Returning to work is a feminist issue


I can almost hear the gods of Google shouting at me. Two negative ideas in the title. Bad SEO. No clicks for that. That sound…bwah bwah bwah…the one they have in game shows and cartoons when someone gets it wrong.

But wait a minute. I’ve been in meetings over the past two weeks where I’ve heard people say things like this:

  • Women especially have been getting used to finding things easier.
  • During this pandemic, they have been able to look after children and elderly parents, arrange their schedule.
  • A lot of my staff are concerned about coming back.
  • We haven’t really thought about the staff. They’ll work it out.
  • They will have to get used to it. We pay them to do a job.
  • People want to come back. They’re bored just staying home.

Two more thoughts here. One, that persistent idea that people at home aren’t working. It’s the judgement from on high – higher up the ladder, that is. The same argument against benefits, health care, social reforms. The “common people” just take advantage. If you give them too much, they won’t work.

Erasure. Erase the fact that some people have been working 12 hour days, with no real time off at weekends. Because we’re all connected! Isn’t that wonderful.

Second thoughts. Are we paid for our labor? Or are we paid for our bodies to be in a particular place? Work as a means of social control? If schools were created to help develop training for the factories (I feel like there should be footnotes here – maybe soon), is the idea of work really just about keeping an eye on us?

Surveillance. It could explain the uneasiness being exhibited by some workplaces at the idea of:

  • Flexible hours
  • Working from home
  • Reduced schedules

Entrepreneur. We’re all conditioned to see the people that “made it”. Be your own boss. There’s nothing wrong with a goal of going freelance. But it’s not an option for everyone. And in the American culture of zero healthcare, it’s even less of an option during a pandemic. And really, “look at Bill Gates” as a catchphrase doesn’t work when you’re buying the ramen packets that are on sale. Even less so when you have kids looking up at you, waiting for you to make some of this life make sense.

My life. The yin and yang of it is that employers recognize that people have their own lives, and responsibilities outside work. But they don’t want to admit it openly, because then they’d lose control. So it’s better to couch all these things in some rah rah version of “reopening” or “return to normal.” Maybe they haven’t been reading all the articles written on how many people do not want to return to “normal.” Long, dirty, unpleasant commutes. Expensive food at lunch. Work clothes. Navigating the endless small talk – another TV show dissected at the watercooler. Dirty bathrooms. Lack of privacy.  

Sure, some people want to go back. And they want to return to normal. And they want to pretend this event never happened, this blip of a global pandemic that has created an upheaval to life such as most of us have never seen before. That’s fine.

But when I hear the people in charge say, “that’s what we pay you for” or “it’s been easier for people to manage their responsibilities at home, but that will have to change if they still want a job,” it strikes me that this is a missed opportunity for society to really take a leap forward.

Children and families. I know women (and men, and non-binary people, absolutely yes) with childcare responsibilities, who are caregivers for a range of ages and abilities, who manage households. And they struggled to do all this when they had to go to work 9-5 at least. The second shift, the invisible labor. Perfectly clean homes, fresh made food on the table – a lovely luxury, just like the fantasy of internships being available to all. Needing money to eat or pay rent, how embarrassing, that story won’t be in the Sunday supplement on cooking with herbs, or baking, or buying the neglected house in a rural area. Needing help, even more awkward for everyone. Help is invisible for those that have it or can pay for it. For the rest – well, sometimes the toughest people don’t ask for help. Too many times they’ve seen what the answer is – no.

Success. The policy at many businesses is that if the workers can’t handle the demands, the schedule, then there are lots of other people who want their jobs. Funnily enough, this willing workforce that the bosses dream of is generally younger, without responsibilities, and willing to go and do what they are asked because they have been well-trained. Or because they are desperate. Be ruthless. Get ahead. They want to succeed – but who doesn’t? What is success, especially American Success? Proving yourself? Working 90 hour weeks? Buying an expensive apartment, house, car? Showing you’re the best? Best at what, though? Sleepless nights? Stress-related ailments?

