The Baby Boon

How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless
By Elinor Burkett

Free Press

Copyright © 2002 Elinor Burkett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743242646


Chapter One


All Animals Are Equal


All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

George Orwell


It was just after four o'clock on a warm afternoon in April, and all Cheryl Brant wanted was to find something watchable in the video store and go home to her apartment on the outskirts of Baltimore. She had spent a long, hard week on her job as a concrete inspector hassling with companies about the percentage of water in the mix, and it was made longer and harder by the fact that the inspector who was her partner had pleaded childcare problems for the umpteenth time, forcing her to start work early and to stay late.

Cheryl didn't mind putting in extra hours when her coworkers had problems — sick kids, appointments with doctors, even dogs needing to be defleaed. But the dads she worked with had been having a lot of problems lately, problems and soccer games and school plays. She knew what they'd think if she, a single, childless woman who spent her free time building sculptures or cutting stained glass, refused to fill in for them: "What's with Cheryl? Doesn't she understand how hard it is to be a parent? Does she hate kids?" No sane person would risk being branded a kid-hater in modern America, even if it meant doing somebody else's work while that somebody got the pay. And she knew better than to insist that she too had pressing matters to attend to. What was she going to say, "Sorry, I've got an image in my head that has to be put on paper before it dissolves"? Right, she thought. As if anyone would think that her artwork was as important as junior's football practice.

Her nerves were frayed even further because she'd just filed her income tax return, which had left her no room to even fantasize about buying antique glass at thirty dollars a square foot for the stained-glass windows she creates. She'd been tempted to give herself a couple of kids to ease the pain. Dependent deductions, childcare credits, and kiddie credits would've added up to a pile of glass and enough latex to create molds for her concrete plaques. But the prospect of an audit erased that temptation. Cheryl's not moved much by unwritten laws. But she has a healthy dose of respect for the written ones.

So Cheryl, a slim blonde who would look delicate if not for the hard hat and steel-toed work boots, wasn't in the most tolerant of moods when she pulled into the parking lot at the mall housing her video store only to be forced to ride up and down rows of parked cars waiting for a space. Out of the corner of her eye, she finally spotted ten feet of empty blacktop and steered her truck in that direction. Then she confronted The Sign: "Parking Reserved for Expectant Mothers and Parents with Infants."

Was the special parking just an exquisitely sensitive gesture to aching backs? Had the mall authorities begun to post valets with electric wheelchairs inside the entrance to speed the disabled women through the endless corridors? If not, what was the point? Walking, after all, is the sine qua non of mall shopping.

Or were the parking spaces the mall's way of blessing pregnancy and motherhood as exalted status?

By the time she found a parking space for which she was eligible and entered the video store, Cheryl was still only peeved at the latest reminder of her inferior station in American life. And then it happened, the incident that pushed Cheryl over that invisible barrier between pique and full-bodied disgust. As she waited in line to check out a movie, a woman with an empty infant carrier strapped across her chest approached the counter. The clerk didn't hesitate. Looking past Cheryl and the other women in line, he virtually ushered the Mom, who advertised her astral state prominently even in the absence of her progeny, to the head of the pack.

Cheryl vowed on the spot to purchase an infant carrier that she could flaunt as what she calls "an antishunning device." "Does not having kids make me a second-class citizen, unworthy of the most basic consideration?" she asks. "When does it get to be my turn to have my choices and interests respected and honored in America?"

Cheryl's grandmother, Anna Diehl, might have uttered those last words seventy-five years earlier. In fact, women who don't conform to America's rigid female stereotypes have been uttering them, or at least thinking them, for decades. For all of the lip service paid to women's liberation, Cheryl is still as trapped by social expectations of what women should be and do and feel as were her foremothers. The specific expectations have changed; the disrespect for deviation from them remains.

Cheryl's grandmother Anna veered off the socially blessed path of her day in the summer of 1914, when she took over a one-room school in the farm country twenty miles from her home in Lonaconing, Maryland, and entered the ranks of America's working women. Born in 1895 in the heart of America's coal country, Anna came of age with the new millennium, at a time when the hunger of a nation convinced of its own destiny, manifest or not, was creating a widening middle class. America was rife with movement — from east to west, rags to riches, farm to factory — and that possibility was Anna's birthright. Her father's general store kept him safe from the hazards of work underground and his family firmly planted in the town's solid, respectable middle class.

Like many daughters of her class, when Anna finished seventh grade, she fixed her eyes on a higher education. For a generation of Americans like Anna's parents, formed in the 1870s, the nadir of women's employment, spending money on a girl's schooling must have seemed virtually wanton. But traditions were crumbling as quickly as distance and homogeneity, and promise, long America's most illusive bit of false advertising, was beckoning the new generation.

