The Devaluation of Feminized Labour, and the Thankless Job of Mothering the Canadian Nation-State, or “Wages for Wife Work!”

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau spoke publicly last week about her need for additional staff to keep up with the appearance / meeting requests and correspondence she has received since occupying the role of the spouse of a very popular prime minister. While there is precedent for additional staff for the PM’s spouse (she currently has one staffer), much of the response, including that of the opposition parties, and much of the public, has been one of derisive scorn.

This is the second time since Justin Trudeau took office that the issue of staffing for the Grégoire-Trudeaus has been made a public issue. In the fall, shortly after Trudeau took office, journalists and the opposition parties called attention to the Prime Minister’s Office approval of two nannies who reportedly provided childcare, as well as performed some other household duties for the Grégoire-Trudeaus. Again, there is precedent for the PMO to pay for childcare for the PM’s children, but members of the public, as well as opposition parties on both sides of the political spectrum made hay of the fact that the Grégoire-Trudeaus would be getting taxpayer-funded childcare, while the rest of the country’s working families struggle to secure increasingly unaffordable quality childcare.

At first blush, the opposition parties and the public seem to have had a point – the need for a national childcare program was a key issue in the 2015 election, with all parties recognizing that the lack of affordable, accessible childcare is impacting families, as well as the economy. Why, the public asked, should we pay for the PM’s nannies when the rest of Canadians can barely afford childcare for their own kids? The media cleverly dubbed the issue “nannygate”.

I wasn’t overly interested in this conversation, except to say that yes, we need an affordable, national childcare program for families, immediately. And also, when your job demands that you are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, then your employer actually should be providing childcare as a reasonable work benefit, just as it would provide per diems for meals when you travel for work. Given the need for the Prime Minister to be available at any time, and to travel extensively, it is not surprising that his employer would pay for at least some of his childcare costs. If an employer in this situation does not provide such a benefit, they are downloading that cost onto the employee, in other words, assuming an unpaid spouse is going to provide the childcare necessary for said employee to fulfill their responsibilities with the required flexibility and hours. Yes, there are lots of firms that do download these responsibilities onto employees, but why would we want to be the kind of employer that does so? Traditionally, the public service (of which the PMship is part) has often played a leading role in advancing workers’ rights and benefits. For instance, it was a public service union, CUPW (Canadian Union of Postal Workers) that first struck for paid maternity leave in 1981. Their leadership has led to a vast expansion of paid maternity and parental leave, which is now common in public and private collective agreements. Many people are eligible for child care reimbursements when they are required to travel for work; others who work in private sector positions that demand extremely long hours, and flexible availability are often offered staff nannies or childcare reimbursements by their employers. The nannies employed to care for the Grégoire-Trudeau children are not exceptional, either when compared to past PMO staffing, or to the working conditions of many private and public sector employees.

Returning to last week’s news, the response to Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau’s recent request has been met with similar responses. And by “similar” I don’t mean people have been complaining generally about how PMO resources are being allocated – I mean people are suggesting that Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau is entitled and out of touch with “working women in Canada”. Other than a bit less emphasis being placed on the specific issue of universal childcare, the tone of the criticism leveled against Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau has been the same in each case. This despite the fact that one request was for support with labour we generally position as private, i.e. childcare, while the latter was for staff to support with scheduling and correspondence duties – work that directly arises from Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau’s role as the spouse of the Prime Minister: work that is by any metric clearly public – well, except maybe for the fact that she isn’t paid for it.

Some progressive acquaintances have shared a popular post of a letter from a woman who calls herself an “average” working mom. Meagan Heather Ward addresses her letter to “Mrs. Trudeau,” a telling and no doubt intentional misnaming. (A misnaming even more notable when you learn, as I did yesterday while researching this piece, that Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau was simply Ms. Grégoire up until the point her husband started running for PM. And she isn’t the first Canadian politician’s wife to undergo such a rebranding1. The letter, posted on the “BC Canada Politics” Facebook page, a transparently right wing site that capes for the Conservatives, outlines Ms. Ward’s extremely busy life as a wife, mother, CEO, and farmer. She suggests that Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau deserves vitriol for her unapologetic privilege in requesting “more staff for [HER] FAMILY” (sic). Ms. Ward glorifies the ways in which “average” working mothers “run themselves into the ground” working for their families, noting that Mr. Trudeau cut the Universal Child Care Benefits, without noting that the Liberal government replaced it with income-tested benefits that provide more support to lower income, empirically “average” families. The letter is signed “the mother who is PROUD to work hard for her family” (sic). The implication, of course, being that Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau doesn’t work hard for her family, nor is she entitled to the pride that rightfully accompanies mommy martyrdom. This letter sums up quite astutely the ways in which the opposition parties and much of the public have responded to Ms. Gregoire-Trudeau’s request. The suggestion is that the wife of the Prime Minister should recognize how good she has it, and if things are too hard right now, she should work harder – and be PROUD, if not happy, about it!

Calling out Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau for asking for help in this way is straight up ableist and reifies the idea that political wives should be self-denying martyrs who do not take, but only give. Political wives are supposed to soften the image of the men we otherwise expect to be strong, commanding, and uncompromising. Political wives are supposed to smooth things, to play gracious host, and be the approachable, domestic point of contact for their all-powerful husbands. Our “average” working mother, Ms. Ward, points out that there are no official duties required of the spouse of the Prime Minister. True. But I don’t think it serves the state for Michelle O.’s and Angela M.’s emails to go unreturned, for Canadians’ correspondence to go unanswered, and for young girls to never hear back from their attempts to engage with, like it or not, the most prominent woman figure in Canadian federal politics right now.

