While Bernie Sanders dismisses “identity politics” as a distraction, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren are focusing their campaigns on the child-care crisis, and calling it what it is: gender oppression.
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The 2020 Democratic primary is shaping up to center mothers and motherhood in ways that exceed my wildest hopes. Previous elections have hinged on cloying conservative pro-mommy sentiment, or obsessed over winning the votes of suburban white “soccer moms.” But this time around, it’s different. The women in the Democratic primary race are pushing for a deep, and deeply feminist, re-evaluation of how women’s unpaid and invisible labor makes all our lives possible, and what the United States owes to the mothers working out of our sight and without our support.
Let us pause to acknowledge the elephant in the room: On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders (finally!) entered the 2020 Democratic primary. I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord; the Twitter brigades and hate mail, the insistence that disagreement can only be the result of moral failure or dark conspiracy, the intense and intensely personal smears aimed at any candidate who happens to not be Bernie Sanders, and—last, but never, ever least—the abundance of 28-year-old white guys telling us all that “identity politics” are a trivial distraction from “real issues,” by which they invariably mean “whatever Bernie wants.”
Look, I’m not psyched to see Mr. “I’m A Woman, Vote For Me” make war on a historically diverse (and historically female) field of Democratic candidates. Sanders doesn’t take arguments about diverse representation seriously, he doesn’t know how to campaign against people without trying to destroy them, and those traits become toxic when he’s running against non-white, non-male candidates that the world already wants to destroy. But I would suggest to you that Bernie Sanders, at this point, is a distraction. He can only dictate the conversation if we focus on him rather than on what the progressive women in the race have promised—and what they have promised will save lives, most of them female.
The two candidates who have made the biggest moves in the motherhood politics arena are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). On Monday, just hours before Sanders’s announcement, Warren unveiled an honest-to-God thrilling plan for universal child care, which would be a necessary balm for a painful crisis. By privatizing child care, we’ve turned a basic necessity into a luxury good; 71 percent of mothers work outside the home, including 65.1 percent of mothers with children younger than 6. Yet day care costs more than state college. Single mothers can spend half their income, or more, on giving their children a safe place to stay while they’re at work—yet they would lose their income entirely if they stopped paying.
It’s a racket, and Warren is good at breaking down rackets. Her proposal most closely resembles the similarly ambitious plan laid forth by Hillary Clinton in 2016, which would have doubled the child-care tax credit, raised wages for child-care workers, and capped child care costs at 10 percent of a family’s income. (Sanders introduced child-care legislation in 2011—the “Foundations for Success Act,” which would have rolled out a grant-funded program starting with ten states—but currently offers no specific policy proposals on this front.) But Warren aims higher; the plan, paid for by her wealth tax, would cap costs at 7 percent of income for most families, and make child care free for families whose total income is less than about $50,000. And, since the American child-care system is exploitative on both ends—child-care workers, who are almost entirely female and disproportionately women of color, are frequently paid starvation wages, with the median wage being $22,290 per year—Warren’s plan would also raise wages for child-care workers until they’re commensurate with public-school teachers in the same area.
This is the kind of ambitious, life-saving policy that anyone should be thrilled to vote for. Couples who can’t afford a second child would be able to revisit that decision. Single mothers could stop living paycheck to paycheck and begin to save up for their children’s futures. Mothers who want to go to college or grad school, or who have the kind of career ambitions that can’t be fulfilled with part-time work, would be able to re-enter the public sphere, and live the full lives they’ve been missing. All of this would make life better for the kids, too, by the way— studies show that children, especially daughters, do better and have more success in life when their mothers have fulfilling work outside the home.
It’s also been met with a chorus of scoffing from male pundits, who don’t like the $70 billion price tag or don’t see why it matters. Today, the media hardly remembers Clinton’s 2016 proposal, which arguably laid the groundwork for this one; the policy got a few nods, some applause from child-care advocates, and then receded into the background by a media obsessed with sexier, more male-driven stories. (And e-mails.) To be blunt: It makes sense that men wouldn’t get this. The people being hurt by the child-care crisis—from the underpaid day-care worker to the single working parent living out of his or her car—are almost all women. Even with all things being equal, according to Pew Research, women still spend twice as much time providing unpaid child care as men do, and spend roughly half as much time at their paying jobs. It takes a woman to center this issue because women are the ones who’ve been forced to cope.
