Why They Can’t Just Use Cloth: Diapers and the Gendered Politics of Providing Basic Needs

By Dr. Jennifer Randles

September 27th, 2021 kicked off the tenth annual Diaper Need Awareness Week in the United States where one in three families with infants and toddlers cannot afford enough diapers. City, state, and federal legislators across the country endorsed proclamations recognizing diaper deprivation as a problem and applauding the work of a growing national network of diaper banks and pantries that distribute free diapers to families and partner organizations. Privately funded diaper banks have proliferated in the United States since the 1990s and now number in the hundreds. Collectively they distribute millions of disposable diapers a year, and yet meet only about five percent of the estimated need. Diaper bank staff on the front lines of diaper advocacy face consistent criticism. What could possibly be controversial about providing financially strapped families with a basic need every baby has?

For starters, diapers are not officially recognized as a need. Diapers are not covered by existing public aid policies, including SNAP and WIC food assistance programs. Categorized along with hygiene and cleaning products, diapers are an “unallowable” non-food expense. Like other items deemed discretionary rather than medically necessary, diapers are still taxed in most states. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find any parent or caregiver who considers diapers optional. Although welfare cash aid can be used to purchase diapers, it’s not coincidental that the number of diaper banks in the United States has grown exponentially since 1990s welfare reform. Many fewer families now receive cash aid, and the value of that aid has dwindled. The average $80 monthly diaper bill for one child would alone use 8 to 40 percent of the average state benefit through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

But there’s another important reason that diaper bankers face consistent criticism and stalled efforts to pass policies that would provide public diaper support: cloth diapers. In my recent article in Gender & Society based on interviews with 40 diaper bank staff, most of whom were involved in diaper policy advocacy, and 70 mothers who experienced diaper need, I discovered a key case of how gender, class, and race inequalities intersect to impede policies promoting access to basic needs. Many diaper bankers shared stories of policymakers, community members, and other stakeholders who responded to requests for diaper support by asking Why don’t they just use cloth?

Embedded within this seemingly simple retort are numerous sexist, classist, and racist assumptions about easy individual solutions to structural problems like diaper need. Whereas policymakers are still predominantly white, affluent, older men unlikely to change many diapers, much less struggle with diaper need, the parents I interviewed were mostly mothers of color living in poverty who had tried cloth diapering but found it to be more expensive, labor-intensive, and time prohibitive. As Leslie, a Black 28-year-old mother of one, explained to me,  “That’s probably why programs don’t cover diapers, because they think cloth are free. But then you have to spend on washing, detergent, water, electricity, and all the work and worry. You still have to pay for it in some way.” For these reasons, cloth is the diaper type used by a very narrow segment of American families – typically married middle-class homeowners with an in-house washer and dryer and a stay-at-home parent. Most daycare facilities will not accept cloth diapers, and many states have laws prohibiting washing them in public laundry facilities.

Disposable diapers became almost universal during the last three decades of the twentieth century, the same time period when the labor market participation rates of mothers with children three and younger doubled from around 35 to over 70 percent. Now that over 95 percent of babies in the United States wear disposables for most or all of their diapering needs, mothers of color feared that having their children seen in public in anything but a “normal” disposable diaper – such as a cloth diaper presumed to be a “rag” – could invite suspicion about their parental fitness. As it turns out, parents most likely to struggle with diaper need can’t just use cloth diapers because the ability to do so is now profoundly influenced by middle-class, white, androcentric privileges.    

This is a case of what I call gendered policy vacuums, which refer to when gender disparities and ideologies result in policy gaps around caregiving and provisions needed to satisfy basic human needs for sustenance, health, cleanliness, and dignity. Gender policy vacuums have emerged around numerous related struggles, including food insecurity, housing instability, and most recently, childcare deficits in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The American ideology of individualism tasks mothers with responsibility for ensuring their children’s well-being through labor-intensive and time-consuming parenting practices, such as breastfeeding, home-cooking, and cloth diapering. But such directives devalue and render invisible feminized care labor, especially that performed by low-income mothers of color.

