Suzanne Kahn

Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow
 

Recent Posts by Suzanne Kahn

  • Single Women Voters Need One Voice, But Not One Issue

    Aug 27, 2012Suzanne Kahn

    Not so long ago, single women weren't just an important voting bloc  they were an organized group that made specific political demands.

    Not so long ago, single women weren't just an important voting bloc  they were an organized group that made specific political demands.

    This political season, single women keep finding themselves at the center of political firestorms. Both parties and the media have recognized that single women are one of the country’s fastest growing demographics and a potentially crucial voting bloc. As the New York Times recently wrote, single women lean strongly toward Obama in polls, but they are not reliable voters, often feeling like politics don’t address their everyday concerns.

    Democrats hope to turn single women out by reminding them of the party’s defense of reproductive rights—a job Republicans like Todd Akin make easy. Republicans, in turn, claim that women should and do care about more than their reproductive rights and will turn to the GOP when they consider the bad economy. Absent from this debate is any sense that single women might have some very specific demands beyond reproductive freedom that are not addressed in either party’s appeals.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of single women in this country also grew dramatically. A rising number of divorces and increasing economic opportunities for women outside of marriage created new constituencies. Finding their access to economic resources—from credit to pensions—severely limited in a political economy built around the assumed norm of a nuclear family, these women organized. They formed groups like the Older Women’s League and the Alliance for Displaced Homemakers, which demanded legal reform to give single women access to badly needed resources. They proposed creative solutions to the problems single women faced on a day-to-day basis – for example, new ways of calculating Social Security benefits based on a couple’s shared earnings.

    These women organized for a number of reasons. Looser divorce laws meant that women who never expected or wanted to be single found themselves suddenly without partners after a lifetime of dependency on their husbands. In this new position, they ran up against laws and customary practices that blatantly discriminated against women. Divorced women, who had paid family credit card bills for years, could not get cards on their own. Women who divorced after less than 20 years of marriage lost access to Social Security benefits. Health insurance companies actively discriminated against women without husbands by charging them far more to purchase an insurance plan. Newly divorced women discovered institutions putting up roadblock after roadblock as they tried to put their lives back together. So they organized—not only within existing women’s organizations, but also by creating their own.

    It was, of course, a political moment that fostered identity politics. The burgeoning women’s movement created spaces for single women to meet and discover their shared problems. It also provided organizational support for single women to organize. The National Organization for Women, for example, created special committees to address the problems facing divorced women, widowed women, and never-married women.

    Single women identified equal access to credit, affordable health insurance, pension rights, affordable childcare, Social Security reforms, and much more as single women’s issues. They approached these issues not in a general way, but with very concrete demands to address the specific challenges they faced. They proposed specific laws to give women credit access, to reform the Social Security system so that married women were not treated exclusively as dependents, and to provide affordable childcare so that women could work. These organizations won important victories, like the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, but they also left unfinished work, such as the fight for quality, affordable childcare.

    Many commentators have pointed out that reproductive rights are deeply tied to economic rights for women, and they are. But a real appeal to single women as voters would recognize the many other ways to improve single women’s economic fate, like paid maternity leave and labor laws that protect the many women who work in the service economy.

    Single women today, like those in the 1970s and 1980s, are strapped for time as well as money. Asking that single women create brand new organizations is a tall order. But our absence from the political scene as vocal, self-organized participants has allowed the parties to adopt a severely limited vision of women’s demands.  

    Suzanne Kahn is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University.

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  • Even Six-Figure Salaries Don’t Attract Men to Care Work

    Apr 18, 2012Suzanne Kahn

    Until these jobs are given the respect they deserve, they will continue to turn men off and be paid less than they're worth.

    Adam Davidson’s recent New York Times Magazine article “The Best Nanny Money Can Buy” introduced readers to the “bizarre microeconomy” of New York’s highly paid nannies. The first nanny Davidson introduces earns $180,000 a year, plus a Christmas bonus and an apartment on Central Park West.

    Until these jobs are given the respect they deserve, they will continue to turn men off and be paid less than they're worth.

    Adam Davidson’s recent New York Times Magazine article “The Best Nanny Money Can Buy” introduced readers to the “bizarre microeconomy” of New York’s highly paid nannies. The first nanny Davidson introduces earns $180,000 a year, plus a Christmas bonus and an apartment on Central Park West.

    Davidson’s economy is indeed bizarre. As Bryce Covert pointed out in Forbes recently, the average New York nanny makes $37,076 a year. Childcare providers, home health care aids, and others are paid far too little for the incredibly important work they do. In the U.S., median pay for a childcare worker in 2010 was about $9 an hour.