Motherhood deserves a central place in politics, if only because some 86 percent of women are mothers by their mid-40s. This isn’t about imposing compulsory mom-hood, or defining womanhood down to their motherly functions; part of what’s at stake here, after all, is the right for women to do something other than mothering, to have children without sacrificing their identities or their ambitions. Yet mothers’ issues are feminist issues, and vice versa, because unpaid domestic exploitation and public marginalization still define many women’s lives. Which brings us to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Gillibrand has made feminist motherhood the beating heart of her campaign, both rhetorically and in terms of her policy. She has two young sons, aged 15 and 10. This isn’t an unusual quality in a presidential candidate—Malia and Sasha Obama were 10 and 8 years old, respectively, at Barack Obama’s inauguration; Barron Trump was 10 when his father was sworn in—but it is still fairly shocking for a mother. We expect women to be parents first and people second; hence, why many female presidential candidates have been either childless, like Shirley Chisholm, or, like Clinton and Warren, have waited until their children were grown to run. (Sen. Kamala Harris, a stepmother of two, occupies something of a middle ground—one of her kids is still in high school, with the oldest being in college.)
Yet Gillibrand has consistently presented her motherhood, not as a conflict of interest, but as a source of power and political insight: She says she called for Al Franken’s resignation because “I had to be very clear with [my sons] as a mother” about consent. Her opposition to Trump’s family separation policy is fueled in part by the empathy she feels when “she imagines what it would be like if her own family were separated.” Her initial pledge to the American people, in her campaign announcement, was to “fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own.” After centuries in which women were told to get back home, shamed for their selfishness in working, told that they could be mothers and nothing but, it’s a thrill to see a presidential candidate frame her motherhood, not as a flaw or a side issue, but as a qualification.
It’s not just talk. She’s beloved by children’s advocates, who call her one of their best allies in initiatives to support child welfare and end child abuse. And she’s been active on motherhood politics since long before they were trendy; this month, she yet again re-introduced the FAMILY Act, which she’s repeatedly introduced since 2013, and which would give new parents—mothers and fathers alike—12 federally mandated weeks of paid leave, which (to repeat an oft-repeated fact) mothers are offered almost everywhere but the United States. Gillibrand has also been leading on the Black maternal mortality crisis, having vocally pushed for the MOMS (Modernizing Obstetric Medicine Standards) Act, which would provide funding for hospitals to create and implement best practices during prenatal, post-natal and childbirth care.
Gillibrand is also campaigning on universal pre-K programs, though she’s yet to introduce specific policy. Hopefully, she will. Hopefully, Bernie Sanders will, too; hopefully, now that Warren has thrown down the gauntlet, every other candidate in the race will join in. Motherhood politics is urgent stuff; we deserve to see our Democratic candidates talking about it constantly, touting the strength and purity of their positions, trying to outdo each other with newer and bigger proposals. That is extremely unlikely without progressive, feminist women in the race, creating a baseline for other candidates to meet and exceed, and we know this because—in other races, with fewer women—it has never happened before.
It matters that Elizabeth Warren can remember how critical child care was for her early career, that we have a candidate who understands that she could not be president if she had not been able to leave her kids with her aunt. It matters that Gillibrand has given birth, and can remember what it did to her physically—for the uninitiated, it feels sort of like running a marathon, then being repeatedly stabbed at the finish line—and knows how much time and care it takes for birthing bodies to heal. “Identity politics” is simply the politics of people; women have gone for decades, even centuries, with leaders who were content to ignore the child-care crisis, or the rampant rates of pregnancy discrimination, or the underpaid and unpaid nature of women’s care work, or the high rates of Black maternal death, or simply the agonizing toll it takes on someone’s body to report to work right after giving birth, simply because women’s pain, especially mothers’ pain, is frequently invisible. White guys can rail all they want about “identity politics,” and we are free to ignore them. With these women running, we don’t have to be invisible any more.
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