30 March 2006

Debating the Status of Women in the US

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Sadly, radical feminism is alive and well. On campuses, government offices, and courthouses, there are still endless discussions of glass ceilings and old boys’ networks. These parables are then used to justify preferential treatment in government hiring and contracts, litigation involving claims of sex discrimination, women’s studies departments in academia, and year-of-the-woman articles about politics. That this intellectual movement is still going strong despite the achievement of gender equality in the United States is testament to the power of intellectual inertia.

If we look at many of the usual indicators of well-being, U.S. women are doing better than men. They live four years longer and work fewer hours even when time spent on housework and childcare is factored in. Women are also significantly less likely to be injured in a variety of contexts. They are less likely to commit suicide, injured or killed at work, and victims of violent crimes. Women also have more educational success. They are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college (the ratio of women to men first-year students is 58:42 and young men drop out more readily than do young women), and earn master’s degrees. They get better grades and are less likely to be put in special education classes.

The radical-feminist claim that women haven’t achieved equality often focuses on the supposed wage gap. Here too the data doesn’t support their claim. As Warren Farrell in Why Men Earn More points out, women get paid less because of the choices they make. This appears to be the result of firms taking into account women’s propensity to take jobs requiring less time and being less likely to take jobs that that pay more. Women don’t work as much as men. Specifically, they work fewer hours, have fewer years of experience, have fewer years of uninterrupted experience, work fewer weeks during the year, are absent more often, and commute less far. They also don’t take jobs that pay more due to greater risk, worse shifts, unpleasant environments, greater hazards, higher stress, greater travel, and relocation. That this is not the result of discrimination can be seen in that when factors such as marriage and children are screened out, the wage gap, at least in some cases, disappears.

When the differences in men’s and women’s income does show up it reflects differences in work habits rather than discrimination. For example, what employer wouldn’t view woman applicants more skeptically given that working women are eight times as likely to spend four or more years out of the labor force than are men, nearly nine times more likely than a man to leave the workplace for six months or longer for family reasons, and lose about twice as much time from the workplace as men?

The differential assignment of work and of housework and childcare reflects women’s choices. That these choices were freely made can be seen in that they are made by many of society’s richest and brightest women. For example, graduates of Yale University and Harvard Business School make the same choices.

The evidence simply is not on the radical feminists’ side. They shouldn’t be taken seriously.


The Constructivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Those darn radical feminists are at it again, marshalling their evil powers of gossip and rumor-mongering to make it seem as if the perfectly rational decisions to pay women less than men for the same work or keep them from positions of real authority are discriminatory. If women want to have babies, they had better get used to being paid less than men—it’s as simple as that. We all should follow The Objectivist’s sensible advice to tune out their nagging that this amounts to sexism. So what if his evidence is taken from a self-help book by a men’s movement guru angling for a spot on Oprah? With a guy like that on his side, even the most highly credentialed feminists must realize it’s high time to sit down and shut up.

I mean, come on, we have, what, like 81 women in the 109th U.S. Congress, right? There may be a dozen female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies by now. How many more do we need?

Sexism? Please! There’s even a woman playing a U.S. President on TV these days. How much more evidence of progress can you ask for? Wait a second—her show got renewed while one with a male President got cancelled? Ooh—reverse discrimination! The liberal media strikes again!

It’s high time for radical feminists to face up to the simple fact that we’re living in a golden age for American women and girls. Look at all the great opportunities for advancement they have in Wal-Mart and the service industry (see Liza Featherstone’s Selling Women Short and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed). Take a peek at how great the women working in America’s sweatshops have it (try Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum’s Behind the Label). How about domestic service? Priceless (see Grace Chang’s Disposable Domestics and the 10th anniversary edition of Mary Romero’s Maid in the USA). Forget Barbietopia—middle-class American women today are living in a veritable gendertopia. As Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School Elizabeth Warren reports in a recent issue of Harvard Magazine, families with both parents working to support their children “have about $1,500 less for discretionary spending than their one-income counterparts of a generation ago” (see The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke for the full story).