That promise, however, went only so far, at least for women. Twenty percent of Anna's peers continued their studies, and 25 percent of American women were working for wages — laboring in cigar factories and textile mills, scrubbing the floors of the wealthy, or in such middle-class occupations as teaching, nursing, or clerical work. But wherever they worked, women rarely earned even half the wages of the men beside them. Teachers, for example, women like Anna, were penalized for their gender with pay that was 30 percent below the going male wage, which meant that their salaries barely covered room and board.

And over 90 percent of female workers were single, almost all living at home, adding their meager wages to the family pot. In the early twentieth century, women's lives were still either/or propositions. A single woman might work to help feed her family. She might continue working her whole life, if she was willing to suffer the social isolation of a spinster. But if she married, her place was in the home. If her own common sense didn't guide her in that direction, her employers' almost inevitably did. Teachers, clerks, and shop girls knew, in no uncertain terms, that being single was the price of employment.

For a few years, Anna was an exception. Living on her own, she worked from interest rather than need and paid her own way thanks to the pennies her students' parents paid as tuition. But shortly after she turned twenty, she met George Diehl, who lived in Cumberland, Maryland's second-largest city, nestled in the valley east of Lonaconing. Properly chaperoned, the young couple courted for almost a year until they decided to marry. With that decision, Anna's fate was sealed. Law and custom left her no room to battle the prohibition against married teachers. So on the eve of her wedding, she bid farewell, both to her moment of rebellion and to her pupils, packed up her meager possessions, and joined the exodus of young women from the world of work into domesticity.

She was a member of the last generation to do so without question — and her daughter Susan was definitely a questioner. When Susan graduated from high school in 1950, she examined her career options with dismay. During World War II, young girls had been able to dream of flying airplanes, pounding rivets, or balancing the finances of major companies. But when the nation's soldiers returned home, those dreams quickly faded into distant, almost wanton, fantasies. "I could be a nurse, a teacher, a telephone operator or a clerk," Susan says, the sarcasm dripping. "I chose the one I disliked least," which was nursing. That was the last time she hesitated to push the envelope.

While still in nursing school, "Miss Know-It-All," as Susan calls her youthful self, fell in love with a dashing young Glenn Brant and decided to get married, assuming that that personal decision would have no impact on her professional plans. She assumed wrong. In that age of sleek car fins and an obsession with all things modern, Americans believed they had moved into a progressive new world. But for women, the new world wasn't much shinier than the old one. Female teachers like Susan's mother were no longer summarily dismissed when they married, but they were out the door the minute they got pregnant. And in Cumberland, at least, nursing hadn't inched even that far. The day Susan got married, she was kicked out of her training program.

She had already made one compromise with her future, and unlike her mother, Susan had some social space in which to maneuver around another. When the training program in Cumberland rejected her demand for reinstatement, she found a hospital in Baltimore that allowed married trainees and transferred across the state to the Hospital for the Women of Maryland. For four years, Susan was the modern young woman, living in an apartment far from home, donning her uniform each morning and going off to work, while her husband commuted to his job on the U.S. Army base in Aberdeen.

Only when Glenn was released from the service and the young couple moved back to Cumberland did Susan give the fifties domestic life a try. It was a disaster. "I was bored out of my mind," she says, sitting back on a couch in her pin-neat living room, Oriental embroideries framing her head. At the age of sixty-nine, she is a striking woman, radiating some of the inner steel of a Katharine Hepburn. "I hate housework. I prefer to work and pay money for someone else to do it."

When Cheryl was four years old, Susan divorced Glenn and began struggling to raise her kids while working full-time as a surgical nurse. By then, one in three marriages ended in divorce, but America was still unready to admit how far reality diverged from mythology. Single mothers threatened the already shaky social order, so Susan was pretty much on her own. Her salary, thirty-two hundred dollars a year, covered the taxes on her house, utilities, food, and the salary of her baby-sitter, with no margin for emergency. There were no employer-sponsored daycare centers at hospitals. No tax credits for her children beyond the standard exemptions. Susan had nowhere to turn but to family and to Mrs. Chaney, an older woman, who faithfully appeared each morning in time for her to hit the operating room by 6:30. Beyond that, Susan carried the full weight. "I made my own choices," she says, a mixture of confidence and pride tingeing her voice. "I accepted responsibility for them. "People looked at me funny. People get uncomfortable when you don't do what everyone else is doing. But my attitude was, 'If people don't approve, that's just too bad.' "

Susan passed that attitude along to Cheryl, who is the walking embodiment of strong and invincible. The men on the job sites she works as a construction supervisor cower in her wake. She does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise.

