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Feminists should cheer Paul Ryan for taking a stand for work-life balance

Drew Angerer/Getty

Paul Ryan says he'll only accept the speakership of the House if it doesn't cut into family time. This should be met with cheers by anyone who wants to normalize the idea of men being active in family life. Instead, he's faced a backlash — led not only be conservatives, but by liberals and feminists who presumably want more men to follow his lead.

On the right, the objection is predictable: Paul Ryan needs to man up and do his job. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), a conservative Ryan critic, told Fox News's Chad Pergram: "I've never heard of someone who wanted more power and less responsibility."

On the left, Ryan's getting called a hypocrite. The Nation's Joan Walsh became an instant hero when she claimed Ryan was getting "credit for something a woman could absolutely never ask for." And several media outlets outright called Ryan a hypocrite — or an "enemy of women" — for asking for family time for himself while opposing federally mandated paid family leave and other policies that liberals believe are important for family support.

This makes no sense. Ryan is identifying a problem that millions of Americans face and shouldn't have to — and forcing people to acknowledge the problem is the first step to solving it. If you believe parents in two-parent households should share the responsibility of raising a family, it is a good thing when high-profile men acknowledge it's their responsibility, too — especially when those men represent groups that tend to favor traditional gender roles. And if you believe raising a family shouldn't impede career advancement, it's a good thing when someone points out that right now, it still does.

The "political wife" problem

The biggest problem with accusing Ryan of hypocrisy for protecting his time with his family, while opposing policies that would make it easier for less well-off people to spend more time with theirs, is that it misrepresents what Ryan's asking for. He isn't asking for paid family leave — he's not asking for leave off work at all. He's asking that weekends, which are generally understood not to be part of the workweek, actually get treated that way.

Congress, like a lot of employers in the 21st-century United States — from Amazon to Urban Outfitters — has swollen into a job that's expected to take precedence over everything else an employee does with his or her time.

Members of Congress get paid better than most, of course — and they're salaried, which theoretically means there's no limit to the number of hours they ought to work to get the job done. But being on salary doesn't mean that an employer has the right to demand your time all day, seven days a week. Ryan is just asking to get some semblance of work-life balance. To look at it another way, as Danielle Kurtzleben writes for NPR, he's asking for scheduling flexibility — which happens to be an important factor in shrinking the gender wage gap.

In the private sector, employees who are expected to have a monastic commitment to their jobs often struggle to build a family at all — it's called "monastic" for a reason. But politicians are generally expected to have spouses and children (just ask Lindsey Graham). They're expected to use their family, particularly their spouses, as campaign trail props (just ask John Kerry or Howard Dean). They're just not expected, especially as they move up the career ladder, to give them any family time.

Ted Cruz with daughters in Iowa

The original caption provided for this in Getty Images literally says Ted Cruz "spends a few moments with his daughters" before an Iowa campaign rally. How sad is that? (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call)

Usually, this trade-off is just accepted as part of the job. A "political wife" (and for some reason, possibly one that rhymes with shmexism, they are mostly wives) is expected to both run the household as an effectively single parent and make herself available for public events. Paul Ryan is making that implicit sacrifice explicit: He's pointing out that moving up the career ladder will shift the division of labor within his family.

It's understanding fatherhood not just as a fun activity but as an obligation — something important enough that it would keep him from getting a promotion.

How do we get to a place where taking family time isn't a hiring deal breaker?

Ryan's making his demand in a very Republican way: The people who are making the decision to "hire" him as speaker have all the power. He's declaring in the job interview that if he gets the job, he won't give it most of his weekends. If House Republicans see that as a deal breaker, they can hire someone else. (It is not Ryan's fault that there are no other plausible candidates right now.) If they believe Ryan is so overwhelmingly talented and well-qualified that he's the best person for the job even with that drawback, then they know what they're getting into.

To Ryan, this might be the way the world ought to work — we don't really know. To his liberal critics, it clearly isn't. They don't want a world in which employers have the power to pick only job candidates who either don't have families or are perfectly happy to force their spouses to run the household alone. For one thing, that's never going to give the overwhelming majority of workers the same power to set their own terms that Ryan has right now.

The liberal critics see this as a preventable tragedy; they see federally mandated paid family leave as one way to solve it. So they're upset that Ryan appears to acknowledge the problem without adopting what they see as the solution.

If federally mandated paid family leave is the ultimate goal, then sure, it makes sense to slam Ryan for opposing it (although in that case, his personal work-life balance is irrelevant). But it isn't. The ultimate goal is — or at least it should be — to change society as a whole so that child rearing is seen not as a mother's responsibility but as a parental responsibility, and having a family and wanting to spend time with them isn't seen as a career liability at all.

Anne-Marie Slaughter

(Marla Aufmuth/Getty)

One of the powers of privilege is that when you speak out, people are more likely to listen. Paul Ryan is forcing people to acknowledge and talk about a dilemma that many Americans are expected to suffer in silence. Joan Walsh is partly right: A woman could never ask for family time, probably because she'd be expected to put her family first anyway. But that's a bad thing — it should be happening to fewer people, not more.

Ryan has even more privilege than the high-earning, well-educated white women who've dominated the conversation about work-life balance — the Anne-Marie Slaughters of the world. But it's certainly not a step backward for society when Slaughter talks about the work-versus-family trade-offs she's had to make. And it's not a step backward when Ryan talks about them.

House Republicans aren't going to elect a speaker who supports federally mandated paid family leave. But they have a chance to elect a speaker who appears to believe that family isn't exclusively his wife's job. Why wouldn't it be a good idea to take it?


CORRECTION: This article originally said that Joan Walsh writes for Salon; she now writes for The Nation.