There's an excellent example of this in the Australian papers today. The leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has a paid maternity scheme which would pay women their full wage for six months. A woman earning $150,000 a year would therefore receive $75,000 for each child she had.
The scheme has met resistance from within the Liberal Party for being too expensive, but Abbott is sticking with it:
This is a question of wage justice. When a woman takes leave because she's having a baby she should be paid at her wage just as if a bloke takes leave to go on holidays should be paid at his wage.Feminist Eva Cox thinks this finally marks the arrival of a radical feminist policy on paid maternity leave, as it justifies paid maternity not as a health or welfare issue but as a workplace entitlement.
The more radical basis for arguing for parental leave is to set up it up as an ongoing workplace entitlement. Feminists have long argued for parenting time to be recognised as a legitimate employee entitlement, like holiday pay, sick pay and long service leave.There will be readers of this blog who will benefit financially from Abbott's scheme and no doubt the money will be welcome. However, in spite of this I think we should be opposed to it.
What the scheme does is to reduce further the role of being a husband. It was once the case that a woman relied on her husband's efforts to earn a living in order to be supported whilst having her children. Under Abbott's scheme a woman will be supported by a combination of her own career position and a government mandated leave scheme.
So the first problem with the scheme is that it contributes to the narrowing role of the individual in society to that of worker and consumer.
Second, it means that the question of how long a woman might be able to spend at home with her child will no longer be decided at the family level but at the bureaucratic one. Abbott thinks six months at home is the right length, but down the track government officials might opt for either a shorter or longer period of time. Isn't that a blow to the status and function of the family as an institution?
Third, the longer term effect of the scheme will be to give governments power to enforce a sex neutral version of the family. The reason for this is that if you believe that individuals are made through their career, then it will seem unjust for women to spend more time at home with a child than men do. That's why in Europe there has been a push to make it compulsory for men to take a portion of the leave. In other words, if you want the money you'll have to accept a sex neutral concept of parenting in which the traditional motherhood role is shared equally between men and women.
The argument for men taking up the scheme is already being made in Australia, for instance, by Jessica Irvine:
Reforms such as Labor's paid parental leave scheme, paid at the minimum wage, and Abbott's more generous scheme to pay mothers their own salary for six months offer vital support for women in a stressful phase in their life. It is social recompense for the private investments women make to give life to the future workforce.The scheme pushes further toward the idea of individuals being interchangeable units in society. The connection between a female nature and motherhood, and a male nature and fatherhood is diminished.
But Abbott should join Warren Buffett in encouraging fathers to take up his parental scheme too. Because if women are to truly "lean in" in the workforce, men must learn to "lean in" at home too.
Fourth, the place of stable marriage as a foundation of parenthood is further reduced. It no longer matters as much whether a woman is married, or even in a relationship, as her ability to mother a child is now connected to her position at work rather than to her place within a family.
It is true that a personal relationship between a man and a woman is still left in existence and feminists of the past once argued that this would be a more pure foundation for relationships between the sexes. The problem is, though, that getting rid of the "social office" aspect of being a husband and wife also decreases the level of stable commitment to such relationships. It becomes harder for individuals to justify the formalising of relationships and to find meaning and satisfaction in fulfilling a marital role even at times when the personal relationship itself is under strain.
It should be noted that Tony Abbott is at the more right-wing end of the mainstream political spectrum. The fact that even he simply assumes that part of the traditional male role should be taken over by the administrative state demonstrates just how strong such attitudes are within the political class. It does not even register with him that something might be lost in the process. The influence of economism within right-liberalism probably doesn't help, as it encourages the idea that activity in the market via a career is the measure of success and self-realisation.