Tag Archives: feminism

Gender Gap Statistic Gets it from All Sides

I was very happy to write this post for the Gender & Society blog, where it first appeared.

The “gender gap” has gotten a lot of attention this fall. This hard-working statistic is as often abused and attacked by antifeminists as it is misused and misunderstood by those sympathetic to feminism. But it is good for one thing: information.

The statistic is released each year with the U.S. Census Bureau’s income and poverty report. This year they reported 2012 annual earnings as recorded in the March 2013 Current Population Survey (CPS): the median earnings of full-time, year-round working women ($37,791) was 76.5% of men’s ($49,398). That is the source of (accurate) statements such as, “Women still earned only 77 cents for every dollar that men earned in 2012.”

In the category of reading too much into a single number, I put this data brieffrom the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which helpfully informed us that, “Most Women Working Today Will Not See Equal Pay during their Working Lives.” Here is the chart:


Of course, real life projections are not usually made by simply extending a trend with a straight line. The future is not that easy to foresee. If you did want to fit a line to that trend, however, the bad news is that it’s not a straight line that fits, but a third-order polynomial (which improves the measure of fit from .90 to .98). And projected this way, the trend will never reach equality:


Fortunately, curvy lines are often no better at predicting the future than straight ones.

Flog that stat

Some defenders of equal pay for women misstate the statistic, as President Bill Clinton did when he said:

“How would you like to show up for work every day, but only get to take home three out of every four paychecks? … if you get paid 75 percent for the same kind of work, it’s as if you were only picking up three paychecks, instead of four, in four pay periods. The average woman has to work, therefore, an extra 17 weeks a year to earn what a similarly-qualified man in the same kind of job makes.”

The mistake here is that he said “same kind of work” and “similarly-qualified man.” That led to the screaming headline on the American Enterprise Institute website, “Still Hyping the Phony Pay Gap.”

But he also went on to say:

“Yes, some of this can be explained — by differences in education, experience and occupation. But even after you make all those adjustments, there is still a very significant gap.”

So he belatedly acknowledged the complexities, and that second statement is true.

Oh, and that exchange occurred in 2000. How far we’ve come.

When Clinton, ever a repository for handy statistics, essentially repeated his statement on September 29 of this year, he played right into the screaming headlines of today’s anti-feminists, including Hanna Rosin, who declared, “I feel the need to set the record straight” in a piece she titled, “The Gender Gap Lie.” Kay Hymowitz also has written extensively to debunk the gender gap, arguing that it mostly results from women’s choices – the educations and occupations they choose, the hours they choose, the “mommy track” they prefer. (Naturally, sociologists are very interested in that construction of “choice.”)

There is no single number that can tell us the true state of gender inequality. But if you had to pick one, this one is pretty good. That’s because it combines factors that affect employment levels, work experience, occupational distributions, and pay discrimination – to give a sense of the place of the typical worker. As long as that number is not zero, there is a gender inequality problem to discuss, whether it results from socialization, family demands, educational sorting and tracking, hiring and promotion discrimination, or pay discrimination – and the details depend on further scrutiny.

Take your pick

We could use a different gender gap. The next figure shows some gender gaps for earnings among full-time, full-year workers in the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS). I’ve cut the sample to compare men and women by education, long-hours status (50+ hours), parenthood (no co-residential children) and marital status (never married). As you can see, the gaps range from a low of 65% for women with an MA degree and no children all the way up to 93% for never-married professional degree or PhD holders with no kids. Generally, the 50-hour limit doesn’t help, but marriage and children make a big difference.Cohen_image3

Another way of restricting the data to consider real-world gaps is shown in the next figure. Here, from the same data, I’ve taken full-time, full-year workers who have a bachelor’s degree and no further education, and sorted them by college major. So these gaps account for educational specialization, and reflect – in addition to any hiring and pay discrimination – occupational sorting within those categories, as well as other educational processes such as university prestige and school performance. The gaps range from 69% for transportation science majors all the way up to 94% for architecture majors.


