After her son was born in late 2016, Patti Maciesz found herself feeling alone and overwhelmed. The experience of becoming a mother — everything from the constant needs of her infant child to changes to her body and sense of self — shocked her.
Anger and disappointment over the outcome of the presidential election seemed to make things even worse. So Maciesz did something that often helped her process complex feelings: She painted her experience.
At first, she focused on the basics: hieroglyphic-style renderings of when the baby was asleep or awake.
That imagery evolved into timecards documenting the hours the artist and graphic designer was pouring into parenting and other household tasks.
“It was sort of a way to show [my husband] and to show myself and to show my friends that I’ve been doing work,” Maciesz, now 32, recalls of the paintings, which she started after the 2017 Women’s March.
By the end of year one, Maciesz had logged 5,616 hours raising her child and running her home. That came out to the equivalent of a $74,299.68 salary under the minimum wage in Oakland, Calif., where she lives.
She started sending faxes invoicing her elected officials and other members of Congress for that unpaid work (“BILL TO: THE PATRIARCHY” the timecards read). She says every U.S. senator has received at least one invoice from her so far.
Maciesz’s project, which has since grown into a site called BillThePatriarchy.com, highlights a major issue in wage and work inequality that is often under-acknowledged in discussions around equal pay: Despite progress, the bulk of “free” labor that keeps families and communities running smoothly continues to fall on women.
Worldwide, women spend an estimated four and a half hours a day on chores and other unpaid work — everything from raising a child, to getting water, to going to the grocery store.
For men, the figure drops roughly in half. The impact doesn’t stop at lost wages for the actual unpaid work or the opportunity cost of not being able to spend that time on other things. Studies have shown that becoming a mother can adversely affect earning power, even in countries with strong family leave and social programs. Maciesz said that while she was aware of the imbalance before the baby, her own entry into motherhood made it even more striking.
“This isn’t just something im doing because I’m a feminist,” she says. “There’s clear data that’s pointing to this is a real problem.’
This year, after sending more than 1,000 faxes to elected officials with zero response, Maciesz decided to build out her campaign even more. She launched a quiz that tells users how much their own unpaid labor is worth and encourages them to send their own invoice to a representative of their choice.
The popular podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” featured the project and responses started pouring in. More than 1,600 people have taken the quiz so far. The total “lost” wages? $164 million.
In honor of Equal Pay Day, a day that symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year, Maciesz unveiled a new feature showing how much more a white man would make for his unpaid labor. This year, Equal Pay Day falls on April 10.
She hopes to incorporate even more options to highlight the added severity of the wage gap for women of color. “Wherever we’re going, whatever the matriarchy looks like, it needs to be centered around the most oppressed, which does feel like its women of color,” she says.
Maciesz isn’t the only one shining a light on the so-called hidden wage gap. The trend and its effects on overall prosperity and health of women has become a cause among prominent activists, including philanthropist Melinda Gates, who wrote her annual letter on the topic in 2016.
But as Gates and others have acknowledged, the issue is one that laws and policies alone can’t address. Balancing the scales will take overhauling of how we view gender roles and a redistribution of expectations and tasks. “In the end, the goal is to change what we think of as normal—and not thinking it’s funny or weird when a man puts on an apron, picks up his kids from school, or leaves a cute note in his son’s lunchbox,” Gates wrote in 2016.
Maciesz agrees with those aims. But in her eyes, the real solution needs to be a “radical one,” like reimagining parenthood as a domestic tour of duty.
“What if we treated it like a service like it was military service? What if we said, ‘You are going to be out of the workforce for four or five years or [working at a] lower capacity, thank you for doing that we appreciate you and we’re going to pay you for that service,’” she said.
For now, though, she hopes her project will do its part in one crucial first step: raising awareness about the issue. She figures that if more of the millions of moms in this country start billing the government for their work, officials will have no choice but to listen.
“My dream,” she says, “is for this to become a national conversation.”