Domestic Policy, Round 2 | Letters | Chicago Reader

Domestic Policy, Round 2 

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To the editors:

Regarding Mike Miner's reply to John Shaw's letter of March 5 regarding Miner's "Nannygate" column of January 29: I am Shaw's informant, whom Miner correctly identified. My point in writing is not to vilify Miner and his wife as exceptionally nasty employers (most of the time they were quite pleasant), but to elucidate the inherent contradictions in the whole proposition of finding "someone competent to watch the kids." From his position of class and gender privilege, Miner is perhaps unfamiliar with the subjective experience of taking care of someone else's children and home.

In order for women like Miner's wife to have both careers and children (and to live in a nuclear unit in their own house)--a demand of middle-class mainstream feminism--it is economically necessary to underpay a person--almost invariably female--to care for their children while they perform work more highly valued by capitalism. This same class of women, 20 years ago, were advocating the radical notion of being paid for their own domestic labor in their own homes, a proposition that never materialized due to capitalism's dependence on unpaid female labor. Instead, middle-class feminists, and those mostly white women they paved the way for, went to work outside the home, where the money is, and found younger, foreign, or less-privileged women, women of color, or--like myself--women between jobs, to care for their children at the barely livable wages that this economic system called for. I don't need to point out that most people will pay a mechanic to fix their car ten times what I was paid to care for living human beings. The difference between my life-style and Miner's is approximately as great as the difference between his own and the Bairds'.

Of course, since the economic rewards of such a job are negligible, the middle-class guilt of the employers demands that they invent other, intangible rewards that come from the care and feeding of their offspring. Hence, Miner's assessment that my "heart clearly was never in" my work. For centuries, the fairer sex has been offered the superior spiritual value of our labor as an explanation for our disadvantaged economic position. I have had low-paying jobs since working for the Miners, but none so low as that one; I have felt exploited at various times in my working life, but never so exploited as when working as an "unskilled" domestic worker in someone else's home. There is, in doing the denigrated tasks of living so that other people can live their lives, a feeling that one's own life is negligible and inconsequential. After doing the Miners' dishes, I would go home and do my own.

The part of Miner's reply that really sent a chill through my spine, however, was his implication that my dissatisfaction with "watching" his children led me directly to work on abortion rights. (Is calling what I did "watching" the children a way to justify $4 an hour? Watching, as if the kids were television sets? Such a characterization subtly denies the amount of psychic energy it requires to be with four-to-ten-year-old kids, as any mother or caretaker can attest to.) In the interest of accuracy, I feel compelled to point out that over a year elapsed before I took the directorship of the Chicago Abortion Fund.

There is something Quayle-esque in his conflation of children with fetuses, or maybe it's in the implication that feminists are women who have failed in the nurturant role assigned them. Of course, Mike is too good a liberal ever to agree to such a statement, and, again, I hate to single him out. His and his wife's moral complacency is typical of most middle-class whites in a society that is built upon the invisible assumption that one class of people will serve, and another class will be served.

Jane Richlovsky

Seattle

Michael Miner replies:

Not as complacent as all that, I'll allow that I'm in considerable sympathy with the above letter, and that, given Richlovsky's responsibilities, she was considerably underpaid. I'm thankful that she seems to blame capitalism for this more than she does us. Richlovsky calls herself "unskilled"--her quotes--suggesting that she did not think of herself as such but that we did. We didn't. Her letter is evidence of the intelligence and social awareness that attracted her to us; perhaps some of that would rub off on our daughters. If we'd settled for the first nonfelon to answer our ad we might have hired the Elvis impersonator I mentioned in my column.

I won't argue that washing anyone's dishes is ennobling work. (Whenever I wash our own I hear the tragic whooshing of sand falling through an hourglass.) But even as she recalls her completely believable state of misery at our sink, Richlovsky's analysis loses me. Clearly, her heart wasn't in her work, which she remembers as something she did "between jobs." She went on to work that suited her much more, and my wife and I were impressed to hear about it. (Neither of us conflated Richlovsky's new job with her contact with our daughters until six years later I foolishly thought it might be humorous to do so.)

I am not familiar with Richlovsky's present life-style, but if it is threadbare I suspect that this threadbareness has been imposed partially by her age and her choices. At a similar age, my wife was washing her dishes in her bathtub, source of the only running water in her apartment. I was living off an alley in a single room, and toadstools grew where the mildewing carpet ended at the bathroom door. We expected better would come, and it did.

I understand that better isn't a given anymore. Many more people find themselves in single rooms off alleys with no doors. And the left, ironically, is marginalized.

Perhaps these circumstances pit Richlovsky and I against each other in a kind of nascent class conflict waged along generational lines. I can see myself through her eyes, and I'm a have. But what I'm not is a have so predetermined by class that I assume nothing from her and her like but servitude. We offered Richlovsky a job, not a station in life. A predecessor of hers stayed three years in our house and now manages my wife's shop. Or is that just a higher form of peonage?

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