Finally, we might look more closely at occupations. In this figure, again from the 2011 ACS, I have sorted 484 detailed occupational categories according to the median earnings wage gap within them, for full-time, year-round workers. The y-axis shows the cumulative percentage of women who work at or below each level as you move from less equal occupations on the left to more equal ones on the right. I’ve labeled the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile, showing, for example, that half of women work in occupations with a wage gap of 83% or worse.Cohen_image5

Although this figure shows inequality within occupations, it is occupational segregation itself, which extends the gender division of labor into the labor market, that lies behind much of the gender gap – representing the culmination of historical and contemporary processes of allocating people to tasks.

In summary, the wage gap clearly is smaller in some situations than others – smaller for workers without children, especially if they’re never married, smaller for some college majors and in some occupations. Each of these comparisons tells us something different. (More complete statistical analysesthat control for several factors at once create counterfactuals that don’t actually exist, but that do help us isolate important dynamics behind the gender gap.)

We mustn’t read into these numbers more than they can tell us. None of the numbers I’ve shown can discern occupational choice from employer discrimination, for example; or the cumulative effects of time out of the labor force versus discrimination in previous jobs. But the gender gap numbers are measures of inequality. And as long as we are accurate and responsible in our use of these numbers, they are useful sources of information.


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Does history repeat itself, but with more porn?

In 1990 I was still an American Culture major in college, but I was getting ready to jump ship for sociology. That’s when Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video was banned by MTV, which was a thing people used to use to watch videos.

And network TV used to be a major source of exposure. I was watching when Madonna went on Nightline for an interview, because it was a big deal (OK, I was a culture studies major). The correspondent intoned: “nudity, suggestions of bisexuality, sadomasochism, multiple partners. Finally, MTV decided Madonna has gone to far.” They showed the video, preceded by a dire parental warning (it was 11:30 p.m., and there was no way to watch it at any other time). In the interview, Forrest Sawyer eventually realize he was being played:

Sawyer: This was a win-win for you. If they put the video on, you would get that kind of play. And if they didn’t you would still make some money. It was all, in a sense, a kind of publicity stunt. … But in the end you’re going to wind up making even more money than you would have.

Madonna: Yeah. So, lucky me.

The flap over Miley Cyrus completely baffles me. This is a business model (as artistic as any other commercial product), and it hasn’t changed much, just skinnier, with more nudity and (even) less feminism. I don’t understand why this is any more or less controversial than any other woman dancing naked. Everyone does realize that there is literally an infinite amount of free hardcore porn available to every child in America, right? There is no “banning” a video. (Wrecking Ball is pushing 250 million views on YouTube.)


No one is censoring Miley Cyrus — is there some message I’m missing? When she talked to Matt Lauer he asked, “Are you surprised by the attention you’re getting right now?” And she said, “Not really. I mean, it’s kind of what I want.”

Of course I think this because I’m old, but I think the conversation has slid backward. In Lisa Wade’s excellent comment, she draws on a 1988 article, “Bargaining With Patriarchy,” which concluded:

Women strategize within a set of concrete constraints, which I identify as patriarchal bargains. Different forms of patriarchy present women with distinct “rules of the game” and call for different strategies to maximize security and optimize life options with varying potential for active or passive resistance in the face of oppression.

I think it applies perfectly to Miley Cyrus, if you replace “security” and “life options” with “celebrity” and “future island-buying potential.” Lisa is 1,000-times more plugged in to kids these days than I am, and the strategies-within-constraints model is well placed. But that article is from 1988, and it applies just as well to Madonna. So where’s the progress here?


Interviewed by Yahoo!, Gloria Steinem said, “I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions.” That is literally something she could have said in 1990.

The person people are arguing about has (so far) a lot less to say even than Madonna did. When Madonna was censored by MTV, Camile Paglia called her “the true feminist.”

She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.

When Miley Cyrus caused a scandal on TV, Paglia could only muster, “the real scandal was how atrocious Cyrus’ performance was in artistic terms.”

Madonna was a bonafide challenge to feminists, for the reasons Paglia said, but also because of the religious subversiveness and homoerotic stuff. Madonna went on, staking her claim to the “choice” strand of feminism:

I may be dressing like the typical bimbo, whatever, but I’m in charge. You know. I’m in charge of my fantasies. I put myself in these situations with men, you know, and . . . people don’t think of me as a person who’s not in charge of my career or my life, okay. And isn’t that what feminism is all about, you know, equality for men and women? And aren’t I in charge of my life, doing the things I want to do? Making my own decisions?”

