The Recession: A Hoosier Feminist Rethinks it All

December 6, 2010

For release noon Dec. 7 and thereafter (765 words)

“Men typically accumulate more continuous work experience and therefore acquire higher productivity in the labor market (in relation to child-rearing women). In fact, the gender gap shrinks to between 8 percent and 0 percent when the study incorporates measures such as work experience, career breaks and part-time work.” — Dr. June E. O’Neill, professor of economics at Baruch College, Nov. 16, 2010

When the women’s movement burst on the scene in the 1960s, leading feminists such as Betty Friedan stressed equality and focused on opportunities denied women. The movement’s leaders expected their reasoning, framed as a matter of justice and based on the principle of equal opportunity, would allow individual women to have the same choices as individual men. The movement was not about women; the movement was about people.

The view was captured succinctly by Susan Faludi in her 1991 book “Backlash.” She said that feminism “is the basic proposition that, as Nora put it in Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ a century ago, ‘Before everything else I’m a human being.'”  Feminism, on this view, reminds people that before we are this or that sexual identity, we are people first. And since people must be respected, they must be treated with equal dignity and respect, especially respect under the law.  

The reasoning made sense to me then and I allied myself with feminism. In its early stages, it foretold a better world, more aligned with justice, where individuals were liberated to be themselves. No one of either sex would be treated better than someone of the other sex.

The world did not turn out the way early feminists, such as me, imagined. Instead of changing the rules of the game so no one was favored, policies changed to ensure that women received preferential treatment of the sort that affirmative action requires. Instead of using rhetoric that reminds people of their humanity and the possibility of harmony, rhetoric shifted into language suggesting gender as the key to understanding people and the impossibility of avoiding the traditional battle of the sexes.

These thoughts come to mind when I read articles about the economy. The Indianapolis Star, for instance, had an article entitled, “More men than women are being hired. It figures.” The article warned, “Look out, ladies. Men are making a comeback, and they may just snag your job.”  To be fair, I must point out that the Star noted that men lost more jobs during the recession than women so that it is reasonable to expect that more men will be hired as the economy rebounds. However, in both the headline and the tone, the article suggests that women are once again falling victim to sexism and that the forces of society arrayed against them.

Yet, that sort of tone is inconsistent with the real world.  In fact, Faludi made the same point in 1991. Writing about the 1980’s, Faludi says that “the economic victims of the era are men . . . At no time did this seem more true than in the early 80’s, when, for the first time, women outranked men among new entrants to the work force and, for a brief time, men’s unemployment outdistanced women’s.”  She points to other data about the 1980s, including the facts that it was “the first time more women than men enrolled in college, the first time that more than 50 percent of women worked, the first time more than 50 percent of married women worked, the first time more women with children than without children worked.” Were the data reversed and women the economic victims, Faludi probably would have concluded that sexism was running rampant. 

Instead, she states that the “economic pains most often took a disproportionate toll on women, not men.”

If her analysis is correct, the “economic victims of the era” were men, but women experienced disproportionate pain. It is precisely this sort of wildly contradictory reasoning that feminists like me and Betty Friedan find lacking in justice and equality. If men suffered widespread job loss and are economic victims, and if we want to end suffering, then improvement in men’s lot is a good, not bad, thing.

Unless feminism is not about justice and humanity. If feminism is about women, however, then the condition of men is irrelevant.  

If far more men have suffered economic hardship in the recession, there should be rejoicing that they are returning to work. It ought not be an occasion to suggest that sexism is coming into play so that the goal of having women as secondary citizens is effected. Men are not trying to “snag” a woman’s job. Men are simply trying to find work, any work, including work that had been done formerly by another man.

Today, “A Doll’s House” would need rewriting. Nora might put it this way: “Before everything else, I’m a woman. I want women to gain power notwithstanding the real conditions of the world. It is only women who concern me. Men may be human, too. I’m not sure.”

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., teaches business law at Butler University. He wrote this for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact him at ipr@iquest.net.



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