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Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family

Author: Anne-Marie Slaughter

Reviewed by: Maria Lyons

The work of the feminist project is unfinished, certainly. But not, as the popular narrative would have it, because of a continued lack of statistical equality: unequal numbers in boardrooms, unequal political representation, unequal pay and unequal amount of hours spent doing household chores. While all this is true, and problematic, in focussing so steadily on women’s right to be a part of the system, the movement seems to have forgotten that the point was to change it. 

This view is powerfully expressed in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent book Unfinished Business. She tells the story of how women’s liberation became the freedom only to compete in a world where assumptions about what counts as valuable activity remain virtually unchallenged. The movement’s preoccupation with employment as the path to empowerment and independence has helped “to make a fetish of income-generating work as a foundation of self-worth”. This attitude and the social structures arising from it are limiting choices and imprisoning both women and men within narrowly conceived roles and opportunities: “We have redefined feminism as women’s right to be owned by the system, to be owned as much as men have been owned”.

Where did feminism go wrong? In its failure to acknowledge that the freedom to CARE must be at the heart of the quest for social transformation. Although the women’s movement can claim great achievements in professional and political spheres, “along the way, we left caregiving behind, valuing it less and less as a meaningful and important human endeavour.” The marginalisation of and even outright discrimination against caregivers that is characteristic of contemporary America, and indeed the United Kingdom, has far reaching consequences; not merely in the struggle for genuine equality between the sexes but for the happiness, health and wellbeing of us all. Caregiving is “essential to the survival of the human race” and yet the immediate loss of both social status and financial security that accompanies any decision to place caring before earning speaks volumes about national priorities. “The truth is that we value people of either gender who invest in themselves more than we value people who invest in others.”

The effects are clear, and devastating, particularly so for those on the lower end of the income scale where the penalty for taking time to care for loved ones can be and often is destitution. Nothing better illustrates the short-sightedness and counter-productivity of prevailing policy than the fact that “motherhood” is now “the single biggest risk factor for poverty in old age”. The folly of a system which impoverishes specifically those individuals who are responsible for the physical, emotional and intellectual development of the next generation cannot be overstated. “Family is the foundation of our flourishing…In fact, family makes work possible in the same way work makes family possible.”

The solution is emphatically not simply to get more mothers into paid work. This does nothing to address the root problem which is a structural bias against caregiving. Slaughter argues rather for a revolution in the way we think about, talk about, support and facilitate the provision of care. In economic terms, caregiving is investment in human capital. If we valued human capital as a society we would value “the array of jobs involving caring for and education of young children…every bit as much as we value money managers or computer scientists” “Growing” the next generation of citizens needs people of intelligence, creativity, education and experience, and, whether paid or unpaid, “anyone who cares for anyone else is a provider”.

We provide love, food, clothing, shelter, nurture, education, solace, support, nursing, stimulation, and many other things for one another’s benefit. In an industrial economy…some of us provide income, in the form of money coming in from the outside in return for labour or investment. Others of us convert that income into the necessities and luxuries of life. Without income, there is nothing to convert, but without that conversion, the income itself cannot sustain life.

Slaughter’s proposal, therefore, is not to disparage competitive work but raise the standing of caregiving so that it is equal to that of competition. The first step, as with any social transformation, is in the mind. We must ask ourselves why competing with each other came to be perceived as more important and valuable than caring for one another. Here equality activists have missed a trick: “It is no more justifiable to value the production of income over the provision of care than it is to value white over black, straight over gay, or men over women. Competition produces money. But care produces people”. Acknowledging the common criticism that feminism is elitist, or at least represents the perspective of a particular class of women, Slaughter argues that the issue of care cuts across the usual boundaries of class, wealth, ethnicity and religion. “Suppose then that what unites all women is the struggle to combine competition and care in a system that rewards one and penalizes the other?” The right to care, or more accurately the right to a system which not only accommodates our responsibilities to each other but also honours and fosters our capacities for giving, can be the “new political banner” of the women’s movement.

Beyond its attempt to reshape the ideological debate, the book contains many proposals for implementing change in practice. Of primary importance is a complete makeover of the typical workplace. The discussion of work-life balance is ordinarily framed as a “women’s problem” whereas in fact it is a “care problem” and the cause of the problem is not women but work. Slaughter describes the “failure of modern American companies to adapt to the realities of modern American life, insisting instead that workers turn themselves inside out to conform to outdated twentieth-century ideas of when and where work should get done.” What is needed is flexibility, and by that is not meant the variable hours contracts currently rendering many waged-labourers “disposable”. “The kind of flexibility we need is about making room for care in all our lives, not an additional excuse to stop caring about the human impact of our policies.” This means abandoning the notions that careers must progress linearly with no breaks along the way; that quality is always tied to quantity; that physical presence is vital to good performance; that the only way to be successful professionally is by making major sacrifices in the realm of family and home. Workers should be judged “not on our assumptions but on their results”.

One of most appealing aspects of this book is that moves away from the emphasis on women as breadwinners to encompass a broader view of men as caregivers. As much as women have traditionally been denied opportunities in work, today cultural norms and working practices still deny many men the chance to fully experience the rewards of family life. In fact, men are increasingly more restricted to stereotypical roles than are women. Whereas girls are raised with “a world to conquer”, being encouraged to aspire to success in an ever-widening range of alternatives, the message communicated to boys is still “fundamentally, that they have to be breadwinners”. Suppose boys too were given the gift of greater expectations, that they too could be pioneers of social change, that they could “take the definition of masculinity into their own hands and bend it in whatever direction they chose?” If competition and caregiving are equally valuable, then men are also in need of liberation. “The biggest unconquered world open to men is the world of caring for others”.

As a new mum, and having thus joined the ranks of unpaid carers, there is much that is thought provoking and much that is confirming in this book. There are also minor disappointments: personally, I would have liked to see Slaughter go further in her critique of the relationships between “work” and “pay”. A universal basic income would seem to follow on logically from her argument. And I remain unconvinced that “mother” can be replaced with “other caregiver’” quite as seamlessly as she maintains. However, on the whole the book provides ample fuel for those of us who believe, like the Norwegians, that parenting – indeed any form of caregiving – is “real work” and deserves to be recognised as such by society. We will all be better off when our economic and political institutions reflect the reality that our happiness depends on “nourishing human connection” and not on “an endless catalogue of possessions”. Hallelujah.

This article was first published on the Camphill Research Network website.


The publisher is Oneworld Publications.

Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family © Anne-Marie Slaughter 2016.

Review: Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family © Maria Lyons 2016.

All rights reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.