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Full Employment: Toward Economic Equality For Women
by Jo Freeman

Published in Women in the Economy: Policies and Strategies for Change. Report of a conference held in Cleveland, Ohio, May 12-13, 1978, ed. by Ann Beaudry and Kim Yonkers. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1978.

For the last nine months I have been trying to learn how economists think. This is a necessary task because, next to lawyers, they are the single most influential group in government. Yet the concepts they use are based not only on certain assumptions about the economy, but also on ones about family structure and the way in which the designated roles of women and men interact with the economy.
Because economists assume that all individuals reside in stable two-adult families, and the sixties and early seventies brought a rise in real income, they find the rapidly rising rate of female labor force participation both unexpected and inexplicable. Women have been moving into the labor force steadily since WWII. Their surge into the economy during the last few years has been so great that economic projections literally have not been able to keep up with it. Our current economic forecast anticipates that 48.5% of all women over 16 will be in the labor force in 1980. However, 1977 already showed that 48.9% of all such women were employed or looking for work.
Since this phenomenon cannot be explained within a traditional economic framework, there is a strong tendency to associate it with other puzzling phenomena -- in particular, why we have a high unemployment rate and a simultaneous high inflation rate, something supposedly impossible under the traditional view that there is a cyclical tradeoff between unemployment and inflation -- with one high when the other is low, and vice versa.
Many economists conclude that the increase in women's labor force participation, which is disproportionately high among married women, can at least partially account for both higher inflation and unemployment. Supposedly this affects the unemployment rates since married women who don't really need to work tell government interviewers that they are looking for jobs when they are quite picky about what work they will accept. (One doesn't actually have to be employed to be counted in the labor force.) Because women are not assumed to provide major economic support for the family, a particular unemployment rate does not indicate the same degree of national hardship as it has in the past. Furthermore, married women who don't really need 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 likely to be blamed for inflation than for unemployment, but some economists note that married women's contribution to family income increases the amount of dollars a particular family has to spend. More dollars without a concomitant increase in productivity is attributed as a major cause of inflation. Rebuttals to these economic conclusions are varied; suffice it to say that the people who make them are generally not the ones to whom policy-makers go for advice.


I don't need to tell you that a full employment policy 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 curbing unemployment, women will continue to carry a disproportionate share of America's economic woes.
The Administration is putting its emphasis on curbing inflation and not unemployment for two reasons: (1) despite his populist campaign rhetoric, Carter is more in tune with the needs of business than labor -- and business' primary economic concern has always been inflation; (2) politically, as it has often been expressed, everyone feels the pain 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. Therefore, the Administration economists are saying that the consequences of continued unemployment will not be too severe.
They are wrong. They are wrong because they have simply not understood that the principal economic unit is no longer, if it ever was, a two-adult family with only 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 single parent family is also growing by leaps and bounds.
Presently, 36% of all minority families and 11.5% of all white families are headed solely by women. Because women's unemployment rates are higher and their incomes are lower than men's, 51% of families headed solely by minority women and 24% of equivalent white families were below the poverty level in 1977. Only 4.8% of the families with a white man in them lived below the poverty line.
While the percentage of all families in poverty has been declining in the last two decades, the rate of decline of female-based families has been a fraction of those with adult men in them. More and more, poverty is becoming a female problem. It is becoming a female problem because the programs to eliminate poverty disproportionately help men.
The view that women do not have a right to work was perpetuated in President Carter's proposed welfare plan which provided only one public service job per family and specified that the person to get that job must be the one who worked the most hours or earned the most money in the preceding six months. Because of this preference for men, the Department of Labor estimated that men would get 50% of the provided jobs even though they are only 9% of the adults on welfare. 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.
This concerted approach requires more than a full employment bill. Even if achieved it would not ensure that women would share equitably in the jobs to be created. What is needed to bring women's employment situation to a par with men is not merely more government programs, but an entire reconceptualization by policy-makers 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 a 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 the fact 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 will facilitate carrying out this responsibility without regard to sex, marital 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 need to be developed:


1. A major priority should be programs which foster job integration by sex and race in order to alleviate the overcrowding by women and minorities into a few occupations. These should include large scale programs to prepare and place women in high-paying skilled jobs. This can be done through the use of subsidized adult vocational education and on-the-job training, upgrading within firms during lay-offs without loss of unemployment benefits and massive efforts by CETA, WIN and the Employment Service 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.

2. The concept of equal pay for work of equal value should be introduced and implemented in job evaluation systems -- beginning with the Civil Service.

3. Unions and employers should be encouraged to distribute the cost of an economic downturn equitably among their workers by ending traditional lay-off policies which result in disproportionate dismissals of women and minorities and developing programs of "work-sharing."

4. Childcare must be seen as 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.

5. In order to provide more options for all workers, the development of alternative work schedules, including part-time and flexi-time, should be encouraged without loss of seniority or benefits.

6. 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, generally 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 which cater to the public to lengthen the hours and days they are open. Such policies would also increase jobs.

Proposals like these are needed to achieve women's right to equal labor force participation. They will not be achieved as long as women are viewed as temporary workers or secondary contributors to family income and national growth. Nor will progress be made as long as women are relegated to token participation in policy making.