Childlessness Equals Accountability?

by Rebecca Eisenberg

Reprinted from The Harvard Law Record

Friday, February 26, 1993

Undoubtedly, to many of us, the "Zoe Baird fiasco" is just another page in history. Zoe was struck, Kimba was struck, and then Bill happily found a nice girl who had played by the rules. Two editorials appeared in the Record on February 12 on the subject -- both written by men -- and now Baird appears a closed case at HLS.

Unfortunately for many of us, particularly women, the Zoe Baird incident will linger in our memories. For the first time in U.S. history, hiring the right nanny became a prerequisite for serving our country. In the past this was never an issue, probably because the vast majority of the candidates had wives to care for the children (who, notably, were and are not paid for their services, but no one threw a stink about that one). Now look what happens when the wives decide that they too would like a slice of the American Pie.

Scrutinizing nanny-selection, contrary to the assertions made last week by David Weinstein, has arisen as a standard applied uniquely to women. Historically, women have been assigned the role of caretaker for the children, whether we asked for it or not. In a modern society where two-parent incomes are a necessary element of economic survival, the duty of child care remains privatized -- overwhelmingly in the hands of women. The United States stands as the only industrialized nation in the world to abdicate responsibility for child care so recklessly.

And, when the impoverished system (since women and children constitute the vast majority of people in poverty) fails to provide adequate resources for the proper care of children, who gets blamed? None other than the women. Instead of pointing an accusational finger at Zoe Baird for her "crimes against the family," the U.S. public should have pointed a finger at itself and at its government in order to evaluate what would compel a family with a half-million-dollar annual income to hire a not-fully-documented immigrant to care for their children. Perhaps for Zoe Baird, for her family, and for the Peruvian couple she hired, the choice she made was in fact the most ethical under the circumstances.

What the press did not cover is how difficult it is for many immigrants to become legal U.S. citizens -- sometimes the process takes up to a decade. Sometimes the process proves unsuccessful. The press also did not cover how expensive child care may be. Infant care outside of the home generally costs over $800 a month. And even at those rates, the child care workers are grossly underpaid.

Furthermore, Zoe Baird's dilemma affects not only women who work outside of the home, but also women who work inside the home -- that is, homes belonging to the women who work on the outside. What is tragically misrepresented is the harm that this incident is inflicting on the thousands of immigrant caretakers, who have now lost their jobs. Immigrant women face enough hurdles in a society which is hostile to their ethnicities, to their language barriers, and to their very presence in the United States. They face enough barriers trying to become U.S. citizens, enduring severe discrimination every step of the way. Now they are confronted with yet another roadblock in their path towards survival.

The number of women who have been denied governmental positions due to this "crime" must only be added to the number of immigrant women who have also been fired from their already underpaid jobs. Until child-rearing is given a societal value, until "women's work" is paid, women are left with few options -- be underpaid (or not paid at all) inside the home, or be left scrambling when underpaid outside of the home.

Women should not be forced to shoulder all of the responsibility for child care in a society that is hostile to women who want (and need) to participate in the public arena and that punishes women who fail to be superhuman and create for themselves resources that simply do not exist. Women with children are not provided with any resources to care for their children, then are blamed when the children are not cared for the way that men want them to be. When they try to earn a living to support their families, women are paid only half of when men earn in the workforce, and consequently cannot afford decent child care, but if they stay home to raise their children, they may not be able to afford to live. It chains women in oppressive marriages and thereby creates a dangerous catch-22 for U.S. women. This no-win child care situation gives the words "women's liberation" real meaning.

Most egregious is the fact that Zoe Baird's husband, a professor, worked very close to home, and very well could have provided care for his child.

Bill Clinton believes that he has found a winner in Janet Reno -- a woman who is safe because she has never had children.

Nonetheless, the American public and Bill Clinton need to realize that there is a cost to equating a woman's childlessness with her appointability. For, if forced to choose between work and family, we women just might choose work. Then American men would have no babies to take care of, either.

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Copyright 1996 Rebecca Eisenberg