About a year ago, Jessica was quoted in an interview as saying that while other advanced nations had social safety nets, the United States has chosen to instead rely on women. It was the kind of statement that knocks you back a step for how obvious, complex and direct it is. While other nations subsidize child care, paid leave, health care, transportation and family leave, U.S. social policy chooses to shift the cost of having and raising children onto women. We do that directly by shifting the risk of getting pregnant to employed women. We also do that indirectly by diminishing and undervaluing care work, a female-dominated class of workers.
As luck would have it, Jessica was studying how parents make all kinds of decisions about jobs, schooling and household labor when the biggest test case in recent memory — Covid and the ensuing public health crisis — hit the United States. On Twitter, Jessica shared a particularly revealing excerpt from some of her interviews with anti-vaccine and anti-mask parents. A respondent, Tory, was a former nurse. Jessica describes Tory as “a white, Republican mom and former nurse … who opposes masks and vaccines.” Tory said Covid is serious only “if you’re unhealthy, if you have comorbidities.” Tory has extended family members who are at risk, but Tory suggests they “deserve what they get.”
I talked with Jessica about how someone like Tory could have exposure to health education and still be so adamantly anti-vaccine. Jessica points out that people filter education through their other identities, one of which is their political identity. She said:
There’s a happy marriage between Republican or right wing ideas about personal responsibility in all aspects of life and personal responsibility and medicine. And so there’s a clear alignment with those parents who are most strongly opposed to masks, vaccines, across the board, these different kinds of public health measures, being the parents who are most likely to oppose these kinds of measures, either in society as a whole, or specifically if we’re talking about things like kids in schools. And so certainly the nurse that I was quoting on Twitter, for example, identifies as libertarian. So sort of right-leaning independent and certainly has … you can hear those ideas in the way that they talk about things. And the Republican-leaning, white parents were the ones who used sort of the strongest sort of “bad body is bad culture” kind of arguments, these echoing, and sometimes explicitly eugenicist, arguments about why they shouldn’t be required to sacrifice for who they call unhealthy people.
My conversation with Jessica got me to thinking about recent research by Ashley Jardina at Duke University. In her book, “White Identity Politics,” Jardina shows how many more white voters now view themselves through a white racial lens. On the one hand, that could be a good thing: One goal of critical theory is to get white people to see and label the way their racial identity exists. On the other hand, white racial identity politics can easily become a politics of grievance. Tory’s interpretation of public health as an attack on her civil liberties — her God-given right to choose how she will live and ergo how others around her might die — sounds like a strident political identity of grievance.
A lot of Jessica’s research is about mothers. For well-known reasons, mothers are a bellwether for household decision-making. But I did not want to let fathers off the hook in thinking about how political entrenchment is fueling politicized grievance over vaccines. Where the heck are the fathers in all of this, I asked Jessica. She said:
Unfortunately, the data say that in many cases, especially when it comes to masks, dads are more skeptical than moms are. The quantitative survey data that we’ve done, we did a big survey of parents across the U.S. back in December with about 2,000 parents, and moms are more opposed to vaccines than dads are, but dads are more opposed to masks. And so, really, I mean, they’re all kind of on the same page. But dads, I mean, historically defer to moms, particularly when it comes to kids and schools and health.
Fathers aren’t missing in the community-level debates about public health. They are just managing a different thread of denialism. In both instances, these aren’t divisions amenable to public health messaging or education. Parents who reject vaccines and masks for themselves and their children are making decisions rooted in household divisions of labor — Mom’s work versus Dad’s work — and a broader culture of political grievance that can turn any scientific fact into a cultural war.