The Conservative Party response to Grégoire-Trudeau’s request for more staff has been predictable. MP Candice Bergen framed her criticism of the request as a problem of entitlement of the Grégoire-Trudeaus, as well as a budgetary issue. These responses are to be expected, particularly given the restrained approach the Harper Conservatives took to government spending in their tenure in power. The Conservatives’ concern over an expense that would likely amount to less than $100K or so per annum is commendable.

The response from the NDP has, to me, been much more disappointing. (Full disclosure: I’m an active member of the federal and provincial NDP.) Perhaps I’m to be faulted for expecting more, but to see a generally progressive party espouse the regressive ideas NDP MP Nikki Ashton shared was very disappointing to me. I generally respect Ms. Ashton’s work. Moreover, she is considered to be on the left of a party that is, admittedly, often cozying up to the centre. The crux of Ms. Ashton’s message to Sophie is that she should check her privilege. Perhaps. But Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau didn’t make her request as a wealthy, white woman private citizen; she made it as the spouse of the elected head of a nation-state, with an historically recognized political role to play. While the Grégoire-Trudeaus no doubt could afford to pay out of pocket for additional office staff, that would not be appropriate. You shouldn’t have to be wealthy to run for PM – what if the next PM’s spouse actually can’t afford to volunteer full time, in addition to privately paying for staff? We’re talking about public policy, not an individual case. Regardless of the wealth of the current PM, people who work for the PMO should be public employees, with the contractual rights and transparency obligations that go along with that. It’s in no one’s interest for Sophie to hire some recent grad off Craigslist for $20 an hour as a private contractor. So, while us progressives may rightly point out that Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau is a privileged, wealthy white woman, there’s nothing progressive about leveling those critiques in response to her request for additional professional staff.

And let’s be clear: these responses are regressive. Remember that quote I started out with, the one claiming Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau is “out of touch . . . with the realities of working women in Canada”? That’s from Ms. Ashton. While I’m grateful for any work Ms. Ashton can do to highlight the challenging realities of working women like me, I’ve got to admit, I think I have the speaking requests, and demands for inspirational interactions with children down to manageable levels. “Average” working women in Canada are not fielding what is no doubt an overwhelming amount of requests for appearances and correspondence.

Aside from our speaking schedules, things are indeed tough for average working women, especially those who are raising children, or engaged in other family care. And Ms. Ashton is right to call attention to the disproportionate levels of unpaid family and emotional care, volunteer and community work, as well as waged labour that women in our society do. It’s a serious problem, and the federal government should be investing in universal childcare, developing an elder care strategy to support the home care that has largely been shifted onto individual families, and working to rebuild, and expand the network of organizations dedicated to achieving women’s equality, which the Harper government dismantled. And the NDP should be pushing the government on all of that. What it shouldn’t be doing is engaging in partisan sniping based on the premise that the wife of the Prime Minister should be available and willing to volunteer full time to labour with inadequate staff on work that directly arises from the fact that her husband is the elected head of a country. To compare Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau’s position to that of an average Canadian woman is disingenuous, illogical, and propagates society’s sexist expectations of martyrdom of political wives.

Some journalists have compared Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau’s situation to that of First Lady Michelle Obama. The usefulness of such a comparison is limited, as the position of First Lady is an official political office, while there is no such equivalent official position for being spouse of the Canadian Prime Minister. But there are decades of precedent. As well as the understandable reality that if Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau stopped returning correspondence all together that would have political consequences for the Canadian nation-state. Like it or not, the spouse of the Prime Minister is a political role, replete with expected duties.

I’m not going to suggest that the work of the PM’s spouse is not largely glad handing and symbolic diplomacy. One may argue that the “serving” of the public she is interested in doing is of little value. So far, the most memorable example of it that I’ve seen involved Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau (a white woman) singing an a Capella song she’s written for her daughter at an event that was supposed to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But the nature, nor the quantity of the labour involved in being the spouse of the Prime Minister is not Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau’s fault (although her absurd choice to sing that song, of course, is). She appears to be trying to fulfill the role as she understands it. Perhaps the spouse of the Canadian PM should continue with their own career and not play a significant role in public life. If that’s what we would like, then we should work toward normalizing that standard. For better or worst, perhaps electing more women to senior positions in government will help change this. But the reality is that is not the situation now, and to suggest Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau should just suck it up on the basis of her relative privilege is sexist and needlessly punishing.

The work Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau is engaged in is the feminized side of political work. It is the relationship smoothing, dignitary hosting, benefit chairing, youth group speaking side of political work. And while the success with which Sophie does it reflects on her husband and husband’s party, doing the work, to at least a degree, is pretty much mandatory public work that serves the government and the public.

The TL;DR of all this is that this is public work for which Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau is requesting an additional assistant. She is not complaining about doing this work (for free, no less), she is simply saying she needs more support to do it properly. If we, as a public, and, as I am most interested in, as a leftist public, say to her: ‘you should be doing this work anyway, you obviously just need to work harder,’ we are participating in a culture that devalues feminized labour, and shames women who ask for help. The dominant response to Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau’s request for professional support, which has been to frame it as a request for support with her private responsibilities, exposes the slippage we engage in between her private responsibilities and her professional ones. The work we expect from Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau is apparently simply fair payment for happening to be married to Justin Trudeau. It illustrates the ways in which our society expects women to not only shoulder an unfair proportion of the labour of raising children and keeping house, we also expect women to engage in the public work of emotional support, relationship maintenance, mentoring, and general mothering to a broader community. In other words, despite the fact that “it’s 201[6],” even many of the progressives among us still expect to extract overwhelming amounts of free, feminized labour from women who are expected to be gracious and “proud” to do it.

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1Frankly, if anyone’s name was going to be changed, I don’t know why it wasn’t Justin’s. I mean Prime Minister Justin?

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