Career Dresses For Work


In 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for president, Democratic strategist James Carville is said to have posted a sign outside the campaign “war room” that read: “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” He did this to remind Clinton and those working for him that how people are faring is at the heart of how we make decisions in this country.

James Carville could also have posted a sign that read, “He who frames the issue, wins the debate.” In 1971 Pat Buchanan framed the debate against child care by claiming it was a fight against traditional “American” values. But it was also the economy that empowered President Nixon to veto the bill. Inflation was at an all-time high. Middle-class families were burdened with rising taxes and the increasing costs of daily living. As a result, women were “forced” to work outside the home to make ends meet. This meant an abandonment of what had become the post-war norm: breadwinning fathers, stay-at-home mothers. Paying more in taxes for programs such as child care that would help mothers work (and which conservatives argued would mean more mothers would have to work to cover the cost of the increased taxes) hit at the heart of the financial pain many Americans were experiencing. In the 1970s, American’s didn’t want women to work, they wanted to go back to the way it was in the 1950s. Patrick Buchanan may have been the snake in the grass, but it was the economy that doomed universal child care.

The ‘80s? They were one big disco party for America. I know, I was there. The economy was booming. Talent was in high demand and we women, who were for the first time in history graduating from college at the same rates as men, had much to offer. Worrying about who was going to care for the children and how was not on anyone’s radar, including feminists. In the late 1970s through the 1980s, feminists continued to focus their activism on women’s economic empowerment, putting their collective energy into the Equal Rights Amendment, an effort to change the constitution to ensure women have the same legal rights afforded to men. By 1982, the ERA finally died when supporters couldn’t get enough state legislatures to approve it.

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The women’s empowerment movement then shifted its attention to reproductive freedom and control. Family matters such as paid parental leave, paid sick leave, or universal child care were not organizing principles, and with no cohesive group fighting on behalf of families, the needs of mothers in the workplace became the individual’s problem to solve.

But something else was afoot during the ‘80s. Conservative think tanks and others with procapitalist agendas worried about the rise of the consumer advocacy groups such as Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen. They were concerned that efforts to curtail corporate actions would undermine profitability. They began a subtle and interwoven campaign to link the notion of American individualism as a means to capitalist success to every aspect of our society.133 They built off of our deeply rooted anti-government sentiment and resistance to taxation. They extolled the notion that bootstrap success was the only way to real success. Collectivism was akin to communism National programs such as universal day care or universal preschool or universal parental leave paid for by taxpayers was sold to us as un-American.

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