The Welfare of Wage Earning Women


Washington -- The fact that Karen Nussbaum began her career at Harvard is not exactly unique. There are enough Harvard people in the high ranks of any administration to form their own Crimson think tank.

What is different about the new director of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor is that her Harvard days were spent as a secretary majoring in the lot of clerical workers. She "graduated" to found 9 to 5, the national organization for office workers that was immortalized in the namesake movie.

So if the 42-year-old director is still a bit surprised to find herself ensconced in a corner office of the Labor Department this icy winter day, it's because, she says, "I never had career goals. And being in government wasn't even among the career goals that I didn't have."

Nevertheless, for those who are looking for symbols of the changing of the guard in Washington try these:

The secretary of labor, Robert Reich, is a man whose consciousness was raised through the roof by his own wife's experiences and her successful settlement of a sex- discrimination claim. His choice to head the Women's Bureau was a former grass-roots organizer for the rights of working women.

The bureau was founded back in 1920 "to promote the welfare of wage-earning women" during an era when people associated the words women and labor with one thing: childbirth.

Today women are very much a part of the work force. But the bureau that was marginalized during the Reagan-Bush years is being mobilized again as a special advocate for women. Under Ms. Nussbaum's leadership it is concentrating on the mainstream "wage-earning women" in its original mandate.

Since she took over last summer, she has been listening to working women. She's talked with garment workers and reservation clerks, with day-care workers in Kansas City and casino workers in Las Vegas. She has heard them all express similar concerns and fears. Fears about family burnout, about inequity and about insecurity.

The working women of America have been, in Ms. Nussbaum's words, "the shock absorbers" of the changing economy. Their second paychecks have kept the American family afloat in years of diminishing wages. Their struggle to care for families has allowed dependent care to be cast as a problem of individuals, not of society.

But in the 1990s, the voices of these women tell her that they simply can't absorb any more shock. "The work force requires essentially every available adult in the family to work," says Ms. Nussbaum, herself the mother of three school-aged children.

"No one's home to cook dinner, no one's home to do the homework with the kids. You can't even get your car fixed. There's no one to pick up the slack. There's been almost a 20-year-lag between economic changes and the public's recognition of what's happening."

"What's happening" is not just the work-family crunch, it's also the massive de-employment known as downsizing, and the growth of a part-time temporary work force. "What's happening" is also a growing gap between the wages of the CEOs and of the everyday workers.

All of this leads Ms. Nussbaum to believe that "there has to be a public debate" about the economy. "What do we care about? What are our social values?"

What she deeply hopes is that the shock absorbers will become the change agents. Indeed for all the stress in women's lives, Ms. Nussbaum is convinced that "women are somewhat better armed right now, psychologically, to take on this debate and the work involved in changing things."

So, with limited resources and a small budget, the Women's Bureau wants to help this transformation.

They want to inform women about their rights -- from family medical leave to sexual harassment. They also want to connect women with grass-roots organizations that are taking on the day-to-day issues of work.

But the overarching goal is both more subtle and more ambitious. "When I talk to women they often know what's wrong about their jobs . . . but they either don't think it's possible to change things or they don't know how to change things. Or they blame themselves. . . . What I am most concerned about is finding what allows women to solve their own problems."

This is the concern that Ms. Nussbaum has carried with her throughout her career. Maybe it was an unplanned and unplotted career but looking back, she says, "The most important thing about me is that I was 18 in 1968. I came of age when everything in society said, if you don't like it, change things."

Change things. You might say that she learned her lessons at Harvard.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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