Valerie K. Oppenheimer

News from UCLA is that Valerie Kincade Oppenheimer, who was on the sociology faculty there since 1972, has passed away. This year, fittingly, Oppenheimer was the inaugural recipient of the Harriet B. Presser Award from the Population Association of America, which is given for a record of sustained contribution in gender and demography.

I did not know her personally, but her work was highly influential in the areas of sociology of gender and family. (An obituary in the Los Angeles Times appeared here.)

In a path-breaking 1967 article in Population Studies, she analyzed the interaction of labor supply and demand to explain the rapidly increasing employment rates of women in the post-war years. That complex dynamic involved demographic trends in population size and composition, economic factors such as the changing industrial composition, cultural changes in the acceptability of women’s employment and political changes in the laws and policies limiting the employment of married women and mothers. A 1968 article in Industrial Relations provided documentation of high levels of gender segregation. In a technique near and dear to my heart, she differentiated occupations across industries in the Census data to uncover the extent of segregation. (For example, 67% of clerical workers were women, but in the communications industry that figure rose to 88% – that’s 1960, when there were a lot fewer women in the labor force.) Her dispassionate and methodical scientific tone in these articles masks the cutting-edgeness of a woman independently doing theoretically ambitious, quantitative, demographic work in the U.S. at that time.

Perhaps her most influential work today, however, was in debunking the myth that married couples are most stable and “functional,” and can best maximize their fortunes, by combining wives’ unpaid work and husbands’ paid employment, known as the “specialization and trading model.” These articles have been cited hundreds of times, establishing a theoretical and empirical pillar for a sociological counter-model to, first, the dominant functionalist model in American sociology (Talcott Parsons in particular); and second to the dominant, and often simplistic, economic paradigm on the family. She did not predict or advocate for the end of marriage, but rather for its reconfiguration as a two-earner partnership, albeit one that would probably be less common and less stable than the trading-based marriages were before.

Here’s a long excerpt from the conclusion to her 1994 article in Population and Development Review entitled, “Women’s Rising Employment and the Future of the Family in Industrial Societies”:

According to the trading model, as women’s wages rise … they experience greater involvement in paid employment and increasing economic independence; hence the major gain to marriage is greatly reduced. But there are other reasons why an institution of marriage based on such a model might become an endangered social form in industrial societies. The stability of such a family is theoretically founded on women specializing in home production, and a major part of this production involves the bearing and rearing of children who, as marriage-specific capital, provide an additional source of marital cohesion. Much of the specialized home production of women in the past was devoted to bearing and rearing children who never survived to adulthood. For women to be equally occupied in contemporary low-mortality societies would mean the production of large families. However, even moderate family sizes in a low-mortality society lead to rapid population growth. Hence, if the stability of marital relationships depends on exponential population growth, it is unclear whether this is a viable societal strategy over the long term. Moreover, couples do not just want to produce children per se, they want to produce children like themselves – that is, they are interested in social, not just biological reproduction. But the cost of social reproduction is high in a society where increasingly substantial and lengthy investments in human capital for each child are required. In short, high fertility does not appear to be a viable family strategy. Contemporary low fertility, however, reduces the need for women’s specialization in home production. Given their long lives, it also means women would be not doing anything highly productive most of the time. Can any society, even a wealthy one, afford to have more than half its citizenry economically nonproductive for a good part of their lives? All in all, if the basis of marriage is specialization and exchange, then marriage seems an increasingly anachronistic social form.

This may seem an exceedingly pessimistic view of the future of marriage but, in large part, this is a function of the specialization model itself. It may not follow from other models of marriage. For example, I have suggested that a more adaptive family strategy for a modern industrial society is one where wives as well as husbands engage in market work. A specialization model of marriage, aside from its other problems, entails considerable risks in an independent nuclear family system – risks for individuals as well as for the family unit. This is because in such a family there is rarely more than one person to occupy any single specialty, and if something happens to him or her, functions vital to the family’s well-being and even its continued survival may cease to be performed. …

Moreover, as societies industrialize and become characterized by highly skilled and relatively high-wage labor, the potential relative contribution of unskilled children is greatly diminished. Wives’ employment, therefore, provides a highly adaptive alternative strategy. It introduces some needed labor redundancy, thereby reducing the risks to the family’s income position, and it also provides a means of helping to maintain living levels over the family’s developmental cycle. But if wives’ employment (whether in-termittent or regular, part-time or full-time) is an adaptive family strategy in a modern society, then we are positing a model of marriage entirely different from that of specialization and trade. Now we are talking about a more collaborative model.

Oppenheimer had been professor emerita at UCLA since 1994. My career, and those of many others, would not have been the same without her.