And she embraced some other feminist themes. When Madonna was asked on Nightline, “Where do you draw the line?” she answered, “I draw the line with violence, and humiliation and degradation.”

I’m not saying there hasn’t been any progress since 1990. It’s more complicated than that. On matters of economic and politics gender has pretty well stalled. The porn industry has made a lot of progress. Reported rape has become less common, along with other forms of violence. But — and please correct me if I’m wrong — I don’t see the progress in this conversation.


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Why I don’t defend the sex-versus-gender distinction

Or, the sex/gender distinction which is not one?


(This post includes research from my excellent graduate assistant, Lucia Lykke.)

Recently I was corrected by another sociologist: “Phil – ‘female’ and ‘male’ refer to one’s sex, not gender.”

Feminists — including feminist sociologists — have made important progress by drawing the conceptual distinction between sex and gender, with sex the biological and gender the social categories. From this, maybe, we could recognize that gendered behavior was not simply an expression of sex categories — related to the term “sex roles” — but a socially-constructed set of practices layered on top of a crude biological base.

Lucia informs me we can date this to Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. In 1949 she wrote:

It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.

Later, she added, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” And this is what Judith Butler put down as the root of the gender/sex distinction, calling it “the distinguished contribution of Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation”:

The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny… At its limit, then, the sex/gender distinction implies a radical heteronomy of natural bodies and constructed genders with the consequence that ‘being’ female and ‘being’ a woman are two very different sort of being.

In their famous article, “Doing Gender,” West and Zimmerman report making the sex/gender distinction in their sociology classes starting in the late 1960s. I’m guessing this really started to catch on among sociologists in the 1970s, based on this ngram of “social construction of gender” and “social construction of sex” as percentages of all uses of “social construction” in American English:


The spread of this distinction in the popular understanding — and I don’t know how far it has spread — seems to be credited to sociologists, maybe because people learn it in an introductory sociology course. As of today, Wikipedia says this under Introduction to Sex/Gender:

Sociologists make a distinction between gender and sex. Gender is the perceived or projected component of human sexuality while sex is the biological or genetic component. Why do sociologists differentiate between gender and sex? Differentiating gender from sex allows social scientists to study influences on sexuality without confusing the social and psychological aspects with the biological and genetic aspects. As discussed below, gender is a social construction. If a social scientist were to continually talk about the social construction of sex, which biologists understand to be a genetic trait, this could lead to confusion.

Lots of people devote energy to defending the sex-versus-gender distinction, but I’m not one of them. It’s that dichotomy, nature versus culture. I got turned on to turning off this distinction by Catharine MacKinnon, whose book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State I have used to teach social theory as well as gender. In her introduction, she wrote (p. xiii):

Much has been made of the supposed distinction between sex and gender. Sex is thought to be the more biological, gender the more social; the relation of each to sexuality varies. I see sexuality as fundamental to gender and as fundamentally social. Biology becomes the social meaning of biology within the system of sex inequality much as race becomes ethnicity within a system of racial inequality. Both are social and political in a system that does not rest independently on biological differences in any respect. In this light, the sex/gender distinction looks like a nature/culture distinction in the sense criticized by Sherry Ortner in ‘Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?’ I use sex and gender relatively interchangeably.

From another perspective, Joan Fujimura argued for mixing more social into that biological scheme:

My investigation is an argument for broadening our social imaginaries—our definitions and understandings—of the material, the natural. A critical sociomaterial view of sex integrates sociocultural and historical investigations of the production of the material (e.g., the complexities and variations of sex physiologies and genetics) with diverse social imaginaries about sex and bodies proposed by feminists, queer theorists, intersexuals, and others. In this approach, we study and juxtapose the actions and interactions of social activist groups, social theorists, biologists, bodies, and genes in order to understand the collective, contentious, contradictory, and interactive crafting of sex in humans.

… [D]emonstrations of the sociomaterial production of sex, the Möbius strip production of sex, are useful for maintaining our awareness that natural categories are also social categories. Further, even as our current language of analysis maintains the division between the natural and the social, the point of a critical sociomaterial approach is to move in the direction of a language where there is no division, where we are always conscious that the natural and the social are not separated.

