The Founding of the U.S. Excluded Women—and Our Leaders Are About To Do It Again

An infrastructure package without an investment in paid leave, health care, child care and support for families is not infrastructure. It is a band-aid on the real needs of women and families. 

The Founding of the U.S. Excluded Women—and Our Leaders Are About To Do It Again
(Creative Commons)

Each year on Independence Day, we perform the patriotism that we are socialized to believe mark us as “true Americans.” We salute the values of freedom and justice that the history books tell us were the foundations of our nation, but we ignore the elephant in the room so eloquently phrased by Frederick Douglass; “what, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”

Indeed, what does July 4th mean to the descendants of enslaved people, immigrants or Indigenous women whose backs this country was built on? What do these values mean to the women, our mothers, grandmothers, who this country left out of our founding, the consequences of which reverberate today—down to the very physical structures that connect our country together.

This country, including our physical infrastructure, was designed by and for white, able-bodied, cis-gendered men. From Black and brown communities cut in half to make way for our interstate system in the near past, to our present where intentional neglect leaves swaths of our communities with crumbling roads, lead pipes and public transit systems inaccessible for disabled people or young families, the consequences of racism and sexism are a built-in feature of the physical structures that joins our nation. The festering inequality in our physical infrastructure is mirrored by the total neglect of our care economy and family policies—a direct consequence of racist and gendered notions of who or what work is deemed skilled. 

As Congress negotiates massive infrastructure packages, it simply cannot afford to ignore our history and must course correct with bold and equitable investments in our care and physical infrastructure that meets the needs of all Americans. 

An infrastructure package without an investment in paid leave, health care, child care and support for families is not infrastructure. 

It is a band-aid on the real needs of women and families. 

There is no way to truly “Build Back Better” from the pandemic without building back for women of color and our families. Women are the living and breathing infrastructure of this country, the people who kept this country running as we fought to survive a global pandemic that especially stalked and ravished our communities. One in three jobs held by women are considered “essential.” Women are the doctors, nurses, and home caregivers fighting COVID-19, the factory workers, store clerks, and farm workers putting food on the table, and the parents and caregivers forced out of their jobs to care for their kids. 

The Founding of the U.S. Excluded Women—and Our Leaders Are About To Do It Again
Mary Ellen Tolentino (right) helps her mother with Alzheimer’s in Austin, Texas, on June 26, 2019. (Jay Janer / Texas TribuneCreative Commons)

In December 2019, for only the second time in history, women surpassed men as the majority of the labor force. But COVID-19 dramatically reversed this progress. Women lost more than 12.2 million jobs from February 2020 through April 2020 and more than 2.3 million women have completely dropped out of the labor force. Women have lost an entire generation of labor force participation gains, and this has disproportionately impacted women of color.

As daughters of immigrants and essential workers respectively, we have witnessed these losses in our own families firsthand. Losses compounded by generations of systemic neglect and oppression.
In short, a full economic recovery cannot be achieved without prioritizing the needs of families like ours. And it cannot be achieved if all Congress passes is a package focused solely on physical infrastructure—where nine out of ten jobs are held by men.

For decades, many of our elected officials allowed sexist and racist policies around issues like paid leave, reproductive rights, and minimum wage to flourish, positioning our country for catastrophe. We have a chance to change that; and this legislation is just the beginning. We owe it to the millions of people who have been left out and left behind since our founding to not just build back better. It is time to build something new, a future where women, caregivers and their families are at the forefront of our policy. 

On this July 4th, let’s not merely perform the rituals of freedom and justice because such performance is profane when it is not followed by action that directly leads to liberation. Instead, let us commit as a nation to right the injustices that have plagued our nation for too long so that we can truly celebrate a journey toward a more perfect union.

Dive more into freedom, the 4th of July, and what it means to be represented in the latest episode of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: Independence for the Rest of Us (with Heather Lende, Rep. Attica Scott and Rep. Leslie Herod).

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About and

Sonja Spoo is the co-director of the We Demand More coalition.
Angela Cobián is the co-director of the We Demand More coalition.