A Forgotten Campaign To Support ‘Displaced Homemakers’ May Help Women TodayRoundup
tags: gender, Child Care, social services
Suzanne Kahn is deputy director of the Great Democracy Initiative and Education Program at the Roosevelt Institute and author of the forthcoming book, Divorce, American Style.
As the new school year begins, it is time to acknowledge that as a country, the United States has let women down — once again. By failing to contain the coronavirus and then failing to develop any plan for schools or child care that would allow adults to work full time, federal policy is on track to push many parents (predominantly women) out of or away from the workforce in droves.
But the pandemic is not creating a new problem; it’s exacerbating an old one. Even before March, parents, especially women, were making significant career sacrifices because of the United States’ historic failure to create an adequate child-care infrastructure. Studies have shown that women who took five years out of the workforce to care for children saw a 19 percent decrease in lifetime earnings. A full quarter of women who took time off to care for children reported negative effects on their career.
Since the 1970s, feminists have advocated for better paid leave and child-care policies to mitigate these effects. But in the 1970s, they also pushed for legislation that would provide resources to help women move between caregiving in the home and the workforce. This frequently forgotten feminist campaign offers a path forward for the women whom public policies have failed during this pandemic.
Among second-wave feminists, no one more clearly articulated the need to help women reenter the workforce than Tish Sommers. In the 1970s, Sommers was newly divorced and in her late 50s. Along with many women in a similar position, Sommers began to try to reenter the workforce after years at home raising children (and, in Sommers’s case, years of left-wing activism). Employers, skeptical of the gaps in these women’s résumés, did not roll out the welcome mat.
In 1975, Sommers coined the term “displaced homemaker” to describe women like her who had lost the income that allowed them to care for their families in the home through divorce, widowhood or loss of welfare benefits but could not find a new job. Sommers liked that the term “displaced homemaker” captured a useful “analogy between displaced persons ‘forcibly exiled’ through social upheaval or war and a whole generation of women caught in the 1970s, ‘forcibly exiled,’ displaced from a role, an occupation, dependency status, and a livelihood.”
Sommers and her allies worked on the federal and state levels to pass legislation creating displaced homemaker centers that offered job training, counseling and placement services. The first bill was introduced in California in 1975. It quickly inspired the introduction of similar legislation in 27 other states as well as national legislation sponsored by California’s first Black congresswoman, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke.
Burke understood displaced homemaker legislation as coextensive with a broader commitment to full employment legislation — a proposal that would have required making the goal of full employment (usually defined as 3 percent unemployment) the focus of federal fiscal, monetary and social policy. In the 1970s, full employment legislation before Congress promised public sector jobs to anyone seeking work and unable to find employment in the private sector (much like today’s calls for a federal jobs guarantee). Burke believed this legislation — which in its specifics prioritized jobs for men — needed to be accompanied by a host of programs designed to specifically improve women’s employment opportunities, including displaced homemaker legislation.