For example, we need to think of the categories male and female not as representing stable, fundamental differences but as already and always social categories. They form a set of concepts, a set of social categories of difference to be deployed for particular purposes. Ergo, what counts as male and female must be evaluated in their context of use. The categories male and female, like the categories men and women, may be useful for organizing particular kinds of social investigation or action, but they may also inhibit actions.

In that West and Zimmerman article, you may remember, they argue that “since about 1975 … we learned that the relationship between biological and cultural processes was far more complex — and reflexive — than we previously had supposed.” To help smooth the relationship between sex and gender, they use “sex category,” which “stands as a proxy” for sex but actually is created by identificatory displays, which in turn lead to gender. As I see it, the sex category concept makes the story about the social construction of sex as well as gender. For example, their use of the bathroom “equipment” discussion from Goffman’s 1977 essay is also about the social process of hardening sex, not just gender.

The U.S. Census Bureau says, “For the purpose of Census Bureau surveys and the decennial census, sex refers to a person’s biological sex,” and their form asks, “What is Person X’s Sex: Male/Female.”

But that explanation is not on the form, and there’s no (longer) policing of people filling it out — like race, it’s based on self-identification. (Everything on the form is self-identification, but some things are edited out, like married people under age 15.) So for any reason anyone can choose either “male” or “female.” What they can’t do is write in an alternative (there is no space for a write-in) or leave it blank (it will be made up for you if you do).

So its words are asking for something “biological,” but people are social animals, and they check the box they want. I think its eliciting sex category identification, which is socially produced, which is gender.

This all means that, to me, it would be OK if the form said, “Gender: Male/Female” (and that’s not a recommendation for how forms should be made, which is beyond my expertise, or an argument for how anyone should fill it out). I’m just not sure the benefits of defending the theoretical sex/gender distinction outweigh the costs of treating biological sex as outside the realm of the social.


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Equality, inequality (let’s call the whole thing off?)

Over on the Orgtheory blog, Fabio Rojas created a stir in (two posts) for saying both that “feminists killed feminism” — and that feminism has won. (My most recent related comment might be this “still a patriarchy” post.)

Anyway, here’s a Google ngrams interpretation: the share of all references to “gender” that “gender equality” and “gender inequality” each command (details here):


The use of “gender equality” took off, relative to “gender inequality,” right around the time the trend toward gender equality stalled on most measures (and a little while after working moms started replacing working mothers).

Is the use of “equality” triumphalism (pro), fatalism (con), or a more positive feminism?

Previous ngrams posts.

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Moral rules, ruling morals (race, class and gender edition)

One of the common beefs atheists have with theists (especially Judeo-Christians) is when the latter say the former don’t have a moral compass by virtue of their nonbelief in god. But then the first thing religious people do is pick and choose which religious moral dicta they want to follow, and reinterpret the rest, according to their cultural sensibilities (or genetic predispositions) — in other words doing just what the atheists do in the first place.

This is true even of the more orthodox religious movements, the process is just a lot slower. Since I picked on the Pope and his crowd recently, here’s an example from my own, Judaism.

According to a guide from the orthodox Jewish Chabad website, every day, a person (man?) should recite the following, thanking God for (in this order):

Not making me a gentile (שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֹֿנִי גּוֹי)
Not making me a slave (שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֹֿנִי עָֿבֶד)
Not making me a woman (שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֹֿנִי אִשָּׁה)

You can see the Hebrew, with translations, here (or look under weekday prayers).

Quick aside

It’s great to have an authoritative ancient source for the correct order for the inequality trinity, “Race, Class and Gender,” which has bedeviled American academics for several decades. In Biblical terms, this ordering makes perfect sense, representing distances from privilege in the eyes of god — in a nested hierarchy, from the most-fortunate (Jewish man), to the pretty fortunate (Jewish woman), the unfortunate (slave) and finally the likely-annihilated (non-Jews,  when born in the wrong place and the wrong time, e.g., Joshua 6:21, or just in general, as in the orthodox Passover prayer: “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord”).

This Biblical ordering fits with current academic usage, as shown here: the frequency of the following phrases in the JSTOR academic database:


Rules to live by

But back to the point. Each day orthodox Jewish men thank god they are who they are – or rather, they’re not who they’re not. This strikes some as old fashioned, especially the woman part (if you weren’t happy about being Jewish you wouldn’t be saying the rest of the prayers either; and being thankful for not being a slave just seems like common sense). But why be thankful for not being a woman?