    Care work jobs have historically been paid poorly. Jobs associated with the work women traditionally did as wives and mothers have not been conceptualized as real work and have generally paid far less than traditionally male work. This was partially a result of the way laws were written. Until the 1970s, domestic workers were not included in the Fair Labor Standards Act that mandated a federal minimum wage, among other things.

    When jobs pay well, however, they tend to attract men. Yet this does not seem to be the case among New York’s elite nannies. Interestingly, even in the microeconomy of highly paid nannies, they are all women. Davidson himself points this out, and a glance at the job listings on the website of the Pavilion Agency, the firm that connected Davidson with the high-end nanny he spoke to, confirms this. Why aren’t men attracted to these high-end jobs?

    The answer seems to lie with the respect we give care workers. Most nannies not only earn very low pay for very long hours but also gain little social capital from their jobs. This lack of respect seems to extend even to highly paid nannies. It is unmistakable in the language used in the Pavillion Agency job listings. “This is the nanny who will be a ‘wife’ to a fortunate family,” reads one posting. Others describe the candidates as a “lovely lady” or “cuddly.” This sounds like the way the ad execs on Mad Men talk about their secretaries and not the way we talk about candidates for professional careers in the 21st century.

    These are also notably gendered advertisements. Employers are clearly looking for women to fill these jobs because they imagine them to be a woman’s or a “wife’s” work. This sort of language very likely not only keeps men out of these jobs, but it also keeps pay very low for most care workers. As long the job of nanny is not respected, it will be paid less than jobs that are. 

    Davidson may have described a strange niche economy, but his rare, highly paid nannies actually tell us quite a bit about the problems most care workers face. If even six-figure salaries fail to attract men to the market, there’s a problem with care work that goes far beyond poor pay. It’s a job that society tells men, and many women, that it isn’t respectable to do. Until these jobs earn social capital as well as cash, care work will probably remain a sex-segregated, and therefore underappreciated, sector of the economy. Outside the upper echelons of Manhattan society, that means care work is likely to remain poorly paid.

    Suzanne Kahn is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University.

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  • Will Homemakers Once Again be Left Without a Financial Lifeline?

    Jan 24, 2012Suzanne Kahn

    There may be a new trend of men becoming homemakers, but they could face the same limitations to credit that women did in the 1950s.

    There may be a new trend of men becoming homemakers, but they could face the same limitations to credit that women did in the 1950s.

    "We may see the Masculine Mystique in 2020." That's the prediction Kathleen Christensen, Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, makes at the end of Bloomberg Businessweek's article on homemaker dads published earlier this month. She suggests that in any arrangement where one person does 100 percent of the housework and the other 100 percent of the work outside the home, someone will get frustrated. Today's homemaker dads may be discovering what mothers in the 1950s knew -- that it can be isolating to be the parent who stays home to do the laundry and take the kids to playdates. But there are other lessons to learn from the experience of homemaker moms in the years of the "feminine mystique." These women were not just frustrated with life in the suburbs. They faced real practical problems that homemaker parents (moms and dads) could end up facing again, like lack of access to credit.

    History shows us that it's not just frustration with an unequal distribution of housework that can pose problems. Nancy Folbre's great piece in the New York Times last week highlighted the fact that the spouse at home usually experiences a reduction in future earnings and employability. Other concrete problems can arise as well.

    Benefits are often tied to our work or our family members. Thus, if women in the era of the "feminine mystique" lost their husband through divorce, separation, or death, they could suddenly find themselves not only without a partner, but also without access to pension benefits, healthcare, or credit.

    Is this still a worry in 2012? Earlier this year, new rules went into effect to regulate the extension of credit. These rules were issued by the Federal Reserve Board in response to the CARD Act of 2009, and many of them are very good for consumers, like limiting the kinds of fees that you can be charged on a credit card. One of them, however, requires credit card companies to evaluate an applicant based on individual, not household, income. This makes it much harder for individual homemakers to get credit.

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    Women in the 1960s and 1970s fought to be recognized as individuals instead of simply appendages of their spouses. At the time, creditors refused to give wives credit in their own names, a vestige of the law of coverture, which said a wife's legal personhood was subsumed under her husband when she married. Lenders erased women's credit history when they married and only extended credit to them through their husbands. In addition, when couples applied for loans based on their combined income, lenders routinely insisted that women provide signed statements promising they would not or could not get pregnant before counting their income. Lenders' explanations for these practices rested on the assumption that married women would get pregnant and leave the workforce. They could not be trusted to maintain an income and therefore afford their own credit.

