting what she has to teach us and where she goes wrong. Specifically, I argue that Burkett's rejection of family-friendly polices is rooted in her singular focus on a justice-based ethic and her concomitant failure to recognize an ethic of care. In contrast, l argue that the dialectic between justice and care must be engaged when negotiating the tensions between work and life, and l propose that engaging this dialectic not only casts Burkett's arguments in new light, it leads to a rethinking of some feminist demands.
Advocating for the "Childfree" in The Baby Boon
Family-Friendly Policies in the Workplace
Burkett (2000) argues that the childless are victims of workplace policies that result in longer hours for less pay, drawing her readers' attention to benefit plans that provide health care for the children of parents at no extra cost, family-leave policies that enable new parents to spend time with their newly born or adopted children, scholarship or educational assistance to children of employees, corporate day care, and flexible schedules offered to parents but not to their nonparent colleagues. Burkett attributes the implementation of such polices in large part to the lobbying of the feminist establishment and to "female human resources executives, many of them feminists building the newest incarnation of their movement on their concern for working mothers" (p. 32). Yet Burkett is unconvinced that these feminist efforts really address most working women's concerns. Noting that there are "13 million more working women without kids at home than with kids" (p. 37), Burkett argues that family-friendly policies, designed to boost morale, do the opposite. She asks:
How would you feel if you had no children and worked at Fel-Pro, where employees have access to childcentric benefits worth thousands of dollars more than the benefits you can use? Imagine what it is like to work at The New York Times, where parents can claim long unpaid leaves to bond with their children as a right while those without children who ask for unpaid leave to pursue their interests, which usually involve writing books, are subject to management whimsy, which often means that their requests are denied. (p. 37)
The discrimination the childless experience in the workplace is the result not only of formal policies, Burkett claims. Rather, the current family-friendly trend leads to informal practices that benefit parents at nonparents' expense. Thus she reflects on "the Ten Commandments of workplace etiquette in family-friendly America," a series of assumptions and behaviors not included in "employee handbooks" but that nonetheless are "etched into the experience of virtually every nonparent who works alongside parents" (p. 38). These include:
* Thou shalt volunteer to work late so that mothers can leave at 2:00 p.m. to watch their sons play soccer, for a mother's time is more valuable than thine.
* Thou shalt volunteer to take frequent business trips to places like Abilene, Kansas, or Cleveland, Ohio, so that parents can spend their evenings watching ER after they put the kids to bed.
* Thou shalt never utter the words "but that's not my problem" when a parent rushes out the door during the final negotiations of a corporate merger, explaining that he has promised to take the children to the movies.
* Thou shalt smile graciously when thy coworker brings her three-year-old to the office and allows him to turn the papers on thy desk into airplanes. (pp. 38-39)
It is abundantly clear that Burkett (2000) opposes these "commandments"; moreover, arguing that "women remain concentrated in heavily female offices and professions" (p. 168), she argues that the burden of obeying these commandments falls largely on the shoulders of other often childless women. She offers testimonies from some of those women, including Sandy Graf, who asserts,
Breeders get so much time off to tend to the emergency sickness or the accidents or the school this and that. Who covers for them, who works more hours? The …
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Publication information: Article title: Lessons from the Baby Boon: "Family-Friendly" Policies and the Ethics of Justice and Care. Contributors: Hayden, Sara - Author. Journal title: Women's Studies in Communication. Volume: 33. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2010. Page number: 119+. © 1998 Organization for Research on Women and Communication. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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