Saturday, February 21, 2009

Is The Recession A Feminist Issue?

Nancy Goldstein over at Broadsheet argues that it is:

Sure, some women have written great pieces about the meltdown, including the ways that women have been hit -- and missed. Two weeks back, Jennifer Barrett noted "that many of the jobs being generated for women [in the proposed stimulus bill] will probably come later and pay far less than the jobs being created in fields dominated by men." Linda Hirshman's December NYT op-ed took Team Obama to task for weighting the stimulus plan toward creating jobs in sectors that employ very few women (construction and green jobs, to name two). She followed up with a virtual master class on how to unpack dicey numbers and squishy logic, toasting Team Obama for releasing an unrealistically rosy report on the stimulus bill's projected positive effect on women's employment. She also offers a smart, refreshingly understandable explanation of why it's not quite right to say that the economic crisis is hurting men more and in greater number than it's hurting women. (Hint: Women's rate of unemployment is rising faster than men's; women earn less.)


I'm guessing that women aren't writing about the economy at nearly the rate that we're writing about abortion, sexist ads and the latest asshattery from the Palin clan for a number of reasons. First, we've too narrowly defined what constitutes a feminist issue. Second, our response to any of those hot button issues is stronger, more immediately personal and easier for us to understand than the slog through hell that is the 1,000+-page stimulus bill. Finally, I suspect that many of us are hesitant either because we think we don't know enough, or because we really don't know enough.

Hmm. This makes me feel all itchy with guilt, because I could probably wade through all that material and point out where women are being vacuumed out at the various stages of "cutting out the fat" and such. But wading through all that material means an awful amount of work, because if I do something I really want to do it thoroughly (the goddess of thoroughness, I am), and that would just take too much time with no money coming in. So that's why I haven't done it.

But some things are fairly quick to point out: For example, it's true that supporting schools in the stimulation proposal is important for women and their families, both because children go to schools, but more importantly because women are a major part of those employed in the education industry. The same is true of health care and of local government jobs. On the other hand, heavy construction employs few women to begin with.

And to evaluate the various proposals on the basis of how 'shovel-ready' they are certainly shows an unconscious bias about the stimulation package as something meant for blue-collar guys to benefit from, because if you think of a shovel you then think of a man wielding it. Not a woman. The second underlying assumption is that all those guys digging ditches will then take care of their wives and children with that money, though of course that's not the family pattern we have anymore. Most families have two breadwinners, and if a family only has one breadwinnner that family is likely to be called a 'female-headed household'....

But as Goldstein notes in her piece, the unemployment rates have been higher for men, especially in blue-collar occupations, than they have been for women, and that's probably why the focus has been on construction. On the other hand, construction is that canary industry which shows changes up and down first. Then the other industries follow suit. Which means that now we see local governments laying off their clerical staff in large numbers, and many of those laid off are women. The same holds for all those banks and financial institutions which are closing offices and merging functions.

So all this is clearly something that feminist economists should keep an eye on, because it's possible to create a stimulus tide which does more than lift some boats or not: It can also create an economy with even greater earnings differences between men and women, say. Still, whether the recession itself is a feminist issue might depend on how one defines feminism. I learned during the Democratic primaries that many feminists define it very differently from the definition I apply.
Pictures from the Great Depression from here and here