Man, keeping to the right-wing party line is so hard! (No, I’m not talking about keeping a straight face while you’re doing it—why do you ask?) It just so happens that every book I’ve cited in the previous paragraph was written by one or more feminists—not a politically correct move for an aspiring wingnut in the making and on the make to have made. It’s getting so darn hard to tell what’s “radical” or “feminist” these days!

The fact is, The Objectivist wouldn’t recognize a radical feminist if Alice Echols and Ellen Willis’s Daring to Be Bad or Denise Thompson’s Radical Feminism Today were to fall off his bookshelf and land on his...head. It’s liberal feminists who advance the position that few people under 40 disagree with today—that women should be judged as individuals, not profiled by gender, in the workplace. Why he goes out of his way to antagonize the very feminists who share his fundamental belief that individuals ought to be rewarded for their productivity and the value they generate for their organizations is beyond my understanding. Too often, however, such liberal feminists either assume a male norm or assert a female difference without exploring such issues as the construction of gender and sexuality, the interrelation of gender, race, and class formations, or the impact of transnational movements and forces—something radical feminists have been pointing out for decades. My point in emphasizing the intellectual diversity within feminism today is to suggest that the energy it has generated has helped power women’s studies, gender studies, sexuality studies, and men’s studies.

The Objectivist would clearly benefit from a course in one or more of these fields. I would love to see him review the textbook used in SUNY Fredonia’s newly-approved Women’s Studies major, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan’s An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World. But to do that, he’d actually have to read something written by feminists. It’s difficult to tell from today’s column if he has.


The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

Do you claim that as a group women are worse off than men? If so, what do you base this on?

Also, what feminisms have in common are a moral claim (women are at least as valuable as men) and a factual claim (they currently not treated equally). If they just had the moral claim they would indistinguishable from Kantianism, Utilitarianism, and the rest of the moral theories out there. Hence, if one can show that the factual claim is false, and that's what the above column tried to do, then I don't see why this shows feminism, especially the radical stripe, to be false.

The Constructivist said...

Hey, Objectivist, most feminists today question the premises of both your question and your definitional claim. That is, they no longer try to make claims in general about all women and all men or treat gender in a simply binaristic sense. Coming from a field where "reductionist" is an epithet, I find it difficult to see why I would ever want to make such overgeneralizations as you seem to want me to defend.

Your essay argued that American women as a group have achieved equality with American men and listed a lot of stats to back up the claim that gender- and sex-based inequities are a thing of the past. Mine suggested that there is much more inequality and inequity "even in America" than your stats reveal. I think the burden of proof is on you to show more evidence for your "inequalities are a result of men's and women's choices so there are no mre inequities" claim.

There's a fascinating set of postings on defining feminism and critiquing caricatures of feminism over at Ilyka Damen (her March 30, 2006 post graciously features our mano-a-mano tete-a-tete--slow news day, eh, Ilyka?) that I suggest we both read before continuing our little burden of proof debate.

Greg McLaughlin said...

Bruce Simon, straw-man argument!! Bruce puts words and obsurd comments in Kershners mouth, weak argument! How about you attack the points Kershner actually said, would that be so hard? Once you get off your period, write something worth reading.

Kersher, choke this mofo out.

Anonymous said...

All those facts, yet not a single cite.

Did you know that 78.9% of all statistics are made up?

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

Two questions.

(1) What does feminism assert?

(2) What evidence would support or falsify feminism?

Here is an analogy.

Imagine that I claimed that Indian physicians are less capable than white physicians. You respond by noting that the best measures of performance (e.g., board passage rate, certification rate, scores, and ratings from peers, supervisors, and patients) all of which showed that Indian physicians were on average better. You then say, "Well, I'm talking about a different sense of better." It would then fall on you to define what you mean by "better" and what evidence would make your claim more or less likely to be true.

I guess I'm wondering how you would answer these questions.

Note, some feminists argue that there are many differnt strains of feminism. However, we would still need to know in virtue of what property are they all feminists.

The Constructivist said...