Tzvi Freeman, head of Chabad’s “Ask the Rabbi Team” offers a commentary:

Why is our world this way? This is not just another injustice. It is a stage in humanity’s development, a reflection of the state of the general human consciousness: We — both men and women — are stuck within the perception of the masculine role as superior and the feminine as inferior. Our behavior only reflects our perception.

In other words, men are thankful they’re not women because women are subordinate, which is an injustice. Why doesn’t god fix this injustice – or even allow modern Jews to alter their daily prayers (and other practices) in the hope of moving their perceptions and the reality they reflect? Patience.

As with the general scheme of the cosmos, so with man and woman and the human consciousness. The history of humankind can be seen this way: A transition from male to female values, from authority to dialogue, from dominance to persuasion, from control to nurture. But we’re not there yet.* And the best evidence is that we do not have the power, according to Halachah [Jewish law], to change this blessing.

This is charmingly circular: when it’s ready to be changed, we will have the power to change it. What is that power? The emergence of a new Jewish governing body “greater in wisdom and in number” to change the old law. In practical terms, we’re back to infallibility. In response, Rabbi On the Beach Eliyahu Fink joked: “The biggest innovation in the history of orthodox Judaism is that there is no innovation in orthodox Judaism.” Of course there is lots of debate about rules, including over which rules are subject to debate. Whether this aspect of the liturgy should be off limits is itself debated.

Chabad’s type of explanation is not satisfactory, even to some orthodox folks such as Fink:

There are several apologist explanations for the blessing. They all basically say something along the lines of women are really on a higher level than men, they don’t need to do as many commandments, they can if they want, but they don’t have to, men need the commandments to lift men out of the abyss, the blessing recognizes that men are appreciative for having those commandment to elevate them and thanks God for that opportunity. It is not insulting to women because it is not about who is better, it is about appreciating having more commandments.

The idea of making a change now – within orthodoxy – bubbled up last fall, when a rabbi named Yosef Kanefsky, who leads a big orthodox traditional Jewish community in Los Angeles, suggested making the “unusual halachik [legal] maneuver” of affirmatively thanking god for being Jewish, and then omitting the remaining thank-yous.

The kerfuffle over his original post led him to take it down, replaced by a more moderate one in which he wrote:

I believe fervently that Orthodoxy has yet to grapple fully or satisfactorily with the dignity of womankind. We know and understand, like no generation before us has known and understood, that women are men’s intellectual and spiritual equals. Our society has accordingly decided to treat both genders with equal dignity, and has opened all professional, political and communal endeavors to both genders equally. I believe that our community however, falls short of this goal in many ways. We are, of course, committed to operating within the framework and rules of halacha. But it is not hard to construct a halachik universe in which women’s physical space in shul [synagogue] and intellectual space in day schools and Study Halls are not lesser, but equal. It is not hard to imagine a halachik universe in which virtually all positions of leadership are available to all. And we must create a halachik universe in which the extortion of women by their ex-husbands as the Bet Din stands helplessly by, is simply unfathomable.**  It’s not halacha’s fault that we are lagging. It’s our fault.

The cached versions of Kanefsky’s synagogue’s mission says “orthodox,” but now it says, “We’re traditional, but innovative, and deeply committed to strengthening the bonds of understanding among the different movements within the Jewish community.” I’m intrigued that B’Nai David-Judea doesn’t use “orthodox” in their mission statement anymore. Was Kanefsky’s kerfuffle part of a schism?

Kanefsky says “we are, of course, committed” to following laws with which he clearly does not morally agree. I’m sure I’ve lost some of the nuance of this debate, having jumped in several thousand years late. But what I like about the story I am confident about: It shows how people in tradition-based religions sometimes do hard work to live by traditional rules according to their morals, while believing — or insisting — that their morals come from those rules.

*Wait a minute: did Freeman just describe a future history that foresees The End of Men?

**This refers to the law requiring husbands to give permission for their wives to divorce them.


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Not your feminist grandmother’s patriarchy

Originally published at The Atlantic under the title, “America is still a patriarchy.”


