I’ve been at several of the Real Utopias Conferences that have been organised out of the Havens Center. The latestI attended part time, and, I must admit, not without a certain amount of bad conscience. The topic was Rethinking Gender Egalitarianism, and I was leaving my wife at home much of the weekend with a 4-week-old baby and the girls. So, I missed some of the best bits. It was also odd because I rarely attend a conference where I know almost no-one; and although Johanna Brenner is a very old friend, I knew none of the other out-of-towners except through their work, some of them being people whose work I started reading 2 decades ago. Rosemary Crompton, I’m pretty certain, mistook me for my dad. He should be flattered.
Nevertheless it was, in some ways, the best conference yet. Everyone was nicely on task, and although debate got quite excitable it was always good-natured. The lead document, by Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers, authors of Families that Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employmenr, argues for a mix of improved daycare provision, labour market regulation and parental leave at generous replacement rates; and the argument is that this will improve the quality of family life and increase gender equality. The proposal is less utopian and more real than some of the real utopian proposals (perhaps less utopian than I would have preferred) but I think that may have been an unavoidable feature of the subject matter; get too far away from what is feasible in the short-to-medium term and it is hard to say much that is supportable.
The papers are all here.
I might say more about the individual papers on another occasion. But I have some more general observation about divisions in the conference. First, while everyone is in favour of subsidised and high-quality childcare, there was a major division between people who supported highly subsidised parental leave, and those who not only didn’t support it, but opposed it, on the grounds that, however you figure it, women are going to take it more than men, and it will therefore be a barrier to gender equality in the labor force. A second division (not completely aligned with the first) was between different attitudes to caring for very young children. At one extreme were people (like me) who see it as a major source of fulfillment, which engages some of the most important human capacities; at the other end were those who saw it as a chore which pretty much anyone can perform (I am not caricaturing). I did wonder at one point (not entirely flippantly, and not outloud) whether this division correlated with that between those of us who have had the experience of caring for young children with disposable diapers and those who had to use cloth diapers. The final division concerned the level of optimism about men. Some expect men to continue to avoid domestic, including childrearing, labour like the plague; while others (myself included, despite the fact that I felt like a complete hypocrite) are optimistic that men can come to be something close to equal participants in childrearing.
There’s something quite different about reading a conference paper beforehand, and being there for the presentation. The paper I was least interested in beforehand, but presentation of which was not only fascinating but actually moving, was Rosalyn Baxandall’s paper “Winning Daycare Through Grass Roots Struggle in New York City”. I hereby nominate it as the paper that every one of my female students who plans to go to Law School but denies being a feminist should read.