As a man you need to know and be concerned about a very important feminist theory, that is popularly known as the “Nanny Question in Feminism”. Joan C Tronto raised this question in 2002, as she argued that employing a nanny for childcare actually poses a serious moral problem to the feminist philosophy to further social justice to women.
[This article is a part of the Modern Feminism series.
All articles under this series can be found – here]
Two-career vs Dual-earner Households
In this thesis, she had separated ‘Two-career Household’ as the household where both spouses are in demanding careers and have a full-time maid (or nanny) to take care of their children and a ‘Dual-earner Household’ where the spouses need not keep a maid (or nanny) to manage kids (either family, or neighbors or the spouses manage in shifts).
In this aspect, Joan argued that “when the wealthiest members of the society use domestic servants to meet their childcare needs, the result is unjust for individuals and for the society as a whole.”
Micheal Walzer in his ‘Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality’ had stated a domestic servant as a little tyranny. Many other feminists (like Cynthia Enloe) have considered having a domestic maid as a contradiction to feminist principles. It is observed that in places of high economic inequality, as educated and wealthy women entered the job market, poor women from that area entered the domestic help market keeping the inequality alive.
In this aspect, feminist scholars argue that buying domestic services is not similar to buying other products from the market and hence it needs to be looked at differently. Joan argued that a domestic workspace is most private and intimate space of the employer that the servant shares, and hence the employer wants to exert immediate and maximum control and hence it can’t be equal to the normal marketplace where the buyer does not have much control.
The Morality of Nanny Question
Other than complaining about low wages given to the domestic workers, feminist scholars also talk about hardships of adjusting to the moral values of employer and a degraded social life (because of left behind families of their own). Romero (1992), argued that while educated wealthy mothers leave their children in someone else’s care while going for jobs, these domestic helps also need to leave their children so someone else’s children can be taken care of.
However, in this aspect, I find that Mary Romero had gone into too much of generalization and depended on her imagination. A mother who needs to take care of her own children never joins a full-time domestic care duty. Also, most often these mothers have someone else at home to take care of their children when they work as part-timers or carry their children to their workplace. Romero (1997) has mentioned these children as human toys. Alas, feminism – they look for conspiracy and abominable description everywhere. If the poor children are considered to be toys here, then the same applies to rich children as well, because children play together and they should be allowed to mingle more rather than raised alone. This feminist outlook, however, reconfirms their self-centered attitude.
Joan mentioned about lack of laws or institutional protection such as labour bodies available for domestic workers as they are often scattered in many households. Diemut Bubeck (1995, Care, Gender, and Justice) has observed that very often domestic workers are asked to perform many unpaid works and are thus are exploited by their employers. So, the basic premise of Bubeck’s assumption is that in a caregiving relationship, it is difficult to resist unpaid work and thus a worker is exploited.
However, if we examine this point we see that it is not only baseless but frivolous to some extent. This is because even in our job roles in the organized sector we are very often asked to work extra or take care of additional responsibilities to sustain in the job market. There is no job in the world that is not additionally demanding and where the workers control the market. This is because, today, every skill can be expensed with. So, the feminist conclusion that domestic workers are very often asked to work extra unpaid work is completely baseless and this exists in all professions.
For example, very often senior executives are asked to mentor their juniors or groom them for next level for no additional payment. Every corporate today expect their employees to deliver more value compared to previous year to sustain in the job market. So, Karl Marx’ utopian Theory of Exploitation does not work. This exploitation, however, will increase if we follow same feminist-socialist principles and allow women to equally participate in the workforce. Because, that will increase labor force, increase competition and hence will make more labor available at a cheaper rate and hence expectation of every corporate will increase. So, adherence to equality principles (i.e. feminist theory) will lead us to more exploitation.
Many feminists like Susan Okin (Okin 1989) has suggested that since the family is the learning ground of children. So, when they see one adult (the maid/nanny) being clearly subordinate to others, what kind of equality lessons will they learn? Mary Romero termed this as moral hazard. However, isn’t working in any corporate leads to such moral hazard, too? Unless we can manage our children (either hired nanny/creche/grandmother or one of the spouses) how can we go to any work? So, the feminist principle of equality seems to be a vague/imaginary perspective.
Alternatives to The “Nanny” Question
Quoting Caren Rubenstein from a New York Times article, Joan argued that very often these employed mothers justify their action as the need of the child but that justification may not be fair for everyone.
The ‘Intensive’ Mothering
The aim of today’s upper-middle-class mothers (anybody who takes child rearing responsibility, this may include men as well) is intensive mothering their children to make them competent in the global marketplace.
As Lareau (2000) suggested, that middle-class parents engage in practices to improve their children’s competitiveness at the cost of making other children (e.g. the Nanny’s children) uncompetitive but individual mothers can argue that they are too powerless to change this scenario.