As mothers shared with me, the same social, economic, and political conditions that intersect to create their diaper need also prevent them from using cloth diapers as a way to meet that need. But the assumption that poor women’s labor can readily solve problems of gender inequality  – as the Why don’t they just use cloth? retort suggests – rationalizes lack of public redress for gendered inequalities and resultant policy gaps around caregiving. As one diaper bank founder, Janine, said of her continued efforts to advocate for diaper policies: “We expect so much more of poor mothers, so why not cloth, many ask. For families for whom that works, great! But why do we expect the poorest parents to do the most work? I want people to have what they need. Most of them need disposable diapers.” Let’s hope that our policies will eventually acknowledge that need, paving the way for public support for this basic need so easily taken for granted – unless your baby doesn’t have one.  

Jennifer Randles (@jrandles3) is Professor and Chair of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. She is the author of Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America and Essential Dads: The Inequalities and Politics of Fathering. She is currently writing a book on diaper insecurity, the diaper bank movement, and diaper politics.

The Pandemic Reveals: Home, Work, and Health Care Disadvantages for Women of Color

What do we miss when we don’t bring an intersectional lens to analyses of the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how we, as women of color, occupy crucial spaces and confront oppressive systems in multiple spheres of our lives on a daily basis.  

Gendered and racialized inequities have unfolded in front of ours eyes, bringing to bare the harsh and unjust realities that many women of color experience. These challenges have not changed due to the current pandemic; many of these inequities have simply been amplified.  In our recent article in Gender and Society we suggest that we must look at racism and sexism in tandem to understand the root cause of health problems and inequities facing women of color in the pandemic. We focus on the impacts of COVID-19 on three (3) important settings occupied by women of color: home, health care, and work.  

Women of color as devalued in the home.  

With shelter in place orders starting in March 2020, home was presumed one of the safest places for people to be to avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus. Despite home being a safe place for many, this privilege did not apply to all. Reports of domestic violence increased dramatically, often in the presence of children and other family members. Talha Burki reports that “Some 243 million women are thought to have experienced sexual or physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner at some point over the last 12 months”. These instances will have lasting impacts, introducing a number of public health implications. Even in homes without physical and mental abuse, home may not be a space of refuge. Since the beginning of the pandemic, women, especially women of color have reported higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression due to an overburden of labor in the home. This labor includes traditional household duties (i.e. cleaning) in addition to homeschooling responsibilities. These added expectations coupled with social isolation and resource insecurity foster an unhealthy living experience. Finally, women of color have also experienced increases in housing insecurity and homelessness due to financial constraints (i.e. loss of income) and abuse.  

Women of color as disposable in work settings.  

It is evident that the pandemic has impacted jobs and employment. For example, we prioritized and encouraged workers in positions deemed essential to work outside of their homes. However, being essential was far less than equitable. For women of color, being essential did not mean increased pay, benefits, and respect; being essential often constituted increased risk of COVID-19 exposure and working under even more stressful conditions. Women of color in health care make up a large percentage of the COVID-19 deaths. For example, nurses of Filipino descent account for a shocking 31.5% of the workforce’s COVID-19 deaths, yet make up only 4% of the workforce. For women of color in non-essential positions, loss of job security, loss of income, and loss of health insurance were prominent concerns that have a direct impact on one’s physical and mental health. 

Women of color as dismissed in health care settings.  

There is a long history of women of color being mistreated, dismissed and ignored in health care settings. This has been no different during the pandemic, as we are presumed incompetent, even if we are in positions of perceived power and privilege. For example, many are again outraged after Dr. Susan Moore, a Black woman, filmed herself in the hospital and reporting on mistreatment and the rush to send her home: “This is how black people get killed when you send them home and they don’t know how to fight for themselves”. Sadly, she died at another hospital after advocates pushed for her transfer—though perhaps “murdered by the system” is a more accurate description. Unfortunately, this example is one of many and we continue to see occurrences of neglect and silencing of Black women in health care settings. Access to quality and equitable health care disparities are visible on a daily basis and have been brought to light during this pandemic with testing, treatment and now vaccines.  

