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Reshaping the work-family debate

Happy Labor Day: Work, Family and Men

Working-class men and gender ideals

A grandfather worked for Tractor Supply, "the largest retail and ranch store in the U.S.," was ordered to work mandatory overtime. He refused: he had to get home to care for his grandchild so his son, who had custody, could get to work. Father and son worked different shifts so each could care for the child while the other was at work.

The Tractor Supply supervisor asked grandpa why he needed to leave, telling him that accommodations could be made for reasonable excuses. Grandpa replied that his reasons were no one's business but his own. The supervisor ordered him to stay. The worker left anyway and was fired for insubordination.

I suspect men get fired all the time because of child care responsibilities. Another example: an operating engineer was ordered to work overtime because of an impending snowstorm. Again company policy made allowances for workers with a reasonable excuse. Again, this worker did not speak up. He simply left when he had to pick up his first-grader from school, and was suspended from his job.

These men were lucky. Because they were represented by unions, they ultimately were reinstated. Most Americans in this situation just get fired. Why risk discipline or discharge rather than provide an excuse? Recent studies of working class men suggest an explanation. A generation ago, working class families-like more affluent ones-could afford to keep mothers at home full or part-time. No longer. The real wages of high-school-educated men have fallen 25% since 1973. Social norms have not kept up. Most Americans still expect fathers to be providers, according to Nick Townsend's 2002 The Package Deal, and many other studies.

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As a consequence, keeping the wife at home today is a class-linked privilege, just as it was in the 19th century. A 30-year-old forklift operator told Lillian Rubin, "I know she doesn't mind working, but it shouldn't have to be that way. A guy should be able to support his wife and kids. But that's not the way it is these days, is it? Well, I guess those rich guys can, but not some ordinary Joe like me."

Today one of the hidden injuries of class is working class men's inability to live up to gender ideals. In case men don't get the message, popular culture is ready, willing and insistent that having men care for children is incongruous and hilarious (think: Two and a Half Men, now in its seventh season).

The Mancession has made things worse. If men felt queasy about not being breadwinner-in-chief, imagine how they feel when they're unemployed. This sense of vulnerability and loss helps explain the fury behind the Tea Party. Thus far, progressives have failed to offer a different outlet, or a different interpretation of current realities.

How's this for a try? Just because someone gives you a job doesn't mean he should be able to prevent you from doing right by your family. Today families depend on men both to care, and to provide, for their families. On this Labor Day, it's time to start a new conversation about work, family and men.

Joan C. Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

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