O, just a quick recommendation to check out Feministing if you want to get a real-time sense of the varieties of feminism.

Hoping that I'm giving you a fun summer reading list!

What if there's no common property, or least common denominator, or essence, or intersection of venn diagrams, or common ground? What if sentences that begin, "Feminists must..." or "Feminists can't..." or "Feminism asserts..."--or any similar assumption of singularity--are attempts to assert control over a movement that shouldn't/can't be pinned down?

This is something like what Judith Butler and Diana Fuss have repeatedly argued. Others find it to be typical poststructuralist b.s. and argue that feminism needs a common ground if it is to be an effective political force. Butler and Fuss have collected responses to these debates in Feminists Theorize the Political.

So even the project of defining feminism and setting practical priorities appears to be one of those essentially contested issues I keep mentioning on this blog (like defining/assessing merit).

So all I can give you is my take. And again, I'd rather see our readers' takes.

My take is that your claim is ridiculous, unless I'm misunderstanding it. "Since women have achieved equality in the U.S. with men, all feminist claims of discrimination should be dismissed out of hand"--is this what you are seriously trying to argue? By that logic, the class-action sex-discrimination suit against Wal-Mart that Liza Featherstone writes about should be dismissed without even a day in court. Is this what you're advocating for?

My point in parodying your logic and citing titles in my column was to suggest (1) that your evidence for the empirical claim of total equality was questionable (and in fact has been questioned by those authors in those books) and (2) that your conclusion that inequity never happens was unwarranted.

Of course, proving inequity takes some work. But minimally I'm suggesting we ought to avoid prejudging any inequity claim. Your claim that all apparent inequalities are due entirely to women's choices makes it seem as if the only choice we can possibly make is between an employer choosing to discriminate against female workers or female workers choosing to engage in undiscriminating or even indiscriminate behavior. What about structural, cultural, and political factors?

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

I guess we disagree on what feminism is committed to. I'm still not sure what evidence you think would falsify feminism or whether you think it's a conceptual claim equivalent to the claim that women and men should be judged as individuals. If so, then feminism seems to be trivially true.

One idea that is relevant here is whether employers should discriminate against women. Given that statistically, they are more likely to leave a job and more likely to be absent or have to leave early, it would seem rational for employers to discount women's applications.

This is similar to the way in which football teams might discount the value of a running back who is great when he plays but is often injured (e.g., Priest Holmes) and enhance the application of a less talented running back who plays more often (e.g., Tiki Barber).

This seems permissible to me, and perhaps obligatory in the public sector, in the same way that law and med schools may discount persons who have lower LSATs and MCATs.

On a side note, as far as the class action suits, I think judges should follow the law.

The Constructivist said...

The whole inequality/inequity debate you've set up as if it were about radical feminism is a liberal feminist issue. As I understand the position, liberal equality feminists tend to measure women's progress through comparison to men's status in law, markets, and civil society; liberal difference feminists tend to ask how the law, markets, and civil society should be modified to recognize women's specific needs/interests. (In practice, liberal feminists often mix-and-match arguments from these general positions. Both positions generally accept liberal democracy and capitalism as reformable once sexism and gender-based discrimination no longer distort individuals' lives and institutions' operations. Debates between equality and difference liberal feminists were a hallmark of the '80s and early '90s in academic feminism.)

In your example, you elided the general and the specific again. The Priest Holmes/Tiki Barber example makes sense to me, but to use it as a metaphor justifying prejudicial treatment of women/men sounds, well, illegal to me. You're a lawyer--is it?

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

It's definitely illegal. But don't you think it would be a good thing to change the law to allow for it? Also, in many cases, a firm could practice this sort of discrimination knowing that it is unlikely it will ever be fined for doing so.

More generally, do you think there should be a women's studies major? Is it your view that a Fredonia student will gain as much from taking a women's studies class as she would from taking a class in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dostoyevski, or Orwell? I think the answer to this is "no" and wonder what you think about it.

I suspect that you would give the same answer and wonder what this tells us about whether we should have a women's studies major.

