Dear President Biden,
It was nice of you and Jill to do that interview with People Magazine so we could get a tiny glimpse into your life together. I know such pieces are considered fluff and are generally meant to burnish images and make people on high seem more relatable, but I think that getting to hear (or read that) our POTUS fully supports his wife’s life work is very, very cool. The fact that Dr. Biden continues to work for pay as First Lady, along with your overt support of her doing so, means you all are doing some serious norm breaking. I do want to point out, however, that it’s 2021 and it would be reasonable to think we are well past such statements being a big deal. Clearly the reality is, though, that we’re still lurching and stumbling towards the time when it will simply be a given that everyone can expect to enjoy that type of mutual support and validation for the work they choose.
And, I realize, this is a very privileged way of looking at work, support, and validation, a very rose-colored glasses view that breaks down when the aperture is widened and one considers work more broadly. It’s even more clear how narrow this view is when we also consider who is doing what kind of work, how much of it they’re doing for what pay, why they’re doing it, and the extent to which they are or are not supported in carrying out that work. This isn’t a new or earth shattering insight at all. I’m mostly reminding myself that although the issues I’m apt to get passionate about that revolve around whether women’s career aspirations are supported by their mates and whether women and under-represented minority people are attaining leadership roles are important, they mustn’t eclipse the issues facing wage workers. So many people in the US are working in unsafe, inhumane situations (including prisons) for wages that don’t cover basic living expenses and it’s critical that their realities stay front and center. Plus, we need to be cognizant of the fact that women and under-represented minority people are disproportionately stuck in those stressful hand-to-mouth cycles.
To concretize this a bit, while I really do love how supportive you and Jill seem to be of one another’s careers and how much you each want the other to feel fulfilled, I doubt that if People Magazine were to interview a couple who’re each making whatever the minimum wage is in their state that the conversation would be about how they are or are not supporting each other’s careers and want fulfillment for the other. They’d be talking about how worried they are about making rent, paying the electricity bill, and having food on the table for their children. And how exhausted they are. And how hard life is (pandemic or no pandemic, though the pandemic surely makes most everything that much harder and more exhausting). Plus, if one or both members of the couple is Black, they would probably also talk about how worried they are for their children growing up and whether their son can safely navigate any police encounters he might have during his adolescence and young adulthood.
It’s not that I don’t think you’re tracking on these major differences among us. I know you are and I’m grateful that we have someone in leadership whose True North is oriented to people who are struggling (or could easily be with one or two turns of bad luck) rather than towards those who hold the purse strings. I just sometimes find it useful to do a compare and contrast to keep myself honest and grounded.
May we all be safe in our work places.
May we be willing to keep all workers in mind when we think about worker empowerment.
May we recognize that we’re stronger when we all have dignity and safety at work.
May we accept that some costs need to increase so that everyone is compensated equitably.