Born in 1960, Cheryl came of age constrained by few of the conventions that had governed the lives of her Susan and Anna. But she was hardly free of social expectations and constraints. Women of her generation and social class were supposed to go to college and become professionals, but they were also supposed to get married, and probably divorced, and to have children, who would spend as much time with the nanny as with her.

Cheryl, however, never responded well to supposed-tos. She has tried her hand at romance more times than she cares to count, and a week doesn't go by that someone doesn't ask her, "Don't you want to get married? Don't you want children?" She's not opposed to marriage, and she's crazy about kids, an affection she indulges by working in a children's theater group. But, a member of the first generation of American women confident in their ability to support themselves, and able to have sex without the attendant diapers, she is alternately puzzled and annoyed by the incessant harping on her lack of husband and progeny. "I don't get it," she says, flatly. "What's the point of getting married just to get married or having kids for the sake of having kids?"

For Cheryl, the stories of her grandmother and mother are not just parables about independence and self-reliance, or even the human price of discrimination. They are cautionary tales about more insidious dangers, the dangers of a society that promotes any one lifestyle, of exalting and rewarding one set of personal inclinations and decisions above all others. Ask any gay person what it means to live in a world that overtly favors heterosexuality, or a Jewish person what it feels like to live amidst the presupposition that everyone is Christian. The assumption that all women will reproduce — and the granting of special privileges to those who do so — galls Cheryl in precisely the same fashion. She feels belittled and demeaned, and appalled that even feminists seem to have forgotten that where there is privilege for some, there will inevitably be unprivilege for others, and that such privilege is the type of subtle social pressure that has long circumscribed women's lives. "What kind of liberation is that?" she asks, plaintively.

"People act as if my life isn't valid because I'm not doing this thing, raising kids, as if nothing I could possibly do is as important as what parents are doing," she says, the frustration rising in her voice. "And then they accuse me of being selfish if I dare to ask why they should be put up on some pedestal. Well, I think that's a pretty selfish attitude — refusing to respect other people's lives and demanding that everyone organize their lives around your interests and your needs."

The penchant of others to accept — blithely, thoughtlessly or self-interestedly — the existence of such implicit discrimination nags at her daily. Her coworkers regularly come in late, leave early, or beg out of Saturday work because of their kids. Their paychecks include medical benefits that cost her boss twice what hers do because they have kids. Their taxes are dramatically lower because of their kids, while hers help pay for their kids' education, recreation, and medical care. And everywhere she turns, from the supermarket to the IRS, she's expected to make accommodations for the decisions of others to have it all: professions and children, time at the gym, evenings to party, and money for vacations.

"What does it mean to say we respect people's choices, women's choices, if we only respect the choice to procreate? If asking for respect is today's definition of selfish, I'll just have to live with that, just like my grandmother and mother lived with the prejudices of their days."

Over the past decade, Cheryl Brant has become a second-class American citizen. No legislation enacted explicitly proclaims Cheryl less than equal. But as the nation undergoes political cosmetic surgery to give itself a "family-friendly" face, measure by measure, bill by bill, executive order by executive order, personnel policy by personnel policy, she and the nation's other thirteen million childless adults over the age of forty have been consigned to the nether reaches of public life.

They have watched President William Jefferson Clinton and his Republican Congress forge the most massive redistribution of wealth since the War on Poverty — this time not from rich to poor, but from nonparents, no matter how modest their means, to parents, no matter how affluent. In 1997, with enormous public hoopla, they unveiled a massive middle-class tax break totaling more than $5 billion a year. There was just one catch: Delivered as a tax credit for children, it left the taxes of the childless unchanged, thus shifting the national tax burden even more heavily onto their shoulders.

Then parents of college-age children received a second windfall, in the form of a tax credit for college tuition. The result: A professional couple in suburban Boston with a six-digit income receives a $1,000 tax credit for their two younger children, a $960 tax credit for childcare because the wife works two evenings a week, and an additional $1,500 tax credit because their daughter is in college, on top of five standard dependent exemptions. But a nonparent in poverty can receive only three months of food stamps every three years because he has no kids, and a nonparent earning as little as $10,000 a year receives a maximum Earned Income Tax Credit of $341 — while an adult with a single child in that same income bracket can claim up to $2,210.

In June 1999, childless Americans saw their status further eroded when Clinton launched the nation's first system of federally paid parenting by authorizing states to extend unemployment insurance benefits to parents who want to stay home with their newborn. Nonparents, of course, can get those government checks only if disaster strikes them in the form of layoffs, which has long been the rationale for the unemployment insurance system — a kind of umbrella if the worst kind of rain begins falling. So, now, in this wonderful world in which welfare has allegedly been reformed, the Clinton unemployment insurance revamping also means that the poor lose federal benefits if they don't work, but doctors and lawyers who don't work after they have kids can receive checks from Uncle Sam.

