What kind of structural changes do you think we need?
It’s so hard to continue the revolution in family life in a situation where there’s so little support for family-friendly work policies, where there’s not good child care available, when there isn’t parental leave. Why don’t we have them? America has this long history of asking people to purchase everything, from their own playgrounds to hospitals, instead of seeing that there should be a collective investment in playgrounds for everybody, in health care for everybody. The result is that for those who are lucky enough and skilled enough, or just lucky enough to inherit it, all sorts of opportunities are there. But for others, you hit a wall.
In the US, in many ways, we have higher opportunities for high-earning women and highly-educated women than in many other countries. Sweden and Norway have fewer women who earn above the average male salary than we do. But our gender gap is wider because our gap between high and low wages is wider, and because many more women have to drop out of work for periods of time. That said, the very fact that we don’t have these work policies means that women who can, for whatever reason, be a Sheryl Sandberg, have a supportive husband, get ahead enough to get the kind of salary where they can get help—they can really move forward. The big problem for the US is to get a parental leave policy in place, particularly for low-income women, to juggle work and family. At the same time, we need to go the route of Norway and Quebec and get a use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave, so we don’t reinforce women’s association with family life and childcare.
Is there a problem or issue that defines the modern feminist movement? Or is it fuzzier?
I think it’s fuzzier. You have the lipstick feminists, the power feminists, the class-oriented feminists, the conservative feminists, feminists who oppose abortion—all these different competing variants of feminism. And it’s no longer as much of an identifier as it was when most people didn’t believe women should have equal rights. Now everyone claims that women should have equal rights. But some of them say women don’t want to be the same as men, they’re more interested than men are in family life. That’s not really true—they’re socialized into this and channeled into making these decisions, and men are penalized for making those decisions. But the debates are harder to have because everybody, except a few trolls who honestly think that men are better than women, thinks it. So what does it mean to be a feminist? It’s not easy to explain.
I’ll be provocative here and tell you something: I don’t describe myself as a feminist teacher. If I’m giving a lecture in public I never, initially, identify as a feminist. Calling myself a feminist in the 1960’s or ‘70s made it clear to people that I was for equal opportunities for women, at a time when not everybody was. But saying it now confuses some people. I wish it didn’t, but it does. I’ve spoken to enough working-class audiences over the years where, yes, women are still paid less than men, but women’s wages have been rising and men’s have been falling. So the audience thinks, wait a minute, are you saying we should keep it up until we surpass our men while they’re losing ground? You have to explain that no, that’s not what it’s about. So I tend to use neutral words.