Male dominance may be weakening, but it’s not gone.
In this election, women were the majority of voters, and the majority of them voted for Obama. The weaker sex clearly was men, contributing less than half the vote, the majority of whom preferred the loser. This is not new. As with Obama, men and whites also failed to unseat Bill Clinton in his reelection after voting for him the first time.

This story tests my ability to think systematically about power and inequality. How is it possible to understand an unprecedented transformation in women’s relative status while also acknowledging men’s continued dominance? Must we just list data points, always just including an “on the other hand” caveat to our real narrative?

I have been described as part of a “feminist academic establishment” that insists on taking the glass-half-empty view—as someone who likes to engage in “data wars” over the details of gender inequality. But what I actually try to do is keep the change in perspective.

In our academic research on gender inequality, my colleagues and I study variation and change. That means figuring out why women’s employment increased so rapidly, why some labor markets have smaller gender gaps, why some workplaces are less segregated, why couples in some countries share housework more, why women in some ethnic groups have higher employment rates, and so on.

The patterns of variation and change help us understand how gender inequality works. Systemic inequality doesn’t just happen. People (in the aggregate) get up in the morning and do it every day. To understand how it works, we need to see how it varies (for example, some people resist equality and some people dedicate their lives to it). Someone who studies inequality but doesn’t care about change and variation is not a social scientist.


“It’s easy to find references to patriarchs, patriarchy or patriarchal attitudes in reporting on other countries,” writes Nancy Folbre:

Yet these terms seem largely absent from discussions of current economic and political debates in the United States. Perhaps they are no longer applicable. Or perhaps we mistakenly assume their irrelevance.

In fact—my interpretation of the facts—the United States, like every society in the world, remains a patriarchy: they are ruled by men. That is not just because every country (except Rwanda) has a majority-male national parliament, and it is despite the handful of countries with women heads of state. It is a systemic characteristic that combines dynamics at the level of the family, the economy, the culture and the political arena.

Top political and economic leaders are the low-hanging fruit of patriarchy statistics. But they probably are in the end the most important—the telling pattern is that the higher you look, the maler it gets. If a society really had a stable, female-dominated power structure for an extended period of time even I would eventually question whether it was really still a patriarchy.

In my own area of research things are messier, because families and workplaces differ so much and power is usually jointly held. But I’m confident in describing American families as mostly patriarchal.


Maybe the most basic indicator is the apparently quaint custom of wives assuming their husbands’ names. This hasn’t generated much feminist controversy lately. But to an anthropologist from another planet, this patrilineality would be a major signal that American families are male-dominated.

Among U.S.-born married women, only 6 percent had a surname that differed from their husband’s in 2004 (it was not until the 1970s that married women could even function legally using their “maiden” names). Among the youngest women the rate is higher, so there is a clear pattern of change—but no end to the tradition in sight.

Of course, the proportion of people getting married has fallen, and the number of children born to non-married parents has risen. Single parenthood—and the fact that this usually means single motherhood—reflects both women’s growing independence and the burdens of care that fall on them (another piece of the patriarchal puzzle). This is one of many very important changes. But they don’t add up to a non-patriarchal society.

Differences that matter

The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich—in a 1976 essay she might or might not like to be reminded of—urged feminists to acknowledge distinctions that matter rather than tar everything with the simplistic brush of “patriarchy.” Using China as an example, she wrote:

There is a difference between a society in which sexism is expressed in the form of female infanticide and a society in which sexism takes the form of unequal representation on the Central Committee. And the difference is worth dying for.

China presents an extreme case, with an extremely harsh patriarchy that was fundamentally transformed—into a different sort of patriarchy. By the late 1970s female infanticide (as well asfootbinding) had indeed been all but eradicated, which represented a tremendous improvement for women, saving millions of lives. Since the advent of the one-child policy in the 1980s, however, female infanticide has given way to sex-selective abortion (and female representation on the ruling committees has dropped), representing an important transformation. Calling China a “patriarchy” is true, but by itself doesn’t much help explain the pattern of and prospects for change.

Like Ehrenreich, I think we need to look at the variations to understand the systemic features of our society. Men losing out to women in national elections is an important one. Given the choice between two male-dominated parties with platforms that don’t differ fundamentally on the biggest economic issues despite wide differences in social policy, women voters (along with blacks, Latinos and the poor) bested men and got their way. I wouldn’t minimize that (more than I just did), or ignore the scale and direction of change. The American patriarchy has weakened.