In this aspect, the quality of the nanny and her values that are imparted to the children also comes in question. If from US perspective, it is about Hispanic women or migrants from other countries taking up these roles and hence making those children at a competitive disadvantage from a correct English-speaking perspective; from an Indian perspective, it’s about illiterate and ill-mannered women taking up those roles. Thus, in such situations, the child always becomes at a competitive disadvantage rather than an advantage. But many modern-day mommies prefer this arrangement over day-care center as they want to provide better material benefits at home to their children rather than sending them to day-care centers. In this aspect, as the child rearing becomes more competitive for the future of the kids, the ‘injustice’ of employing a ‘nanny’ gets obscured.
Anita Garey (1999) has analyzed this caregiving responsibility and segregated it into three essential roles.
- Being There – mother’s responsibilities to the child
- Family Time – integrating the child into the family
- Doing Things – like integrating the child into the larger world (school, society etc.)
- Other Activities – like cooking, dusting, feeding etc. that can be outsourced
The first three responsibilities of child rearing are essential and can’t be outsourced but the last set of activities can be outsourced.
The Politics of Needs Interpretation
In this aspect an interesting angle was provided by Nancy Fraser in her Unruly practices: Power, discourse, and gender in contemporary social theory (1989). In her view what children ‘need’ is defined by their parents. She also mentioned that parents can’t unilaterally decide on what children ‘need’. Daycare staff, school teachers, tutors and even nannies very often present competing views on what the children ‘need’.
Luttwak (1999) and Schor (2000) has mentioned that increasingly it’s the market forces that decide what we ‘need’.
In this aspect of ‘intensive’ mothering, Jody Heymann (2000) has given an interesting theory. She said, that the advantage of children of a ‘Two-Career Household’ comes at the expense of children from working and lower-middle class families. So, she argued that the children who are already disadvantaged socially gets further disadvantaged by the choice of employing ‘nanny’ by rich women. Also, the salary of these nannies can’t be increased beyond a point as that will be economically unviable for “two-career women” to employ a nanny. Hence, the “two-career woman” can succeed only when the ‘nannies’ continue to be disadvantaged.
The ‘Ethics of Responsibility’
While mentioning Margaret Urban Walker’s ‘An Ethics of Responsibility’(Walker, 1998), Joan C Tronto discussed some familiar notions of justice to assign responsibilities.
Audrey Macklin (1994), stated that some upper-middle-class women who have access to high-paying, high-status jobs can employ underprivileged women or “buy her way out of oppression”.
Even if the author argues that feminists wouldn’t have seen such consequences of additional oppression to some disadvantaged communities, feminists do need to take the responsibility of this. However, if we look at this scenario as an opportunity for underprivileged families to earn more money, then it may not seem to be an oppression.
Feminist Resolution to “Nanny’ Question
Joan C Tronto in her paper on Nanny question concluded that the oppression of underprivileged section can be stopped by reallocating work within the household. However, when we see that feminists have also broken the households into smaller nuclear families, then the only option left for childcare is the poor husband.
She suggested the following steps as remedial measures –
- Ameliorative Steps – Steps suggested are –
- Enforcing labour laws and informing all about those
- Including laws for minimum wages, and
- Social security benefits
- Sick leaves paid vacations etc
- Radical Reforms – Publicly supported childcare facilities, locally based and organized. In this radical reform, Joan suggested that people should understand that childcare is a central responsibility of the public and individual families can’t be ‘burdened’ with that responsibility. Also, she argued that it is not justified to expect women to go back to their homes to take care of their children.
- Revolutionary Changes – From Nancy Folbre’s work ‘Who Pays for The Kids (1993)’, she argued that children’s success should be assigned to the society rather than the parents and then this ‘intensive’ mothering need can be avoided.
Why Men Need to Worry About the ‘Nanny’ Question
If we look at the feminist resolution of the ‘Nanny Question’ we will see that the family of a two-career woman will always suffer. If we take into consideration the ameliorative steps mentioned above (social security, sick leaves etc.) that will increase the cost of hiring a nanny. Since women in a family are not ‘responsible’ to spend any money (if forced, that can be domestic violence), the burden will always be on the husband. If a wife takes care of such expenditure, it is her wish and not compulsion. Hence primarily the husband will be at disadvantage.
Added to this, if these families need to give certain days off to the nannies, then the responsibilities of childcare will come to the couple. But as in most cases the husband works in higher positions and is also expected to spend more hours in his office, he will directly suffer when the women will start demanding ‘equality’ on those days too. In these cases, a woman working in much lower position compared to the husband may still argue that there is no ‘equality’ in the home and feminists will still create new theories to resolve that. In any case, a man suffers from this kind of resolution.
If we talk about the ‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary’ reforms and allocating the childcare responsibility and benefits to the society, that will also won’t work. To understand this, we need to know what happened in Kibbutz society in Israel. The egalitarian society there fell apart the moment childcare debate was raised. Families started viewing this as a disadvantage for their children and hence rejected the model (detailed article will first be published in Men’s Hub magazine). As we understand, that logically parents would want to impart their skills to their children to make their future lives better. When that doesn’t happen, and the children from more educated and intelligent parents get averaged out with other children, the social structure becomes unsustainable. It is because, our inherent differences will always try to make us different, however forceful imposition of equality will not only demotivate the hard workers but will also drag down the overall performance of the society to below average levels.