Things are even bleaker in the workplace. Violating the principle of equal work for equal pay, American employers increasingly compensate workers according to family status, offering parents health insurance, childcare centers, and leave packages worth thousands of dollars more than the benefits packages offered to the childless — and employers might soon be given tax breaks by the federal government if that discrimination includes subsidized daycare. They are also required, by law, to grant parents long postpartum leaves with full benefits, but they are not required to transfer their salaries to the childless workers who pick up the added work while those parents stay home with the kids.

And the situation at work is about to get worse. In May 1999, the White House announced that it was drafting a new piece of civil rights legislation to protect parents from workplace discrimination, even while admitting that no evidence of rampant discrimination exists. But the president and Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who will sponsor the bill in the Senate, are using the specter of such discrimination to try to bar employers from requiring parents to work overtime or attend weekend business meetings that might interfere with their parenting obligations — although they would be free to extract all those extra hours, and then some, from the childless. They would then be prohibited by law from rewarding nonparents for all that extra time and work with compensatory raises or promotions because paying parents less money for less work, or promoting employees who worked hardest, would be "discriminatory."

As the presidential election of 2000 heats up, the words parent and citizen have become virtually interchangeable, leaving nonparent citizens dangling in political limbo. Vice-President Al Gore hit the presidential campaign trail in spring 1999 flying his "family banner." On May 16, in his commencement address at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, he promised high-quality preschool care for all children. On June 22, at his annual Family Re-Union symposium in Nashville, Tennessee, he exhorted, "Let's create a family lobby as powerful as the gun lobby." On his website, he devoted a full policy section to his proposals for building "stronger families." What was his definition of the families those proposals would help? Not brothers and sisters, cousins, or even husbands and wives. The proposals were geared exclusively to parents.

As political parties and candidates read the electoral tea leaves and vie for the votes of women, they cast their appeals on the basis of motherhood, equating being female with being a mother. In the months after the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the Demo- crats reframed their warnings about the dangers of a nation without gun control in terms of child safety rather than crime in order to reach out to women who, as Representative Carolyn McCarthy said, "find they have a maternal instinct about this." As they battled for a patients' bill of rights with their health insurance companies, Democrats made the same pitch once again. "Health care is a women's issue," said Senator Barbara Mikulski. "Women will do anything to make sure their children have the kind of health care they need." In fact, the Democrats seemed intent on reframing every issue on their agenda — from air quality and toxic waste to suburban sprawl — as "women's issues" that became instantly transmogrified into "mothers' issues." Even The New York Times took note of the reality the Democrats seemingly had missed — "The irony that the same political party that claimed ownership of the position that women could be more than mothers is...casting them primarily in that role," and reminded readers that a record number of women are eschewing motherhood entirely.

The hoppers of the House of Representatives and the Senate are rife with Democratic legislative initiatives that will inevitably diminish the childless, and their checking accounts, even more. For two decades, the Republicans have portrayed themselves as the party of family values, which might have annoyed the childless, but at least didn't cost them much money. In recent years, however, the Democrats have jumped on that bandwagon, reshaping themselves as the party that puts a dollar value on families. During the 106th Congress alone, dozens of Democratic bills designed to lighten the tax burden of parents were introduced into the House of the Representatives and the Senate: bills to increase the child tax credit from five hundred dollars to nine hundred dollars, to increase the childcare tax credit, to place a higher income cap on the maximum childcare tax credit, to award stay-at-home parents special grants to go back to school, to give stay-at-home parents their own tax credits, to expand the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (which is used predominantly by parents), and to move the nation closer to a national system of publicly funded daycare.

In this breathless rush to make America a kinder and gentler place for parents, the existence of the childless, who foot a heavy percentage of the bill for that remodeling, is never mentioned. No matter that in Cheryl's demographic group alone — women in their late thirties with graduate degrees — one-third are still childless, that one in five baby boomer women is a nonmother by choice, or that the U.S. Census Bureau projects that up to one-quarter of their daughters will follow their lead. Just as the needs and interests of women like Cheryl's mother and grandmother have suffered from laws, traditions, and social assumptions that punished them for "aberrant" inclinations, so, too, are the needs and interests of today's non-parents brushed aside, with proposals and policies that violate every democratic principle fought for over the past two centuries, from "one person, one vote" to equal pay for equal work. Parents, after all, produce the next generation. Parents, after all, have weightier responsibilities. Parents, after all, deserve special privilege for the unique contribution they make to us all.

Or so the theory goes.

