Left holding the baby: Bill Clinton isn't the only man who needs to take child care more seriously, says Victoria McKee

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The Independent Online
SO THE second woman proposed by President Bill Clinton to head the US Justice Department has disqualified herself because her childcare arrangements are less than squeaky clean. Isn't it ironic that the very thing which stops most women from even getting to first base - problems with child care - is preventing others from making the home run to positions of power?

To be fair, the Clinton administration, twice bitten and now shy, has reportedly disqualified a male candidate, Charles Ruff, from consideration for the attorney general post because he, too, hired an illegal alien. But this was only after the two women had stood down, and it has not assuaged the fury of American women, who feel that the domestic arrangements of female candidates have come under scrutiny in a way that those of their male colleagues hitherto have not.

There are many complex moral and legal issues at stake in these cases, some of them specific to the United States. But it all boils down to a phenomenon dubbed in Washington 'gender-specific culpability'. This could become a new feminist rallying cry on both sides of the Atlantic. It makes women responsible for child care and men responsible for finances, and at the same time absolves them from offences that are not seen as their responsibility.

As a female high-flyer pointed out to me during the hearings on Zoe Baird's ill-fated appointment: 'Eleanor Holmes Norton was still confirmed as a delegate for the District of Columbia even though it was revealed she had signed her name to tax returns that were inaccurate. But that irregularity didn't stick with her because she made the case that her husband had always taken responsibility for tax matters. Taxes are considered a matter of masculine culpability. Child care is still a feminine culpability.'

How many men in influential positions, American feminists are demanding, have been quizzed about their childcare arrangements - and if they were, would they not say they left it to their wives? But when Mrs Baird claimed she had 'allocated' the matter of child care to her husband no one believed her. Until that attitude alters, the hands which rock the cradle must also agitate for change.

One of the reasons why the 'Nannygate' scandal has so rocked the United States is that it is not a nanny society. There is a shortage of trained nannies and it is difficult to obtain the quality and commitment of child care there that women need without resorting to immigrant labour.

'If they expect us to work the hours they do - leaving at seven o'clock in the morning and often not returning home until late at night - we have to have round-the-clock, live-in child care, and hardly anyone but aliens seeking sponsorship will offer that sort of commitment,' another high-

ranking Washington woman, who had employed an illegal alien, told me.

British women, too, rely on a fraying patchwork of unsatisfactory childcare arrangements, from unregistered childminders and illegally overworked au pairs to elderly relatives. A recent survey showed that in 1990, 64 per cent of working mothers said their pre-school children were cared for by relatives. Inadequate child care, the Equal Opportunities Commission confirms, has been cited in study after study as a major factors preventing women from reaching their full working potential.

Company creches are often started only by companies with an overwhelming percentage of female employees on the grounds that male employees do not require them. The Secretary of State for Employment, Gillian Shephard, is promising more after-school clubs for school-aged children, but until then it is women who must work part time or bear the guilt of having latchkey children.

Until child care is regarded as a masculine responsibility as much as a feminine one - a non-gender-specific culpability - it will not be taken seriously. Women will continue to be left holding the baby - and carrying the can.