The Accidental Feminist:

Sure, George W. Bush did away with the White House Women's Office of Initiatives and Outreach. He's given us a first lady who prefers to be seen and not heard. He hired women with much fanfare, then promptly dismissed their input and humiliated them in public. (Think Dick Cheney usurping Condoleezza Rice's authority and the repeated episodes in which Bush publicly contradicted and muzzled Christine Todd Whitman.) He's hacking away at the right to choose, and he's eliminating birth control coverage for federal employees. Never mind that. In his first hundred days, George Bush has done feminists a big favor.


I realized the extent of Bush's contribution at this past weekend's Women's Leadership Summit sponsored by Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the American Bar Association. Though discussions ranged from old-fashioned gender bias to the double-discrimination faced by women of color, the conversation invariably returned to work/family balance. How can women achieve positions of power in anywhere near equal numbers so long as power comes with working endless hours -- and while women still bear a disproportionate responsibility for childrearing? And how can they become leaders if they actually value time spent with our kids?


Women's rights advocates frequently strategize about how to attain family friendly workplaces, but it's important to remember that work/family balance affects everyone. Because women often take more responsibility for children, reasonable workplace policies strongly affect their access to power at work. But men too benefit from a work schedule that allows them to spend time with their families -- or participate in community life. And children are much better off when their parents aren't worked to the bone.


Reasonable work schedules are good for employers too, according to the conference's report, "An Unfinished Agenda." "A wide array of research indicates that part time employees are more productive than their full time counterparts, particularly those working sweatshop schedules," writes Stanford Law School's Deborah Rhode. Rhode suggests that people working those sweatshop hours are more likely to suffer from substance abuse and health disorders related to stress; that's not good for them or their employers.


The women at the conference are not the only ones to point out the drawbacks of a workplace that demands an increasingly larger fraction of every day. Former Labor Secretary and American Prospect national editor Robert Reich, Director of the Radcliffe Public Policy Center Paula Rayman, and economics journalist Ann Crittenden have all recently published books demanding a more family friendly workplace. At the conference, former Attorney General Janet Reno echoed the common call for teamwork, flextime, and telecommuting to help employees work and parent -- policies she reported implementing in her Justice Department.


Has President Bush endorsed the fine work of the conference? Not exactly. The women spent their weekend (scheduled to run late on Friday and all day Saturday) discussing the importance of not working too long or too late. But President Bush spends most weekends practicing what the women preach; he leaves the work of Washington, relaxing at Camp David or his Texas ranch. Over his first 100 plus days, Bush has consistently worked from about 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday -- and less on Fridays. As Reno proposed, he relies on teamwork to get the job done.


This choice has its benefits. Unlike puffy-eyed President Clinton, Bush looks rested and sharp. If I trusted his motives at all, I'd think he was doing us a service by making sure he's alert and energized.


But as a man, Bush has never been forced to make the same choice women so often make. The conferees took care to note that women will never be able to achieve a reasonable work/family balance unless men participate. According to the conference report, 90 percent of law firms permit part-time schedules for parents, but only 2-3 percent of lawyers take advantage of the offer. That's because women who'd like to work part-time know that, like so many employers, law firms hold working mothers to higher standards; they assume women raising children are less committed to their work and force them to work extra hard to prove otherwise. If men demanded flexible workplaces, they'd be able to equally share parenting responsibilities -- and working mothers could ask for improved schedules without dredging up a bunch of nasty stereotypes.


Several powerful conferees said they have taken big risks to protect their family time -- and set an example for others. Said Margaret Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, "It takes enormous risks on my part [to] remind [coworkers] that I am a wife, a stepmother, and a daughter." Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell reported setting the same example, arguing, "If we can't get the business of government done in normal business hours, there's something wrong with us." These women have it right. No one should have to choose between professional success and family. But as people have succumbed to the indignities of the rat race, they've had to do just that.


Three cheers for George Bush. He -- a man with an important job -- has joined with Marshall and Campbell to prove that one can do the business of government during daylight hours -- with time for a midday workout. Now it's true that Bush has never called for workers across the country to follow his lead and demand a more balanced life. (In fact if Bush had his druthers, he'd enfeeble unions, making it harder for workers to demand anything whatsoever.)


But Bush has given the entire country something almost as valuable -- his example. With Bush in mind, working parents can demand a promotion and nights and weekends off. After all, why should they have to work longer hours than the most powerful man in the world? Yesterday's feminists and labor activists called for bread and roses. Today's want power and time to watch Little League. And our friend Dubya is leading the way.

Advertisement