We as a community should continue to advocate for women of color in home, work, and health care environments. We challenge scholars, advocates, journalists, and wider publics worldwide to consider how we have embedded both gender and racial inequities into the very fabric of our society and the perpetually negative implications that has for women of color.  The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed already stark inequality… what’s our next move?  

Dr. Whitney Pirtle (sociology) and Tashelle Wright (public health) are researchers at the University of California, Merced (UCM). Their most recent work takes an intersectional approach to exploring and analyzing preventable health disparities among Black women and women of color. Pirtle and Wright address the implications of racism and sexism on women of color during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Whitney Pirtle was recently recognized as one of the newest John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chairs and Tashelle Wright was recently awarded a UCM Black Research Fellowship.  You can find Dr. Pirtle on Twitter at @thePhDandMe and Tashelle Wright @WrightTashelle.

The Trump Effect on Sexual Health in Africa

By Robert Wyrod

As the Trump presidency enters its third month, we are beginning to see the implications for the U.S. role in promoting global sexual health. Trump’s reinstatement and expansion of the Mexico City Policy, aka the global gag rule, has rightfully received much attention. By prohibiting U.S. foreign aid from funding any organization providing or promoting abortions, it severely limits America’s ability to improve sexual health in the Global South. For the many health clinics across Africa that rely on U.S. funding for reproductive health and family-planning services, this may likely mean dramatically scaling back services or shuttering clinics.

Efforts are underway to challenge the reinstatement, most prominently the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act led by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). But there is another, less-discussed issue that could have an even greater impact on sexual health worldwide, especially in Africa. Will Trump defund the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief? The PEPFAR program, launched in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration, is the largest health initiative in history focused on fighting a single disease. To date, over $70 billion has been spent on PEPFAR programs, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. This makes PEPFAR a tempting target for the current administration, especially given Trump’s deep skepticism of foreign aid. In mid-January, the Trump transition team sent a series of pointed questions to the State Department about U.S. aid to Africa, asking “Is PEPFAR becoming a massive, international entitlement program?” Continue reading “The Trump Effect on Sexual Health in Africa”

Fix your Face!

Featuring: Erynn Masi de Casanova & Kjerstin Gruys

Last fall, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece (here) about beauty, or really, about ugliness.  We asked scholars, Erynn Casanova and Kjerstin Gruys, to write responses to the article and comment on the 2013 book that prompted the NYT commentary.  Both responses are below. We thank them for graciously contributing to this intellectual conversation.   Blurry face_2.25.16


By Erynn Masi de Casanova

Ugly.  Some words sound like what they mean.  We avoid calling people ugly in polite conversation, but are usually bold enough to whisper it behind their backs.  Julia Baird’s recent op-ed in The New York Times raises the question of how children are socialized into beliefs about and reactions to a less-than-lovely appearance.  As a case study, she chooses a children’s book based on the real-life experiences of its author, Robert Hoge, which is a memoir recounting his childhood with a large facial tumor and distorted limbs. His book is simply titled Ugly.  Baird wonders how children come to learn about and take part in a system of “looksism,” and “why we talk about plainness, but not faces that would make a surgeon’s fingers itch.”

Surgery came immediately to my mind on reading Baird’s column.  Elective surgery to alter the human body’s appearance goes by many names.  Plastic surgery emphasizes the malleability of the body and its parts.  Aesthetic surgery makes it sound as if we can turn our bodies into works of art.  Cosmetic surgery conjures makeup rather than sedation and scalpels.  And while Baird acknowledges that surgeons might want to fix faces like Mr. Hoge’s, she doesn’t mention that the possibilities cosmetic surgery opens up also affect social judgements of appearance in everyday life. Continue reading “Fix your Face!”