I expect some readers will go right to their favorite statistics or personal experiences in order to challenge my description of our society as patriarchal. In that tit-for-tat, men leading the vast majority of the most powerful institutions, and that American families usually follow the male line, become just another couple of data points. But they shouldn’t be, because some facts are more important than others.


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Flattering motherhood, still

I offered the first draft of this — for free — to the major newspapers, to no avail. In the meantime, there have been some great short pieces written on the recent motherhood-is-work kerfuffle. I don’t remember them all, but I liked those by Katha PollittNancy FolbreAdia Harvey Wingfield, Barbara Risman, Laura Flanders, Feminist Hulk, and Linda Hirshman. The feminist field on this issue has been crowded, which is great.

* * *

Hopefully we can agree that that the true measure of motherhood is somewhere between “toughest job in the world” and “nothing.”

On the one hand, both President Obama and pundit Hilary Rosen have now called motherhood the world’s hardest job. And with the Romneys flopping onto the all-mothers-work bandwagon, it appears we’re reaching a rare rhetorical consensus.

On the other hand, the majority in both major political parties agrees that poor single mothers and their children need one thing above all – a (real) job, one that provides the “dignity of an honest day’s work.”* For welfare purposes, taking care of children is not only not the toughest job in the world, it is more akin to nothing at all. When Bill Clinton’s endorsed welfare-to-work he famously declared: “The days of something for nothing are over.” President Obama and Mitt Romney both support that welfare reform.

Of course parenthood is work. But it’s really many jobs, not one. And now that more and more of them are also available for a fee — as real jobs — we can see how much the “market” thinks they’re really worth. Answer: not much. When sold as services, the many tasks of parenthood are disproportionately done by women. Some of its core tasks – such as cooking, cleaning, diaper-changing and laundry – are among the lowest-paid, most demeaning, female-dominated occupations.

Source: My calculations from 2010 American Community Survey.

As I wrote before, when it comes to reproductive labor, there’s work and there’s work:

Katha Pollitt made this point more eloquently in her column:

But the brouhaha over Hilary Rosen’s injudicious remarks is not really about whether what stay-home mothers do is work. Because we know the answer to that: it depends. When performed by married women in their own homes, domestic labor is work—difficult, sacred, noble work. … When performed for pay, however, this supremely important, difficult job becomes low-wage labor that almost anyone can do—teenagers, elderly women, even despised illegal immigrants. But here’s the real magic: when performed by low-income single mothers in their own homes, those same exact tasks—changing diapers, going to the playground and the store, making dinner, washing the dishes, giving a bath—are not only not work; they are idleness itself.

Instead of the money men get for their labors, mothers are asked to settle for less money and a rhetorical pat on the head (if they are middle class “moms” instead of merely poor mothers — I think that’s known in economics as a “compensating differential“). As Barbara Ehrenreich put it, nobody ever put motherhood on a pedestal until feminists pointed out that “the pay is lousy and the career ladder is nonexistent.”

Still, the universal agreement that motherhood is “work” marks a genuine moment. Among other possible interpretations, it is a victory of “choice” feminism – which would have us “respect women in all the choices they make,” in the words of the newfound feminist Mrs. Romney. (Work = respect, nowadays in America, though it wasn’t always that way.) But celebrating the choice to do something most women can’t choose is the dangerous outcome of putting motherhood on a pedestal. It divides women according to the value of their motherhood.

Accepting pedestal status instead of equality is a bargain some feminists have refused for a century or more. One of those was Harriet Stanton Blatch (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter), who wrote in 1908: “Of all the people who block the progress of woman suffrage, the worst are the women of wealth and leisure who never knew a day’s work and never felt a day’s want, but who selfishly stand in the way of those women who know what it means to earn the bread they eat by the sternest toil” (emphasis added).

Parenthood won’t get the respect it deserves – including men embracing it in more equal numbers – until the monetary reward it draws matches the rhetoric of its symbolic value. That means recognizing the real value of parents’ sternest toils – even if they’re not married – from which we all benefit.

*California Gov. Pete Wilson, Washington Times, 12/7/1995, p. A21.


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