The Constructivist said...

O, as a member of the University Senate, I was one of many who voted unanimously to approve the Women's Studies major. If I was going to go around judging students for their choice of majors, I'd be down on everyone who didn't choose English or Philosophy. (I'd also advise everyone to double major. Maybe I'm a bit biased here?)

I think the Women's Studies major (scroll to the bottom of the page for a link to the proposal) will be quite valuable to both male and female students who choose it. One major reason is that it's an interdisciplinary major that is set up to encourage students to integrate their learning inside and outside the major.

Your problem is assuming Women's Studies literature courses don't ever include major male writers. Even though you rightly acknowledge in your initial comment that much feminist theory starts from a critical examination of a previously all-male theory and ends by revising it or rethinking it (of course, when you research the histories of utilitarianism, romanticism, and existentialism to give just two examples, you sometimes have to wonder if there was much more cross-gender collaboration even in the past than we acknowledge today), you seem to want to hold onto this idea that Women's Studies courses are a male-free zone or are totally divorced from the "classic" liberal arts.

Did you attend Lauren Silberman's talk at the English Department's Mary Louise White Symposium? In it, she argued that popular culture provides today's students with paths into writers like Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare and helps them appreciate their achievements. Her talk showed how teachers don't have to choose between "popular culture" and "the classics." This isn't news to you: I've seen you teach! Why is it so hard to acknowledge that the same holds true for Women's Studies and the humanities (in the broadest sense of the term)?

The English department offers several major authors courses each semester; we require majors to take at least one. Hopefully non-majors will not be scared off by the course numbers (usually 300- and 400-level) and will take the opportunity to take Chaucer or Shakespeare with Ted Steinberg or Mac Nelson, Doestoevski with Al Dunn, and Orwell with John Stinson before they graduate. The problem, as always, is that there are too many good courses to take. Given that students will miss out on something good no matter what choices they make, the best response to the "What about Course X?" question is to tell students to take more than 120 credit hours! (And to consider that they have the rest of their lives to continue reading what matters to them!)

On an institutional level, I think we need to rethink our approach to general education. We were handed a flawed model by the Board of Trustees and failed to make a strong enough case for fixing its flaws. Within the constraints of a bad model, I think the approach taken in Western Civ--getting a team of faculty with expertise in the area together to plan and teach an experimental course in it--is worth exporting to other areas of the CCC. If we can come up with models that are truly general education courses and not just the standard 'intro to a discipline' courses that form the majority of CCC offerings at Fredonia, I think we'll be getting somewhere.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

Given that women's studies is explicitly tied to a view (feminism). I wonder if you would oppose a department of traditional-roles studies. I bet you wouldn't but I wonder why not?

In any case, I fail to see how your claim that feminism need not crowd out much more important study of literature and history is plausible. Your argumetn seems to be that the English Department has all these excellent faculty (e.g., Nelson, Steinberg, Dunn, and Stinson - and I have heard that they are superb) who teach classic literature. I think this is exactly right and every course taken with women's studies is one less course that could have been taken with them. Hence, there is a crowding out effect. At most, you will have to argue that the effect is not a significant one. But I await an argument in support of this claim.

The Constructivist said...

Hey, O, Shinobi has a pretty fine critique of your opening paragraph. Care to respond here or there?

The Constructivist said...

O, first of all, you misread my main point, which is that Women's Studies courses INCLUDE all kinds of traditional/classic writers, issues, and questions. I don't accept your assumption that it's an either-or choice, so I don't see how the "crowding out" effect is any more serious for students who choose to major in Women's Studies than it is for anyone who doesn't major in philosophy, English, or history.

Second, there's much more to Women's Studies than "questioning traditional gender roles," so I'd be unlikely to support some parody of it. Now, if people wanted to start a Men's Studies program, Christina Jarvis would be a natural to head it (if she could be convinced to add it to American Studies!). And if it worked out well, I could see reasons to create a Gender Studies major, just as I can see reasons to create a Race/Ethnicity Studies major either before or after attempting a major in African American Studies. My point is that these fields are built on decades of scholarship and centuries of thought. I don't accept your view they are here for political reasons and academically worthless.

