By ilise feitshans • December 22, 2016
Working for the United Nations forces every individual human being abroad to rethink many cultural habits that seem natural and commonplace back home. What could be more natural than a Christmas party at the office?
This question sounds abstract beyond merely foreign when sitting at a desk in New York Chicago Mission Texas Perry Georgia Honolulu Hawaii, Rome Italy or when shopping the Christmas Market in Strasbourg France. Christmas is a national holiday not only in the USA but most European countries. And Latin America too! But what about countries where the dominant theology is Muslim or Jewish? Or in countries like the Former Soviet Union, which did not allow the practice of any religion at all? The sad truth is that Christmas is not universal and it is indeed possible to be in a place where the World War Two ballad of longing for peace when “I'll be home for Christmas..if only in my dreams” has no meaning at all. Even within the Palace of Nations itself, individuals struggle with this conflict between the teachings embedded in their hearts and the world outside.
There was my regal and beautiful boss in the International Labour Office (ILO) in Geneva Switzerland, a Muslim woman from Saudi Arabia who knew Western culture and ways because she had been valedictorian in her Public Health graduating class at Harvard University, sitting in the fourth highest ranking job in our international organization. I will never know if she had simply decided that she was at last powerful enough to vent her inner struggle or if it was the economic crisis itself that galvanized her attempt to draw the line between office politics and religion. The United Nations ILO had a truly ambivalent religious policy: no religious practice is allowed to be visible or interfere with work, yet there is a Muslim prayer room in the building and the entire building is locked closed from the first Monday before Christmas until the end of the first week in January. A nice vacation but hardly a secular reason to be away.
The time had come for preparing our annual Department Christmas party. Cutting the budget had just been the topic of hard discussions all of the week, across all aspects of our programming. My boss wanted the Christmas party to be no exception. I walked into her office upon her command and she announced to me that she was not happy because staff had complained about her decision not to have any alcohol at the office party. Living in Europe, where fine wine is more common at lunch or dinner than coca-cola is in the USA, (and where coca-cola is actually more expensive than wine in France or Switzerland), staff had challenged the wisdom and fairness of her decision. “I dont see why I should be paying our budget money to pay for alcohol which is completely contrary to my religion in a place that claims it has no religion for an official party that is religious and the religion is not mine! How can they have a Christmas party anyway, if this place has no official religion and we are not allowed to exhibit our religion? I cannot have a Koran on my desk why should they have a Christmas party out of my official budget, and with wine? ” she exclaimed with exasperation that seemed almost divine.
Of course my boss had a remarkable ability to exploit points of inconsistency or hypocrisy within the system. That ability enabled her to become the fourth highest ranking person in the entire ILO and yet also destroyed her power at the same time. “Well” I said to her in the position of her legal consultant examining the rules, “the Secretary General (who was from yet another religion) has approved the closing of the building for Christmas and Christmas parties abound. If you don't want to be the grinch who stole Christmas you are going to have to allow this party in order to have good relations with staff, even though you are correct that the party is not required and the rules do require that use of alcohol must be mild, confined to wines. If it is any help to you, it's not my holiday either and I had the exact same questions in my mind”.
And then I realized how precarious is that concept of universality that we discuss in international law all the time. The yearning for a religious belief is inherently human, even though the exact belief is clearly not universally shared. People fight wars, and sometime lose them or their life, about their religion. And here was a real life example of the fallout of those wars. “You think it is one party?” Sameera yelled at me with a profound anguish that I knew was not an attack on me personally, “Magnify it across the entire United Nations! Count how many hours preparation, how many hours staff time during the party, each staff member, and then add the time spent in clean up and professional cleaners and then add how many dollars allocated for this official religious act of the party itself, food, alcohol, decorations, musicians. How much does that cost the entire United Nations for one religion? Millions of dollars. And then watch them complain we have no money for paper for the printer and we must cut down your allowance on missions when they don't pay for baby sitting!” .
Consequently, that Christmas vacation I set about trying to find a universal concept that is more universal than religion. I used my Christmas vacation to think hard and clearly about as many examples as I could find to challenge the notion of universality as I began rethinking each of the fundamental principles I have studied in international law, comparing the concepts with the practice I have encountered across decades of professional lawyering in the USA and abroad.
And then, I did find something universal but I was shocked by this revelation.
Do you know what I found?
