I’ve Got Something to Say about Infrastructure

The Republican response to President Biden’s recently-proposed bill is to start nitpicking which bits of it are not “real” infrastructure. That’s because even Republicans have a difficult time keeping a straight face attacking infrastructure. But if they can break off bits of the bill and say, “Why THAT’S not infrastructure!” they hope they can dismantle the whole thing. Of course, that’s silly. Lots of bills have some clauses that are added on for various reasons. And Biden’s bill is actually called The American Jobs Plan, so any parts of it that create jobs or make things easier for workers belong in the bill.

Generally, I don’t think it’s worth playing the Republicans’ game. Parsing what is and isn’t infrastructure is how they want you to spend your time because when you do that, you’ve already mostly conceded that the “other” stuff isn’t worth funding. (It’s the same game as when we ask for gun safety laws and they want to debate what kind of gun is or isn’t an automatic weapon.) But infrastructure is “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” The Republican argument focuses solely on the “physical . . . facilities,” — roads, trains, bridges, maybe the power grid. But that’s only one kind of infrastructure. Infrastructure is also the “organizational structures . . . needed for the operation of a society.” (emphasis mine)

There are several reasons why Republicans want to define infrastructure as narrowly as possible, but I’m going to focus on a big one: unconscious (well, mostly unconscious) sexism.

We tend to think of the things that women need as their personal needs and not the “organizational structures needed for the operation of a society.”

So if you bleed for several days every month, that’s all on you. You pay (often with added taxes of the sort added to cosmetics) for the necessary supplies. You use up your sick days (and you get the same number of sick days as men, who don’t have cramps). You manage the mood swings and other things that go along with menstruation.

Similarly, in our society, it’ still very much the case that women are responsible for the vast majority of child care. And, again, because it’s something that women need, we view child care as a personal need, not as one of the “organizational structures needed for the operation of a society.” We provide almost no parental leave. And we certainly don’t provide any form of child care outside of schools — which generally don’t take children under five and which have schedules that don’t match up with people’s work schedules. Employers aren’t required to provide on-premises child care nor are they required to pay women the extra amount needed to pay for child care.

Yet, there’s little that makes it more difficult and/or financially infeasible for women to work other than child care. Elizabeth Warren, who was a law school professor at the time, tells the story of the time that she almost quit her job over child-care issues. And there was no “organizational structure” needed for the operation of society that she could lean on. Child care was viewed as just one of her own personal needs that she had to take care of. Luckily for Warren, her 78-year-old aunt basically gave up her own life to come and provide what society would not. But we don’t all have one of those aunts.

Now trains, and bridges, and even broadband internet: men need those things. So, sure, they’re necessary for the operation of society. But things like child care — things that mostly women need — those are too “soft” to be infrastructure. But without child care, there may as well be a big river with no bridge between a woman and her job.

So let’s not let them get away with writing OUR needs out of existence.

3 responses to “I’ve Got Something to Say about Infrastructure

  1. Scott Fisher

    This:

    “You manage the mood swings and other things that go along with menstruation.”

    Or endometriosis, which is kind of an extreme case but something we’re familiar with.

    Now, the lovely-and-talented and I are lucky in at least one way: we met in our fifties, more than a decade after she’d had a hysterectomy. (Note that a hysterectomy in your thirties does not prevent hot flashes in your fifties. In the past ten years or so, I’ve learned when to pull the covers back over her and when to leave them alone.)

    But she had the procedure because she was suffering from severe endometriosis — not merely crippling pain on its own, but often a preliminary to cancer. Her ex was active-duty military AND was the head of surgery at a number of military hospitals, so there was no issue for her in having the procedure covered by Tri-Care.

    And I must at least mention the tendency to get permission from one’s husband around any sterilization procedure, which is a whole separate arena of sexism, conscious or otherwise. I don’t recall whether this was an issue for her — I’d guess not, if only because the husband in question was in charge of the O.R. where the procedure was done — but it is for thousands if not millions of women today.

    But her second daughter, now 37, is experiencing the same kind of severe endometriosis her mom did, at about the same age.

    So I’m going to go one step further in your identification of care for women’s unique needs as infrastructure:

    HEALTH care for women’s unique needs is ALSO part of the “organizational structures needed for the operation of a society.”

  2. I am a researcher at a university, and most of my peers are women. A big age cohort all had kids in a 3-year span (like 8 babies/30 staff). Almost every woman told me that once she had a second child, it really is not financially worth it whatsoever to work. And staying home and taking care of the kids feels like being a good mom. NOT ONCE did any of their husbands, or the one male staff member, even float the idea of working less or not working to take care of the kids.

    These are all progressive caring people, but is was SUPER CLEAR that this was her problem to solve, not their problem. And the man always made more, so it feels like a neutral, financial decision. Her career suffers, his doesn’t.

    I’m endlessly glad I don’t have kids.

  3. Well-written. Thank you!

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