I never thought of myself as "intentionally childless." I just didn't have children. Like most women of my generation and ilk — upper-middle-class, overeducated baby boomer feminists — while I was in my twenties and early thirties, I was too busy building a career and proving that women could be more than baby machines to think about reproduction. As we inched up on forty, most of my friends and colleagues confronted their biological clocks with alarm. I, on the other hand, faced that watershed with indifference. I wasn't interested in parenting. And my interest in kids was satisfied by my work as a college professor. That didn't feel like a big deal at the time. My parents were only mildly disappointed. My colleagues were only marginally curious. And while I was peripherally aware that I was underwriting parenting — by paying to educate other people's children, for example — that was just fine with me.

Then came the presidential election of 1996, when Bob Dole and Bill Clinton littered the campaign trail with initiatives allegedly designed to ease the burden on "working families." I quickly realized that that political catchphrase did not include me. It was irrelevant that I worked and that I was a member of several families. Dole was prattling on about special tax credits for children, and Clinton wowed the masses with the promise of parental leave. "Working families," I realized, was a code phrase for parents. Somehow, I'd been written out of the political equation.

I admit this shyly not because I am embarrassed by my decision to forgo parenthood — although, God knows, I am often enough treated as if I should be — but because I abhor the notion that I have become afflicted with the "what about me?" virus that seems to have infected wide swaths of the nation. But when the six-figure-income crowd is receiving multi-thousand-dollar tax breaks while the childless poor are losing their public benefits and my share of the national tax burden rises, it isn't easy to hold my tongue. And it is that much harder because this family-friendly fervor has erupted at an ironic moment in history, a moment when a record number of American men and women, members of the first generation with effective tools to prevent conception, are using them intentionally and consciously to avoid procreation entirely.

For decades, we've paid more taxes each year to educate children we don't have without complaint. We've done our share to give poor children some shot at the possibilities the kids of our friends accept as their birthright. We've volunteered to work weekends and holidays so parents could spend the time with their kids. But it still isn't enough. Suddenly we are asked to finance school choice, which means that parents will use our money to make their choices. Suddenly, we are expected to bear an even greater share of the national tax burden although we continue to receive the fewest government services. Suddenly we are accused, implicitly by Bill Clinton and explicitly by men like Allan Carlson, president of the Rockford Institute, of being "free riders" on the system because we have exercised our right to reproductive choice.

For months I struggled with questions about this encroaching reality: Are the benefits and tax breaks being offered to parents really "for the children"? Or is this brave new "family-friendly world" a new welfare program for baby boomers who want to eat their cake and have it too — to have their progeny without losing steam at work or being too strapped to pay for the new cars and vacations that defined their lives before childbirth? After all, if the goal is the well-being of children, why is the government slashing welfare, cutting food stamps, and withdrawing financial aid from inner-city school programs? What is this, some sort of childhood apartheid?

I know that supporting the health, education, and emotional well-being of the next generation, who are our future, is essential to the social good, and far be it from me to argue with the social good. But at what level and to what extent is reproduction a social good? Is expecting nonparents to pick up the slack at the office so that parents working to fulfill themselves can attend school plays, for example, intrinsic to the social good? Does supporting the future necessitate subsidizing the private college educations of the children of wealthy families? Is our growing support for parents, which skews taxation toward a significant childless minority and services away from them, really reflective of our collective concern for the future, or is it a sop to those who have kids? What does it mean that we're devising policies that force the poor to take responsibility for themselves and their decisions while establishing programs to relieve the relatively affluent of the consequences of theirs? And shouldn't we at least have a social discussion about these matters?

Finally, I began posing these questions — important, substantive questions worthy of at least a modicum of social discourse — directly to friends and colleagues. Among parents, they made me as popular as a flagburner at a convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution. "That's so selfish," mothers berated me with barely disguised rage. "After all, we're raising the next generation. Don't you care about the future?" I seethed quietly: Oh, is that why you want flex-time and tax breaks, to ensure the future of the human race? Is this blackmail: Give me my tax breaks, or I won't bear the future's children?

"How can you say that parents shouldn't earn more money than the childless, their expenses are greater, they need to earn more," one woman responded. The words slipped out of my mouth before I could shut it: "Do you advocate a Marxist wage system — you know, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need?"

That was the last time I dared broach the topic in a social setting. The posing of the questions was translated into answers, and, no matter the truth, the answers were child- and parenting-hating. The scenario was shockingly familiar, yet one more case of the majority entrenching itself in self-righteous justification to stifle complaint from the minority.

The spring of 1963 was an odd moment of stasis for a nation about to fall over a dozen political and social brinks. In my tiny corner of suburban America, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, students had traded in their Loden coats and cardigan sweaters for cotton Madras skirts and white blouses with Peter Pan collars, the proper dress for an eminently proper group of white teenagers. Caught in the grip of graduation fever, seniors were pulling all the predictable pranks, from the obligatory water balloon attacks to the festooning of the campus with toilet paper.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had just taken the struggle for justice into the heart of the beast, and civil war had broken out in Birmingham, Alabama. But, as privileged kids, we were still hopelessly stuck in the 1950s. The election of the prom queen was the only burning political issue of the day in our lush environs. Anyway, with Camelot firmly entrenched in the White House and "Blowin' in the Wind" at the top of the charts, we were convinced we had already entered the ranks of the truly enlightened.

