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by Jo Freeman

Published in Democratic Left, June 1979, pp. 3-4, This article was adapted from a speech given at the Conference on Women and the Economy, sponsored by the Conference on Alternative State and Local Public Policies held in Cleveland, Ohio, May 1978.

Traditional concepts about family structure and the way in which the designated roles of women and men interact with the economy underlie government economic policies. Because economists assume that all individuals reside in stable two-adult families, and the 1960s and early 1970s brought a rise in real income, they find the rapidly rising rate of women in the labor force both unexpected and inexplicable.
Women have been moving into the work force steadily since World War II. During the last few years, women workers have increased so rapidly that economic projections have not been able to keep up. While our current economic forecast anticipates that 48.5 percent of all women over 16 will be in the labor force in 1980, by 1978 over 50 percent of all such women were employed or looking for work.

Inflation Puzzle

Since economists cannot explain this within a traditional economic framework, they tend to associate it with other puzzling phenomena, in particular, why we have simultaneous high unemployment and high inflation (something impossible under the traditional view that there is a cyclical trade-off between unemployment and inflation -- with one high when the other is low, and vice versa.)
Many economists conclude that the increase in women's participation in the labor force, particularly among married women, can at least partially account for both higher inflation and unemployment. They argue that married women who "don't really have to work" tell government interviewers that they are looking for jobs when they are actually quite picky about what work they will accept.
They argue that because women do not provide the major economic support for the family, a particular unemployment rate does not indicate the same degree of national hardship as it has done in the past. Furthermore, married women, who don't really "have to" work, are even accused of taking jobs away from married men who do, making an additional contribution to the unemployment rate.
Employed women are less often blamed for inflation than for unemployment, but some economists note that married women's contributions to family incomes increase the number of dollars families can spend. More dollars without a concomitant increase in productivity is attributed as a major cause of inflation.
Full employment is a fundamental part of improving women's economic situation. But as long as this Administration sees inflation as the number one economic problem and accepts the traditional economic notion that curbing inflation requires policies contradictory to lowering unemployment, women will continue to carry a disproportionate share of America's economic woes.
The Administration is emphasizing inflation for two reasons: one, despite his populist campaign rhetoric, Carter is more in tune with the needs of business than of labor -- and business worries about inflation; and two, politically, everyone feels the pinch of inflation, but the only ones affected by unemployment are the unemployed.
Now, even the cries of the jobless are being rationalized away by attributing most unemployment to women. Thus, Administration economists are saying that the consequences of continued unemployment will not be too severe.

False Premises

They are wrong. They are wrong because they have simply not understood that the principal economic unit is no longer, if it ever was, the two-adult family with one primary wage earner. Not only is the two-earner family becoming the norm for families with more than one adult, but the single person and the single-parent family is also growing by leaps and bounds.
Presently, 36 percent of all minority families and 11.5 percent of all white families are headed solely by women. Because women's unemployment rates are higher and their incomes lower than men's, 51 percent of families headed solely by minority women and 24 percent of equivalent white families were below the poverty level in 1977. Only 5 percent of the families with a white man, and 13.5 percent of those with a minority man, were below the poverty line.
While the percentage of all families in poverty has been declining in the last two decades, most of that decline has been among families with men in them. More and more, poverty is becoming a female problem. And it is a female problem because the programs designed to alleviate poverty mainly help men.
Most public employment programs have trained women for traditional, low paying jobs. They have encouraged men to gain employment experience and discouraged women from leaving the home. Later, if the family breaks up, it is the woman who has little or no experience to help her in job-hunting.
As long as male preference is institutionalized, women will continue to dominate the ranks of the impoverished and the unemployed. And it will remain institutionalized until there is a concerted approach to improve the economic situation of women.
What is needed is an entire rethinking of women's role in the labor force. The current view of equal employment opportunity is that women who are like men should be treated equally with men. Instead, what we need is recognition of women's right to equal labor force participation, a recognition that does not view economic dependency on men as the ultimate fallback position, in fact the preferred fallback position. We need to recognize that all adults have responsibility for the support of themselves and their children, regardless of their individual living situation.
This means that all are entitled to policies which facilitate carrying out this responsibility without regard to sex, marital status, or parental status. From this perspective, programs and services that appear to be luxuries under the traditional view become necessities. It is from this perspective that the following proposals should be developed:


  • A major priority should be programs that foster job integration by sex and race to alleviate the overcrowding by women and minorities into a few occupations. Large-scale programs must prepare and place women in high-paying skilled jobs through subsidized adult vocational education, on-the-job training, upgrading within firms during layoffs without loss of unemployment benefits, and massive efforts to place women in non-traditional jobs. In addition, government should put teeth into affirmative action requirements for women and minorities: first, by making a viable affirmative action program a prerequisite for bidding on government contracts (not merely a paperwork requirement after a contract has been secured); and second, by creating more varied sanctions for non-compliance than contract denials.
  • Further research should be done on the possible implementation of the concept of equal pay for work of equal value in job evaluation systems.
  • Unions and employers should be encouraged to distribute the cost of an economic downturn equitably among their workers by ending traditional layoff policies which result in disproportionate dismissals of women and minorities and developing programs of work sharing.
  • Child care must become a public responsibility, just as necessary as the provision of schools, police and fire services. Parents who choose to leave the labor force for short periods to bear and care for young children should have their jobs held for them just as they would be if they were drafted to fight a war.
  • To provide more options for all workers, the development of alternative work schedules including part-time and flexitime should be encouraged without loss of seniority or benefits.
  • Because the standard work week coincides with the standard hours that businesses and agencies are open, it is difficult to be a full-time worker and to maintain one's private life without the assistance of another adult in the family, usually a wife, who does not work these hours. In order for women to have the opportunity to maximize their earnings, the government should encourage establishments that cater to the public to lengthen the hours and days they are open. Such policies would also increase jobs.
  • Women need proposals like these if they are to achieve their right to equal participation in the labor force. But as long as women are viewed as temporary workers, or secondary contributors to family income and national growth, as long as women remain tokens in policy making, they will not be equal.


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