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Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau deserves support for her unpaid gendered labour. And so do the rest of us

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Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau wants more support in her role as prime minister's wife. It's a big opportunity -- but it's not the opportunity everyone seems to see.

Politicians are jumping on this from left and right as an example how out-of-touch (read: greedy) the wealthy Trudeaus are. NDP MP Niki Ashton said it speaks "to that disconnect with the reality that Canadian women face" and CPC MP Jason Kenney bragged that Laureen Harper never "whinged about it." 

But any time progressives find ourselves nodding in agreement with conservatives we should really take a minute and figure out why -- it's often not a good sign.

Online, the National Post featured a tweet asking "Is being the wife of the PM a job? 

The implication of the critique from both right and left is that being the prime minister's wife is not a job --at least, not one worthy of our support.

How often have you heard someone joke that they need a wife? We say it when we're struggling to keep on top of too many responsibilities.

And if you get the joke it's because you understand what "wife" is shorthand for. You could write this list yourself: personal assistant, janitor, nutritionist, chef, financial planner, party planner, secretary, nurse, therapist, interior designer -- we could go on. And of course, when there are kids in the picture we need to add the many more job titles that describe the role of wife and mother. 

Being a wife is a job and we all know the job description.

 

 

In fact, it's expected that it will be Grégoire-Trudeau's only job. (Maureen McTeer was the only Prime Minister's Wife ever to keep her day job and it was a controversial move.)

That she is expected to take on this labour without pay, without support and without official recognition is a high-profile example of what we expect of every wife. It's a reality faced by millions of Canadians. It's grounded in the very same lack of value that we accord to all "women's work" and the lack of respect we accord to the usually female people who do it.

It's the same reason that the professionals who care for us when we are young, sick or elderly are paid less that those who take care of our potholes and cable hook-ups. It's the reason that when an industry becomes female dominated salaries tend to mysteriously plummet. It's the reason marriage and children are good for men's careers and bad for women's. It's part of the reason that women spend more time working but make less money.

Of course most of the people doing this unpaid labour are caring for ailing relatives or making sure their families are well fed, not figuring out which Canadian-designed gown to wear to which state function. And it's an important difference.

Telling Grégoire-Trudeau that that she should consider herself lucky and stop whining reeks of "get back in the kitchen." But in most ways she is very lucky. 

She is far from being the only wife in this country overwhelmed by the demands on her time and many of us can't afford a babysitter, let alone a pair of nannies. 

If Grégoire-Trudeau doesn't step up and fight for the millions of others across Canada whose needs are much more urgent than her own then her brand of feminism is catastrophically flawed.

The progressive position is not that Grégoire-Trudeau is asking for too much, it's that she's asking for far too little. We need to recognize the value the unpaid labour done by her and by every single person who is tasked with the care and support of those around them.

Instead of shaming Grégoire-Trudeau for wanting better we need to leverage this and fight to make things better for everyone. That's the opportunity.

We need subsidized child care and practical support for caregivers. We need to strengthen and enforce equal pay laws. We need comprehensive health insurance for everyone. We need to recognize the value caregiving and unpaid labour bring to our society and we need to look for concrete steps, such as Basic Income, to support the people who do it.

Sure, we should officially recognize the role of the prime minister's spouse, but it needs to be part of a broader effort to recognize all of the unpaid labour that we disproportionately expect of women and caregivers and to ensure that that work is recognized, supported and valued.

If this prime minister wants to keep calling himself a feminist then let's make him put his money where his mouth is -- it's not only his wife he needs to do right by, it's all of us.

Leigh Nunan is a writer, filmmaker and activist in Toronto, Canada. She is fascinated by the stories we tell and how they shape the world. She exists on Twitter @leighnunan.

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