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Do we care about caring?


IF "Nannygate" did nothing else, it raised questions about how our society values those in the business of caring.

Child care isn't the only caring occupation in which pay is low. Teachers are underpaid. Doctors make good money, but those most directly involved in health care, nurses, are notoriously underpaid.

Perhaps as a society we simply don't care about caring.

The question of who gives needed care in the home when parents are away is a thorny one for feminists. There's no question that the responsibilities of child-rearing have precluded many talented women from participation in activities outside the home.

However, if the only route to economic emancipation for women is to delegate child care to a new class of people even more financially vulnerable, the overall contribution to social progress may be meager.

This dubious social development is underscored if the women moving into the world of work either tacitly or overtly denigrate caring in an effort to imitate the heroic style of individual achievement of many men. This temptation no doubt exists -- to the extent that caring attitudes are frowned upon in the circles in which the woman seeks acceptance.

The tendency for women to remain the givers of care when they assume professional roles was brought home recently by the experience of a professor in the anthropology department where I am a part-time graduate student. This professor initially was denied tenure, presumably on the basis that she had not published enough. The fact that she is one of the few teachers in the department who gives time unstintingly to assist both graduates and undergraduates must have been deemed irrelevant.

Not every woman is a natural nurturer, nor should she be. And some of the most caring people I know are men. Yet, many women put greater value on caring than their male peers. Perhaps this relates to the primitive struggle for survival, in which men did the hunting while women tended to children and gathered food in groups.

Maybe we could argue that in evolutionary terms, caring is some type of recessive characteristic that deservedly loses out over time. But isn't caring in both personal and global ways exactly what is needed in today's world? A deliberate concern with caring might do more to improve national policies on urban crime and violence and health care than all the technical and bureaucratic solutions imaginable. Unfortunately, national leaders frequently treat caring as an afterthought and dress it up with flowery phrases -- "a thousand points of light" -- that mean little.

Whether Kimba Wood and Zoe Baird would have brought a caring perspective to the role of attorney general will never be known. There is a cruel irony that two such qualified women should have been brought down by a child-care issue. Many of us suspected that the furor over what would have been a non-event for male contenders was in part a facade for opposition to women assuming that key government post.

Both men and women need to use this opportunity to look at the status of caring and think of the implications of delegating care to those who by dint of their legal status have few occupational options.

Perhaps if caring were more valued by Americans, we would have created a child-care system that would have assured legal and satisfying alternatives for all working mothers -- including Ms. Baird and Judge Wood.

Shela C. Turpin-Forster writes from Alexandria, Va.

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