Does every sound bite have a source?

Today a story on Raleigh TV station WRAL featured two married mothers – one employed and one not – discussing their experiences. I was chosen to be the guy in the white coat. I might make it look effortless, but for every sound bite, there is a source. Credit reporter by Erin Hartness, for giving me time to prepare, and choosing clips that mostly made sense.

If the embedding doesn’t work, clip is here: Mothers struggle with work-home balance.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The sources

I said: “The pressure falls on [women], and all the progress we’ve made has so far not alleviated that pressure.” That could come from various sources, but is based on, “Under Pressure: Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Free Time and Feeling Rushed,” by Marybeth Mattingly and Liana Sayer in the Journal of Marriage and Family. They find: “women’s time pressure increased significantly between 1975 and 1998 but men’s did not.”

About the tendency of some working women who decide to stay home to treat parenting as they treat a professional career, I said: “some people think it’s ratcheted up the demands of parenting for everybody.” This comes from reading Pamela Stone’s book, Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. (That was also the source for the comment that workplaces haven’t become as flexible as people would like to think.)

On there being a “self-help book for anything you can imagine,” I was referring to the proliferation about books on parenting, and especially on how to best do every kind of parenting. I made this picture for my Family class:

Dummy books on parenting

Finally, I said: “Husbands have changed their behavior, but not that much.” This is debatable, actually. The trends for mothers and fathers time doing paid and unpaid work from 1965 to 2000 are summarized in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, by Suzanne M. Bianchi, John P. Robinson, and Melissa A. Milkie. In 1965 married mothers spent 4-times as much time taking care of children as fathers did; in 2000 they did twice as much childcare. Both mothers and fathers changed, but mothers do twice as much childcare (and the pattern for housework is similar). Given how much women’s employment has increased, I look at that as a glass-half-empty situation, but others disagree.

Who needs marriage?

When it comes to suicide, at least, the answer is: “men.”

Jessie Bernard famously argued that every marriage is really two marriages, his and hers – and his was more beneficial than hers. We know, for example, that both men and women have more family income when they’re married, but that’s mostly because men earn more than women, and married men earn more than single men. We know that women often depend on marriage for their health insurance, because men’s jobs are much more likely to provide coverage. The recent debate about women’s reportedly-declining happiness highlights the slipperiness of subjective indicators of wellbeing.

Sociologists have always considered suicide to be the gold standard measure of psychological wellbeing. And marriage has historically been a key indicator of social integration, the source of belongingness that makes suicide less likely. Although Bernard believed that, with regard to suicide, marriage is more protective of men than of women, recent research has been more equivocal. Now, however, we have a good long-term study with a large U.S. sample that tests this, and finds that, as suspected, marriage protects men more than women from themselves.

Suicide Risk by Marital Status

Source: My figure from Table 2 in Richard Rogers, Patrick Krueger and Tim Wadsworth, “Adult Suicide Mortality in the United States: Marital Status, Family Size, Socioeconomic Status, and Differences by Sex,” Social Science Quarterly, 2009 (90[5]:1167-85).

Controlling for race, age and the number of people in the family, those in marriage relationships have the lowest risk of suicide from 1986 through 2002 (these are called hazard ratios). But the pattern is only statistically significant for men, and it’s much more pronounced. The authors offer reasonable explanations for this:

Marital status—particularly widowhood—is significantly associated with the risk of suicide among males but not among females. These findings are compatible with prior research that suggests that marriage confers greater health benefits for men than for women, potentially because women invest more time and energy than other household members caring for the health and well-being of children, husbands, and older family members. In turn, men are especially vulnerable to the risk of suicide when they lose that social support due to widowhood.

Women, marriage and health insurance

The Center for American Progress has a nice report on the health insurance barriers unmarried women face by Liz Weiss, Ellen-Marie Whelan and Jessica Arons. A good report to use for class, including specific policy recommendations. They offer lots of evidence to document how

unmarried women are uniquely challenged in obtaining and maintaining health insurance. They rarely have the option to get insurance through another person and generally have less income to pay insurance and health care costs. What’s more, married women are vulnerable to changes in marital status that could affect their coverage.

I’m struck by how much more dependent on state coverage single women are than married women. Maybe Catharine MacKinnon would say patriarchy uses the state to keep women alive while they are temporarily outside the care/supervision of a man (and his employer’s patriarchy-enabling health care). On the other hand, maybe this reveals the modern state’s role as protector of women from men’s control, because it opens up the possibility of escaping the marriage system.

Here’s the breakdown:

Health insurance for married and unmarried women

Good issue for feminism: how women are more dependent on men than the wage gap itself would suggest.