    When the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in 1974, it banned these practices and other methods of discriminating based on sex and marital status. Women now had to be given credit in their own names if they wanted it. But credit card companies still counted household income when extending credit to women. This meant that women could have credit in their own name while married, even if they chose to commit themselves to raising their children. As a result, the ECOA let women build a credit history that they could draw on to get credit if they lost their husband.

    The new law stops lenders from giving homemakers credit. Individuals can only get credit in their own names based on their own income. Not having credit in one's own name can (and did) lead to a host of indignities during a marriage, but it causes real problems when a marriage ends. More often than not, this is the moment when people need credit the most to get back on their feet. But if homemakers have not had credit in their own names for years (even if they have been the partners that balance the checkbooks and pay the bills), they lack the credit history necessary to get a car, an apartment, or a good credit card.

    Not being able to get a job upon returning to the labor force is not the only economic ramification of deciding to become a full-time homemaker. The fact that more men are making this decision may be a trend worth supporting, but we need to think about how a whole host of public policies around essential economic benefits support this decision or make it quite a risky one.

    Suzanne Kahn is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University.

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  • Would Eleanor Roosevelt Support Occupy Wall Street?

    Dec 7, 2011Suzanne Kahn

    She left clues in her advice columns about how she viewed activism aimed at changing entrenched policy.

    In 1941, readers of the Ladies' Home Journal found out that Eleanor Roosevelt did not like mice, "but I do not shriek when I see one." In 1945, she told them that their husbands should help them with their dishes because, "I think anything connected with the home is as much the husband's work as the wife's." They learned all this and much more in Eleanor's monthly advice column.

    She left clues in her advice columns about how she viewed activism aimed at changing entrenched policy.

    In 1941, readers of the Ladies' Home Journal found out that Eleanor Roosevelt did not like mice, "but I do not shriek when I see one." In 1945, she told them that their husbands should help them with their dishes because, "I think anything connected with the home is as much the husband's work as the wife's." They learned all this and much more in Eleanor's monthly advice column.

    Although it's not discussed nearly as often as her syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," Eleanor wrote an advice column for women's magazines from 1941 until 1962. For two decades, women asked her about how they should handle daughters who couldn't attract boyfriends, how she managed her budget, and what they should make of the major political issues of their day. By looking at some of the advice she doled out, it may be possible to piece together what she would have to say about the political issue of our day: Occupy Wall Street.

    In 1962, she answered a question about another set of mass protests -- the anti-nuclear rallies of 1961 and 1962. Asked if she saw any value in women's groups marching in front of the White House for peace, she wrote:

    The average person has a sense of frustration because he can think of no way to express to his government or to the world at large his desires for peaceful solutions to the difficulties that confront us. The demonstrations you mention are important if only because they dramatize the lack of more useful ways for people to show their devotion to the cause of peace. (McCall's, May 1962).

    Similarly, in 1961 Eleanor also wrote about the frustration individuals felt about not being able to do more to prevent nuclear war. In "My Day" she wrote that the best an individual could do was "register...with our government a firm protest."

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    OWS confronts massive inequality, not nuclear war and world peace, but Eleanor's take on the meaning and importance of protest in the face of overwhelming issues hits the nail on the head. OWS provides the average person with a way to express frustration and register a firm protest about an unfair economy. Critics have demanded that OWS propose solutions, but Eleanor might have pointed out that OWS makes clear the important point that there aren't easy, direct ways for the average person to fix the economy.

    Viewed this way, OWS is doing something both Eleanor Roosevelt and the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s really understood: consciousness raising. Consciousness raising was a method of political mobilization developed by feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s. Formally begun by women's liberation groups, consciousness raising groups allowed women to share personal experiences and frustrations and come to understand that these were not isolated instances, but part of a larger pattern of political relationships that defined women's personal lives. Many feminists embraced consciousness raising methods because they hoped the realizations they inspired would move women to more concrete political action.

    Consciousness raising came after Eleanor's time, but her advice column shows she understood the basic idea. Her column allowed women to see that their personal problems were shared. Eleanor urged her readers to take political action to address their concerns.

    OWS similarly suggests that people consider how their personal challenges are rooted in political problems. "We are the 99 percent" invites people to identify with the protesters and think about how an unfair economy affects individual lives. Anyone who has been to an OWS rally has seen signs that do exactly that -- share their maker's own story about student debt, medical debt, etc. Consciousness raising is an important first step for many movements. The trick now is to find those more directly "useful" ways for people with raised consciousness to show their devotion to the cause.

    Suzanne Kahn is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University.

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