The end of the era of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has meaning for many. Trailblazer, fierce advocate for equal rights for women, and icon of dignified feminism, RBG will be deeply missed. Her personal life was an example of a marriage on equal footing for both partners. Her husband Marty did many of the tasks people in that day considered “women’s work”. Likewise, she was doing what many still considered “men’s work”, being a litigator, arguing cases in court. Her history-making work was going on as I was in law school, creating somewhat of a revolution in thinking as women’s rights became the law. It began to change the way people perceived women in all aspects of life and particularly in the workplace. All these decades have passed with laws changing, yet the persistent cultural perception of caregiving for aging loved ones still most often casts women in the role of caregiver.
At AgingParents.com, where we offer guidance for families in legal, healthcare and mental health issues affecting aging loved ones, the daughters and daughters-in-law are usually the ones seeking advice. Where there are no daughters, the sons will dutifully step forward but when there are siblings of both genders in a family, we see the initiators, the ones doing the physical care, the leaders being consistently female. I believe RBG would have told the brothers, the sons and sons-in-law to bear their fair share. She would have addressed the question of caregiving as people’s work, as family’s work as distinguished from a classification of something women should simply do because they are women.
We serve as guides and sometimes mediators of family fights over caregiving costs and power. We hear the sisters’ complaints that “my brother does nothing”. I hear some women say that the men in the family have every excuse as to why they don’t share the caregiving work . “I’m too busy” is a favorite. Another is “you’re better at it so you should do it”. A third is “I just can’t stand to see Mom/Dad in that condition, so you take care of them”. There is inherent unfairness in this mentality when all siblings owe responsibility to the parents who raised them.
I believe that RBG’s message, had she been asked about women as caregivers would have been that women should not unquestioningly accept the role without equal participation from male siblings. She would have urged women caregiving in families to demand fairness. In practice, as we see at AgingParents.com, the brother who lives out of the area where sister and aging, frail parents reside can contribute a lot, even if not delivering physical care. He can travel in (when safe, of course), and spend time with an aging parent to relieve the burden on his sister(s). He can pay bills, contribute financially, set up appointments, have food delivered, shop for needed items online, and arrange transportation to medical visits. During Covid-19, so much more is being done online that the opportunity to participate in more parts of caregiving virtually is newly available. For example, a telemedicine doctor’s visit has to be set up, and the aging parent needs to be able to participate via a computer or tablet. Getting that done is indeed caregiving. The time it takes, and the organization required is indeed part of caregiving. That kind of task can and should be shared by all available siblings in a family with aging parents, regardless of gender.
When women make reasonable requests for sharing the load that caring for aging parents can demand, it is not asking for any special favor. Women should not be hampered by gender-motivated expectations from their male family members. As RBG famously said “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”