Single or supported. This is a society that conveniently forgets its history. Forgets that not that long ago only unmarried women were allowed to teach. Now, we pretend we’re so shocked, but really, how is it different when a business asks their employees to work long hours? Weekends? To splutter and grudgingly allow time off? I see that one of the NYS representatives, Carolyn B. Maloney wants to modernize FMLA.

In the words of the press release: “Our country’s family and medical leave policies need to reflect what American families actually look like in 2021 and expand to match the needs of 21st Century families. Parents needs to be able to be there for children – for things like doctors appointments and parent-teacher conferences – without fear of losing their jobs.”

Fear. Is any more explanation needed? “Without fear of losing their jobs.” As a person who once lost a job because I was a single parent and needed to call out so I could care for my child when they were sick, maybe this means more to me. But why don’t these human responsibilities mean anything to you?

American families. “What American families look like in 2021.” What about what our priorities and sense of community, what about what they look like in 2021? And we’ve seen how a politics wrapped up in the flag destroys everything it touches. Why are families in this country different from those around the globe? Parental leave. Universal health care. In America, these are new innovations. In other countries, they are part of what keeps society whole.

Ageism, sexism. It’s time to acknowledge that the plan B for many companies will be to part ways with people who “enjoyed the luxury” of managing their own schedules and family responsibilities. They will “let go,” that lovely phrase, people who have responsibilities or who are older, in favor of those who have fewer demands on their time, demands that might interfere with the overriding prime directive of the company.

Does that mean our society values people most if they have no personal responsibilities? The ultimate individual, some sort of Ayn Rand cowboy, alone, no partners, no children, no parents to care for. Or a person who balances these needs, declaring themselves the winner of the game and the only one with a burning need to get ahead. Building a community, a culture – do that on your own time. Caring is weakness.

Subterranean future. So, if in two years, you’re back on the subway, looking around, and it’s still filthy, still filled with unbalanced individuals who attack people of color, those of different backgrounds, and women – nearly always women – think about this lost moment in time. When, for once, those who could make a difference – the politicians, the community leaders, the CEOs – might take a stand for prioritizing care over ambition, community over the individual, mental and physical health over an endless stressful treadmill that uses people up.

Our cities are changing. New York City has been enjoying the advent of outdoor eating and pedestrianized streets – radical changes to how we view our streets, our communities, our small businesses. Imagine if that new way of looking at the world could also mean that we value the people who build the society, who make it a place where we do more than merely exist. People who find worth in humanity, not competition. Exploration, not production. Otherwise we are nothing more than a puppy mill of people who supply capital with the endless cannon fodder needed.

Buy your second home first. Many people in NYC had the luxury of retreating to their second home. The New York Times infects its readers with panic. Rising house prices in the suburbs, in the surrounding states. Complimenting the people who gave up their rentals and who bought their second home first. Those headlines reflect a viewpoint that prioritizes a value system that must fabricate needs. Headlines about foodbanks, and crime, and lost jobs only fuels this panic. It doesn’t reflect a familiar reality. Urban and social policies will be made on the backs of the pandemic situation, but these people won’t feel any of the fallout. They will view it all from a distance.

Better alone. It’s funny really. So many blogs, and TikToks are all about how hard relationships are. That people like you better when you don’t need them. But that’s the reality we have built. We shame people who feel responsible, we dismiss those who have needs. What do we admire?

We admire liars.

Returning to work is a feminist issue. Could we fight to change how we view work? There will be more meetings. These critical policy issues will be decided, one way or another. But it will not be a surprise if those in charge ignore the uncomfortable realities, and claim that a return to normalcy is what everyone wants. A stunned silence – with the whisper in our heads – If I speak out, will I be unemployed next?

Think of all the things we have adapted to this year and suffered through. The loss. The isolation. The anxiety. The fear.

One life.

As you’re selling it, just take a moment to reflect.

Is it really yours?

© Alice Severin

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