Women are universally treated unfairly compared to the men who are their peers regarding pensions. My boss at ILO was eventually ousted by a man who had been in the department before she arrived; he successfully claimed that she could not know anything about staff relations and the rules governing them, and he was also part of a precious old boys club. At home, she faced the possibility of a major expense: divorce from a man who was a television news star. In her Geneva apartment, we would watch his Sunday broadcasts from Washington DC with only one purpose: to watch for his smile at the end of the broadcast which meant he would soon be calling her in Geneva. I was there many times when he did not smile. And I helped her pretend to be okay with it in face of an eight year old daughter who wanted to know when Daddy will come home, a daddy I met only twice in all those years of work. There my boss was, a Mom doing the work that Moms do for free, paying people to do the work that dads do when dad is gone, or doing it herself. She too had taken time off for childbearing and despite Harvard, the ILO and her uncanny ability to salvage a marriage away from divorce, she was surrounded by unpaid chores that had no economic value and would eat into her ability to maxout for a pension. And I realized, as I discussed this plight with friends and colleagues, that unmarried professionals who were women had the same problem: they took time and money from their work and pensions for elder caretaking even if their male siblings had the means to help. None of them had full pensions either because they did work at home for free!
Therefore this scene watching tv news in the liviing room held more universality for me than many of the codifications I have studied or helped to draft in international law.
Indeed, I have yet to meet a woman who will maxout in her pension, either as a single woman with or without children, a professional or a married mom. My colleague from my beloved Barnard College,the womens college of Columbia University, is married happily for 35 years and does not have a full pension because she took time off for her two sons when they were born and lost pension rights in the process. She kept her marriage and is otherwise financially sound. Her male colleagues, however, will max out on their pensions as medical professionals because they never lost time for childbearing. And I know several women who are housewives, whether by choice or happnstance of our culture, who will not maxout on pensions because they became fulltime MOM.
And there it is and remains: the essential work of childrearing is difficult, often thankless and without economic reward. Without the toil that Moms do for free, however, we as a society become less human and posterity becomes more robotic. There problem is not that these tasks are non-essential. On the contrary, these tasks are fundamental to human identity itself. But why must these tasks remain unpaid and unreflected in pension system that provides income in ld age for hard work well done?
Here is an easy example: First Lady Michelle Obama graduated Harvard Law School and is legendary for recruiting the man who became her husband and the First Black President of the United States to her law firm. She worked hard on all the Senate and Presidential campaigns and plenty of people voted for him because they really like her. But when her husband became President, she became, by her own description, “Mom In Chief”.
Model and beautiful new First Lady Trump will stay in New York City instead of relocating to the White House in Washington DC, at least for one semester, in order to ensure the continuity of education for her son. She too will take time from her career for childrearing. It is all just part of the job...
Sure, a First Lady has security guards and a nice place to live, so long as she stays married to the President. But what about her pension?
She may not maxout on her pension program because of the very vital and important Mothering and wifestyle that is her official work. And the significance of this disparity is not erased by claiming that she had inherited family wealth, And the importance of mothering is economically unrecognized.
Our law should be: NO MOM LEFT BEHIND.
Because I have yet to meet a maxed out pension woman personally despite my wide range of friends ... some at a very high level ... and because i know so many men who will have most or all of their pension rights and because in Europe it is illegal upon divorce to request a future ex-spouse to divest their rights in the other spouse's pensions.
Women are accused of becoming liberated and leaving the kitchen but actually it is that men leave the house. And we all buy fast food these days, even the ladies of very religious traditional families! Therefore, the gaping hole in the cultural matrix of our society is the freedom with which men leave stable permanent relationships and women are told to move on, quit whining get on with your life and forget your ex-spouse who is such a @%%X&%/. Well even if all that is true, who is going to FIX the economic damage that they have done? Such expenses are not recognized in most custody battles so they have no economic value under law.
Lest you fear this is merely some long tirade I shall stop writing here by saying merely this
PENSION EQUITY IS THE ULTIMATE BATTLE FOR WOMENS RIGHTS
No MOM LEFT BEHIND!
Pension equity remedial legislation can repair the damage, simply by examining the earnings record of each spouse and if there is a disparity of more than twenty or thirty percent in the availability of pension funds, the new legislation could correct it by compelling the higher-pensioned-spouse to reimburse the lower-pensioned-spouse, thus restoring economic equity for the years spent out of the pension system while childrearing and doing those caretaking chores that Moms do for free. Otherwise the economic disparity between men and women will make the wage and hour gap look like small change. Our society could build a dam against the next wave of the feminization of poverty by legislating these economic rights! We know how to draft the law, All we need is to support it.