Few of my classmates paid much attention to the news that spring, or, in all probability, during any other season. But my father, Bernard Cohen, conducted our dinner table as a seminar in current events, a free-floating roundtable that veered seamlessly from the power struggles in the Middle East to the history behind the black and white images of firehoses washing human beings along hate-filled streets in exotic places like Alabama. That May, however, the conversations over roast chicken and brisket that were seared into my memory dealt not with the plight of African-Americans, whose lives I could barely imagine, but with the struggle of women to achieve full equality. After almost two decades languishing in the congressional hopper, the Equal Pay Act was finally poised to become law, an advance in which my father, the father of two daughters, was thoroughly invested.

As the daughter of one of the first female graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, I was not unaware of the implications that bill had for the shape of my future. The old Philco television set in my father's library broadcast no weekly news magazines to unravel the myriad facets of the discrimination against women. And my local daily paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, contributed little to public understanding of such inequity within the Cradle of Liberty. I picked up an awareness of discrimination and harassment, both niggling and concrete, from the conversations of my parents and their friends, from the almost casual comments of guidance counselors, from the newspaper want ads, which still divided employment opportunity by gender.

My enthusiasm over the prospect of legislation that would guarantee me equal pay for equal work, however, was tempered by the cautions of my father, who was too well-read to be an optimist, yet too naturally optimistic to be a full-blown cynic. Just after the Civil War, he warned me, Congress had mandated equal pay for equal work in the federal civil service, but few women saw any benefit from that reform. And the private sector had remained stubbornly committed to a pay scale that rewarded white men for their gender and skin color, no matter their position or skills.

The Equal Pay Act itself had first been introduced into Congress by Claude Pepper of Florida and Wayne Morse of Oregon the year before I was born, after women had proven their mettle in the most male-dominated segments of the workforce during World War II. The Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor had pulled out all the stops to ensure the bill's passage, organizing a National Equal Pay Commission that, in turn, launched a major media campaign in the popular press, women's magazines, and labor union papers. They got as far as hearings in 1945 — but not a step further.

Year after year, session after session, the bill was reintroduced. Year after year, session after session, it languished despite the support of both political parties, leading labor leaders, and President Dwight David Eisenhower. Congressional committees held hearings again in 1948 and 1950, but, for the following decade, the bill couldn't be budged an inch closer to the floor.

Every study, every report demonstrated with no equivocation that separate, unequal pay scales were maintained for male and female workers in manufacturing, education, office work, and the professions. In a survey conducted by the National Office Management Association in 1961, for example, one-third of more than nineteen hundred employers queried admitted openly to the practice. Despite the war experience, Americans still clung stubbornly to their beliefs about women and work, and those included the belief that men should be paid more than women because they had families to support. The latter, a signal socialistic concept, was strangely out of synch with the anticommunist hysteria of the Cold War era in which it was raised. And it was strangely irrational to apply that logic to single men without families, and not to single mothers who had them. But it was proffered nonetheless by such companies as Westinghouse in justifying its practice of reducing wage rates for women's jobs by 20 percent.

Corporate America was following, in a helter-skelter fashion, the model of the "Australian wage" popular in most of Europe as well. In Australia, state and federal tribunals set minimum rates of pay for almost all occupations. Until 1975, those tribunals categorized occupations by gender and set the wages accordingly, on the assumption that all men, and no women, supported families. The minimum wage for a "male occupation" was based, then, on the cost of living for a man, his wife, and their children. The minimum wage for a "female occupation" was set to allow a single woman to scrape by on her own. In New York City at the turn of the last century, for example, male public school teachers were paid $900 a year while their female counterparts earned just $600 and male telephone operators received $75 to $100 per month while female operators were paid $30 to $50. And things didn't change much for the next half-century.

Today the Equal Pay Act — indeed, the very concept of equal pay for equal work — hardly feels revolutionary. It is a simple statement of the simplest equation of justice. But even as late as 1963, it drove yet another wedge into a nation already splintering under the force of its own hypocrisy. And it provided me with my first direct lesson in the fine points of the ongoing war between equality and self-interest.

My homeroom teacher, whom I shall call Mr. H., seemed perpetually offended by the incursion of Jewish Democratic families like mine into the sea of Episcopalian Republicans that was the Main Line of Philadelphia, and never missed an opportunity to strike a blow for the honor of white men slaving to build homes and futures for their families. For two years I'd endured his diatribes about malleable southern blacks being whipped up by communist agitators determined to topple the social order. And now the president, he said, a Catholic (a word he pronounced with undisguised disdain), was being led around by the nose by a bunch of pinko females who oughta be home taking care of the kids.

