Fact-checkers and others immediately pointed out that in the piece Biden couched all this in non-sex-specific terms. Gillibrand, they almost all said, was in the wrong.
But let’s review: In the piece, Biden admitted lower- and moderate-income families were sending two parents off to work because they couldn’t otherwise make ends meet, and he clearly did not believe the same was true of their higher-income counterparts. They were, he said, potentially making the choice because they wanted to “buy a larger home, a patio, a swimming pool or three weeks at the beach.”
Moreover, Biden went on to claim this issue is about “a perfect example of the cancer of materialism that has stricken our society.” Day-care centers and nursing homes, he opined, “are monuments to our growing unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for those to whom we owe the most — our children, our parents and our grandparents.”
Here’s the rub: If you think Biden meant men should quit their jobs and stay home to change the diapers of small children or tend to elderly relatives, you didn’t live in 1981, or you don’t want to admit to the sexist reality of that world. “Give me a break,” Gillibrand said Thursday morning on CNN. “Who in 1981 was going to be staying home to watch the children? It’s obvious. Typically, in most families, women.”
When I asked Gillibrand on Thursday afternoon if it was possible that anyone reading the piece in 1981 could have possibly thought otherwise — that the piece referred to both sexes — she answered with an immediate “no,” adding, “I think everyone knows he was talking about women then and now.”
I am about the same age as Gillibrand, and I can’t say I disagree with her. I also remember the avalanche of criticism that working women — and only women — received. People said they didn’t care about their families, or at least they didn’t care about them as much as making sure they could enjoy a week at a Caribbean resort. Working moms were blamed for all matter of social ills, from sending children to school sick because they couldn’t take time off work to watch them to all but forcing restaurants to remain open because they weren’t up for cooking Thanksgiving dinner.
Yes, Biden has supported many women’s initiatives since that time. But it is not as simple, as Biden claimed in a Thursday press gaggle in Detroit, that "there’s a lot of things everybody has done in the past and votes that no longer have a context today,” before adding, “Some of these assertions being made were absolutely, uh, how can I say it nicely, not true and taken out of context.”
In fact, the context is clear, both then and now. Women are still held to higher standards than men to this day in the workplace; they are still expected to take up more of the burden of the home. Gillibrand told me, “I couldn’t say,” when I asked her if she believed female presidential candidates with children were judged more harshly than men. But I will point out that former congressman Beto O’Rourke has had to apologize for saying such things as how his wife is raising their children “sometimes with my help," while at the debate Andrew Yang took a moment to acknowledge his wife, who is at home with an autistic child while he is on the debate stage. Neither man may mean it as condescending. But see how it would sound if Amy O’Rourke thanked Beto for staying at home with the kids while she campaigned for president, and come back and tell me we live in an equal world.
Biden, thanks to Gillibrand, had an opportunity to speak about this double standard. Instead, he responded defensively and angrily. Gillibrand says she’s not backing down. “If he still believes that, he is not an appropriate person to be the Democratic nominee," says Gillibrand, “and if he doesn’t believe it, he should explain why he thought that then and what made him change his mind.”
In fact, Biden could have led us all in a discussion about how we change our minds, and how progress occurs, or how a politician might echo anti-feminist tropes even though his own wife was a working schoolteacher. He could have honestly tackled the societal tensions that occurred as women rushed into the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s, and how some of those tensions still live on today when we discuss female politicians such as Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Gillibrand, not to mention how we came to elect Donald Trump, a man who admitted on tape to grabbing women, as president. But he didn’t do that. He whiffed — and chose to blame a woman for even raising uncomfortable questions. In all too many ways, it’s still 1981.