Guest Contributor: Jocelyn C. Frye, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Author Toni Morrison once wrote, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Her words are a reminder that there is value in each woman’s unwritten story, and we are all empowered to write our own narratives. Morrison’s charge is particularly timely in the present-day conversation about women, work, and family where incomplete soundbites too often substitute for richer discussion about the diversity of women’s experiences and the history they bring to the table. This problem is especially acute when it comes to the discourse around work-family issues.
For women of color, the dilemmas associated with the competing demands of work and family are deeply rooted in our nation’s history. In the 19th century, the domains of work and family were framed among societal elites as separate spheres, where women were responsible for the home and men were responsible for work. But this framing ignored the reality of most women of color, who were expected to work – typically in domestic, service, agricultural, and other low-wage jobs – to help sustain a broader societal infrastructure that elevated white women as the preferred ideal. Many women of color faced racial, gender, and ethnic biases that relegated them to second-class status, as citizens and as women, with little regard given to accommodating their work-family needs or expanding their opportunities.
Fast forward to today and this history is still relevant. Too often, the conversation about women, work, and family has been stuck in the past. Discussions in popular culture about women frequently assume the focus is white women and rarely ask questions about the unique challenges facing women of color. Family responsibilities are viewed as personal issues to be handled outside of work rather than policy questions about economic insecurity, inadequate workplace standards, race and gender bias, or persistent employment barriers. In this environment, knowing and understanding our collective history is critical to countering these default assumptions that reflect a limited vision of who women are, what work is, and what families need.
A refined, forward-looking work-family framework must be broad enough to encompass the diverse experiences of all women. Such a framing would recognize the multiple roles that all women, and increasingly men, play at work and at home and the need for policies that enable them to fulfill these roles without putting their families or their jobs at risk. This new discourse would recognize the need to transform a workplace culture that historically ignored the care needs of women of color into an intentional, solutions-focused environment with baseline work-family protections that create a level playing field for all workers. Policies to promote paid family leave, investments in affordable child care, predictable schedules, pay transparency, and stepped up enforcement of employment discrimination laws are among the strategies that can be used to create more equitable workplaces that respond to the diverse needs of women and their families.
History lessons should be more than words on a page. Rather, our histories should inform and propel a broader, more authentic dialogue that embraces the rich diversity of all women. Today’s work-family narrative is still being written – and we have an important opportunity to shape how the story should be told.
As Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Jocelyn Frye focuses on a wide range of women’s issues, including work-family balance, pay equity, and women’s leadership. Prior to joining American Progress, Frye served for four years as deputy assistant to the president and director of policy and special projects for the first lady, where she oversaw the broad issue portfolio of the first lady, with a particular focus on women, families, and engagement with the greater Washington, D.C., community.