Earlier that same year, Mr. H. and I had come to verbal blows over the case of Alger Hiss, whose innocence then seemed apparent to me, naively, perhaps, in the face of evidence collected from random pumpkin patches. So it was inevitable that we'd come to verbal blows over the Equal Pay Act. I, a naive teenager certain that politics was governed by Big Principles, saw the controversy as a clear-cut contest between right and wrong. Mr. H., of course, tried to set me straight. Justice, he insisted, was not the issue. What was at stake was the very backbone of our nation, the American family, which counted on men to bring home the bacon. Should single women be paid as much as these workers, who, by any measure, needed more income than they did? he asked. Isn't it selfish, he asked, for a woman working for pocket change to demand the same pay as a man who had four or five mouths to feed?

I learned a lesson, although not exactly the one Mr. H. intended. It was, in a sense, a new appreciation of Gilbert and Sullivan's admonition about skim milk masquerading as cream. I saw clearly, for the first time, how naturally the self-interested find ways to cloak their privilege in moral superiority — without even realizing what they are doing. Mr. H. hadn't calculated a strategy in order to defend the special benefits he received because of his gender. He believed his own rhetoric. That much was obvious. And that mantle of self-righteousness — his sincere belief that he was defending some version of truth, justice, and the American way — provided him full ethical cover to trample on the rights of women without reluctance or moral compunction.

Ours was the high-school version of the argument being played out both in the halls of Washington and in the nation's newspapers. "The apparently general approval of 'equal pay for equal work' seems to me to overlook a reality of our socio-economic order: the inequality, by and large, of the economic responsibilities of men as compared with women," one Copal Mintz wrote in a letter printed in The New York Times on June 12, 1963. "Pay to the sole supporter of a family equal to the pay to one who supports only herself means inequality of access to the necessities (and material niceties) of life."

The supporters of the Equal Pay Act countered as did I, with appeals to fundamental moral principles, rather than reminders of the growing number of women who were supporting their families. Secretary of Labor Lewis Baxter Schwellenbach declared, "Pay is for work done, rather than for the number of dependents of the workers." And, writing in response to Mintz, H. Gordon of Brooklyn exposed the absurdity of the whole "family wage" argument; "What Mr. Mintz is saying is that if a man wants to earn more, all he has to do is have more children, not do a better job."

That rhetoric, of course, made nary a dent in the opposition to equal pay. The battle had been joined over the preservation of the American family, which its defenders equated with the preservation of the American Way of Life, whatever that meant. The issue was so charged that employers who disapproved of the new scheme declared themselves ready to find new, presumably legal, ways to keep the old system alive — by awarding extra perks to men supporting families or awarding special "head of household" bonuses to theoretically "equalize" wages.

As the Equal Pay Act moved inexorably toward passage, surmounting Senate subcommittees, House committees, and the full votes on both sides of the Capitol, I raced to school each morning, anxious to gloat over the mounting discomfort of my homeroom nemesis. Alas, I was denied my final triumph. By the time that President John F. Kennedy, surrounded by the avant garde of a women's movement that did not exist in the public consciousness — Dr. Minnie Miles, president of Business and Professional Women; Dr. Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women; Congresswomen Edith Green and Edna Kelly; Assistant Secretary of Labor Esther Peterson — signed into law that simple piece of legislation that permanently changed the legal landscape for working women, school had adjourned for the summer.

But I savored that moment as my first personal triumph of honor over expediency, of principle stripping away the facade of moral haughtiness to reveal its brazen self-interest. With that stroke of the presidential pen, America committed itself to guaranteeing the nation's women the simplest and most basic foundation of economic justice, equal pay for equal work. At least on paper. At least for some women. I was still too young to understand precisely how right my skeptical father would turn out to be.

Every time I hear Bill Clinton or some other political hack pontificate about "shoring up the beleaguered American family" (which, by my calculations, has been beleaguered for at least a century), every time I watch Katie Couric gush over Working Mother magazine's efforts to foster "family-friendly" companies, every time I argue with high-paid lawyers or journalists about the tax cuts they need "for the children," I think back to that spring of the Equal Pay Act, to the exquisite pirouettes executed by opponents of equal treatment, and to our national inability to learn the lessons of our own history.

All these "family-friendly" policies strike a blow for the needs of parents — mothers, actually, although we are too politically correct to codify that truth into law — precisely as the wage structure before the Equal Pay Act protected the needs of men who were raising families. The gender of the advantaged might have become more inclusive, but the principle those special protections violates has not changed one whit.

