I was a feminist before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963 and re-invigorated feminism. I have been blessed with smart, strong women in my life. My paternal grandmother was a leading volunteer, for, in her day, women of her socio-economic class did charitable work; they did not work for pay. My mother was a volunteer or employee, depending on what she wanted to achieve. My partners and wives have been smart and talented in their careers. A former girlfriend, famous in the women’s lib movement, declared me an honorary member of the sisterhood. I tease my feminist friends that I believe in gender equality because I believe that women are so much like human beings that it is hard to tell the difference!
So I hope that no one misconstrues as reactionary my mixed reviews of some consequences of women’s liberation.
Once, discouraged or denied careers in other fields, many of the best and brightest women became legal secretaries, librarians, nurses, and teachers. Now, encouraged and welcomed, they become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists and academics in all fields. Today, more women than men enter some of these professions, but nursing and teaching have suffered. A mix of good and bad consequences, intended and unintended.
Many women who would otherwise have stayed at home to raise children, cook meals, wash and iron clothes, and clean house—there is both good and bad in a life of such important routines—left for work. Some hoped to achieve the glamorous career life advertised by Gloria Steinham, who knew only the life of the privileged and the lucky. Some faced the grim reality of finding only the limited employment opportunities and positions which other women had had for years. But many have found careers worthy of their considerable and liberated talents—an intended consequence.
The larger numbers of women working outside the home led to the growth of the day-care industry, the growth of demands on schools to provide social services, and the increased number of latch-key children, who return from school to homes without adults to welcome and watch over them, and, too often, to the trouble an adult-free house enables—all unintended consequences.
This liberation of women seeking and securing jobs outside the home led to a greatly increased supply, even an oversupply, of labor for jobs of many kinds. As a result, this larger workforce has had a flattening effect on inflation-adjusted wages—an unspoken, unintended, and unhappy consequence.
Early on, everyone thought that a second job by a liberated woman would provide the extras for the family. Instead, it contributes to the necessities, as middle-class families with two modest incomes struggle to keep up with the rising costs of living. As the divorce rate has remained steady, it means that many single-parent—read: female-parent—families are in, or sliding into, poverty. For a single salary for most people no longer suffices to support a family of three (not to mention four, if a second spouse lives in). To the costs of food, clothing, housing, transportation, health (and health insurance), the mother adds day-care expenses while she works to pay them all.
The over-supply of labor, flat wages, and now high levels of unemployment are making a bad situation worse. People find the idea of cuts in tax rates appealing, but they count for very little, for most families of middle-class means already pay little, if any, taxes. Small reductions in taxes will do something, but not much, for families if they can barely make ends meet. Adequate savings for the future, whether invested in a private or a privatized account, are difficult, if not impossible, as well as risky. Hoping to better their lot, people will continue to borrow for education, homes, and cars, with loan repayments and loan interest adding to their expenses.
The current state of affairs is unsustainable if a middle class in America is to survive and thrive. Without some changes in the labor market, the children or grandchildren of the middle class will become peons in corporations.
If the problem is clear and the prospects are dim, the question is: what to do about it. The quick and dirty answer is: reduce the size the workforce and upgrade its skills. To the question how to do so, I have no definitive, only a possible, answer.
Consider the links among unemployment rates, level of education, and gender: dropouts, 14.3 percent; high school diploma, 10 percent; associates degree, 8.4 percent; bachelor’s degree, 4.4 percent—with higher percentages of women than men attending and graduating from college. If women like school and men do not, perhaps role reversals—women as breadwinners, men as homemakers—are answers. However, most men are too macho to imagine themselves doing domestic duties. Some can imagine looking for a smart partner—guys, not gals, would be the gold-diggers—, but smart women know that such men make poor mates. Men better start booking before looking and hooking.