BOSTON -- Sometimes when I think about how lopsided change has been, the person who comes to mind is Joanie Caucus. Maybe it's not sensible to track the times through the comic strips, but Doonesbury's resident feminist has always been more mythic than comic.
The Joanie Caucus of the early '70s was a child-care worker. Now, in the late '80s, she is a lawyer with a young child of her own. Today she has it all, as they say, except of course decent child care.
I find it hard to assess this kind of progress. There has been real, measurable success for women in the work world, the old men's sphere. And real, measurable failure in creating a support system for caretaking, the old female sphere. The change has been so lopsided that, as a society, we are visibly limping.
Just last week, the Census Bureau released a report that women now earn 70 cents for every male dollar. We can put our old 59-cent buttons into a packet of memorabilia. Things are getting better, slowly.
But money and status and the label of progress have followed the women who've followed the men. The wage gap is narrowest today for younger women, for women who have had the same education as men, chosen the same fields as men, lived the same work lives. The gap is wider for women who have gone into traditionally female fields, and for women who have taken time out for childbearing and child rearing.
And what about the parallel problem, the caretaking gap? What about the children who have fallen into it?
In a poll just done for Kidspac, a political action committee, voters give as much political weight to kids issues as to such ''hot'' subjects as trade. About 70 percent said they wanted the next president to pay more attention to the health of young children. The concern they register comes from liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners.
The stump speech and the basic position papers of nearly all the Democratic candidates -- parents themselves, many from two-working-parent families -- carry some plan for children. Bruce Babbitt, perhaps the most underrated of the eight, has made child care a centerpiece of his campaign.
At the same time, everything we read about education, poverty, teen-age pregnancy and even drugs seems in some measure a reflection of our feelings about child neglect -- our own and our society's. Last week, the Committee for Economic Development, a collection of business leaders, put their hard-nosed accounting down to child level and called for early-childhood and health programs for the poor.
There is everywhere the sound of a sociological clock ticking. I don't know how or if the concern will translate into action. It's possible that kids will become a campaign cliche' rather than a cutting issue. Congress has yet to pass even the modest parental-leave bill, which would help families help themselves. How will it respond later this month when the Alliance for Better Childcare presents a bill asking for $2.5 billion in child care?
But there is a gathering consensus, a belief that our uneven social change needs a midcourse correction. It has been easier to measure progress, especially for women, by the standards of the adult male world. The economic standards.
In the next phase, we need an additional measure, to chart social progress by the standards of caretaking. Child caretaking.