In an age in which the stresses and traumas of parenting have become a near-obsession, however, hammered home by weekly magazine features about moms exhausted by double duty and by politicians staking their electoral fortunes on tough talk not about crime but about the plight of our children, I realize that arguing with those entitlements sounds churlish. The attempts of the childless to provoke some discussion, any discussion, of the competing principle of fairness, then, are dismissed out of hand, or simply not registered on the national radar screen. Against the incessant recitations of parental woes, they go against the grain of communitarian thinking in this age of Hillaryesque villages.

But the first stirring of demands by any minority always sound selfish, or at least out of touch with the zeitgeist. That is the nature of majoritarian tyranny, which is not just the monopolization of resources and power, but, more perniciously, of thought and morality.

If history is any guide, that monopoly isn't broken easily. Reasoned appeals to justice are rarely sufficient to break through the predominant thinking, or the interests and self-interests it serves. African-Americans, women, and gays had to take to the streets. They had to grab Americans by the scruff of their collective necks and shake them out of old patterns of thinking so that competing principles of need and fairness, equity and equality, could be rebalanced in that tense dance that is American democracy.

We are approaching a new round in that tango. As parents continue to raise the bar, pressing for more time off for PTA meetings and more post-partum leave to bond with their newborns, a growing number of childless adults are declaring, "Enough." They are crying "foul" over the extra hours heaped onto their schedules and filing complaints about employee benefits plans that reward fertility, rather than merit or longevity. They are organizing against Republican proposals to give tax breaks to parents who send their children to private schools and against school choice. And as they listen to political rhetoric about relief for working families and then examine the resulting legislation, they are asking in increasingly strident voices how and when they got written off by their elected representatives.

The first skirmishes have run the gamut from the sublime to the vaguely ridiculous. In Colorado, a childless couple in their fifties who had enrolled at the university took on the student housing service over its policy of reserving married student housing for married students with children. Although housing discrimination against families with children is against the law, they discovered that housing discrimination against families without children is not — which has provoked a furor among nonparents already feeling like second-class citizens.

The stirrings have even made it into the popular media. Two seasons ago, the newfound fury of nonparents cropped up on The Drew Carey Show, with an episode about the boss sending workers with kids home because a storm was coming in, turning the freeways into skating rinks. "What about us?" their childless counterparts asked. "Is it okay for us to get killed on the ride home since we won't leave behind any orphans?" And Bill Maher managed to ruffle more than a few female feathers on Politically Incorrect first by insisting that the Child Tax Credit was designed not to help factory workers and cashiers teetering on the brink so much as to relieve yuppie parents so that they could buy JetSkis.

A voting gap — a parent gap, actually — has emerged in electoral politics. In the 1996 congressional elections, for instance, voters with no children at home cast their ballots 48 percent for the Democrats and 40 percent for Republicans, while parents with children at home preferred the Republicans 54 percent to 35 percent for Democrats. And in that year's presidential election, married parents favored Bob Dole over Bill Clinton 49 percent to 40 percent, while married voters without children favored Clinton over Dole 48 percent to 44 percent.

The message is clear and simple: Raising kids used to be the responsibility of those who bore them, and so it should remain. Sure, Americans paid for public education. That's a cost of a vibrant democracy. And we underwrote Head Start and Upward Bound and scores of other programs essential to help the needy, the unable. That's a matter of justice. Handing out goodies to parents just because they are parents, however, is not about justice, about helping the disadvantaged, creating a less steeply sloped playing field, or helping kids. It's affirmative action — the preferential treatment of one group designed to correct real or perceived discrimination or inequity — based on reproductive choice.

Obviously, such a conclusion will not endear me to the minions of the growing parental rights movement. But the job of the contrarian journalist isn't to win popularity contests. It is to stick a foot in the path of facile assumptions and glib rhetoric to send complacency sprawling. So the coming pages may well be disconcerting because they ask, in a skeptic's voice, whether such catchphrases as "for the children" and "in the name of the family" underpin a serious attempt to address pressing social problems or a political dance staged, like Mr. H.'s jig against equal pay, in the name of some illusory and unnamed "greater good."

At the risk of being less than prosaic, let me end with a bit of housekeeping, by laying out the logic behind what you are about to read. The first section details the shape, texture, and shading of the new face of family-friendliness, in the workplace and in social policy. The second asks what has impelled America on this course. Is this a sincere effort to bolster the future and fortunes of today's children, or are less noble motivations driving this train? Finally, the third and last section explores what the nation's new obsession with parenting means both for the childless and for such basic principles as fairness, equity, and personal responsibility, and posits the steps we might take to redress the imbalance between parents and nonparents.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Baby Boon by Elinor Burkett Copyright © 2002 by Elinor Burkett. Excerpted by permission.
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