By your logic, to assure we avoid the crowding-out effect, we should stop offering anything except a classic liberal arts curriculum. This would mean radically shrinking the size of the school, as various departments would be shut down or downsized, and many students would no longer apply to come here. I think my idea to reform general education along the lines of what the faculty here think is crucial to be taught, based on research and professional dialogue--instead of what the Board of Trustees thought should be taugght for political and economic reasons--is a better aim to pursue. Not only is it more practical, it would have a greater impact on a greater number of students.

The Constructivist said...

Shout out to Ampersand for linking to us at Alas (A Blog). The "pretty darn sarcastic" line describing my column touches on a touchy topic here.

Several of my colleagues who know non-academics in the local community have let me know that my tone is getting in the way of my message in this one in particular. As you can see from one of the first comments here, it's often taken as a sign I have nothing else but rhetoric on my side. Would love it if readers would weigh in on their response to that issue, particularly those who don't blog under actual anonymity-protecting pseudonymns.

I like to think of my approach in this column as parodying The Objectivist's opening and closing in a way that suggests a continuity between old-style sexism and his kind of (in my mind) metasexism in a way that sets up my suggestion that there's plenty of evidence to be found that both direct sexism and metasexism are alive and kicking, that any existing inequalities stem from more than women's choices (although, I have to admit, his stealing pro-choice rhetoric is not such a bad move rhetorically, either). But since when have an author's intentions (or hopes) mattered?

sbernache said...

Well, as an actual woman, here is my very concrete example of why men and women are not considered equal in our society:

I have never, ever heard anyone debate a man's right to have a vasectomy or use a condom. I have never, ever heard anyone question a man's right to make his own decisions, medical or otherwise. A woman's right to take responsibility for her own medical care is questioned every day, publicly, by a large assortment of people, largely, though not exclusively, men. Let's put aside, for just a moment, the moral arguments for or against abortion, which I personally believe have always been a trap. Do you trust me, as a woman, to make my own decisions about the direction my life will take? If you do, I congratulate you. If you don't, then you have a problem with women having rights equal to yours. Taken on its face value, that's a textbook definition of a sexist.

Not that it matters, but I have never taken a women's studies course or debated the finer points of differing philosophies of feminism. I'm not good at framing an argument or at using lots of statistics to make my weak argument seem more forceful. I am a single mother who did well in high school but never got the chance to finish college. I have never been married and I try not to see myself as a victim, ever, since I have had to be strong to overcome hurdles that I actually set up for myself. The vast majority of my experience with sexism has been anecdotal, and mostly unanalyzed as to its larger meaning. Just so you guys know.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Sbernache:
When does society tell women what medicare they should or shouldn't receive? The only debate on this topic I see is over abortion and this is a case where persons disagree as to whether a human being is being harmed. Perhaps I'm missing something here.

The Constructivist said...

O, as S pointed out, it's not just over abortion these days, it's over contraception, as well. Or why health insurers cover Viagra but not emergency contraception. Or whether women who claim to have been raped are reliable witnesses to their own experience. Have you been reading conservative takes on the Duke lax case?

You say societal inequalities are the results of women's choices, O. Can you at least criticize political allies whose project is to circumscribe women's choices?

The Constructivist said...

O, care to respond to this point from Alas (a Blog)?

The Constructivist said...

O, care to respond to Bitch Ph.D.?

The Constructivist said...

O, new study reported on in Inside Higher Ed.

Sbernache said...

Sorry, it took me a while to get back to you.


As I said, let's put aside, for the purposes of this debate, the moral arguments for or against abortion. The fact is that most people's opposition to abortion is ironic given their corresponding position on the death penalty, and for that reason, arguments as to whether all life is precious have no place in the discussion. The purpose of demonizing abortion is to keep women bearing children, whether we want them or not, whether we can care for them or not. The purpose of forced childbirth is to punish women for enjoying sex, which is, I suspect, why exceptions for rape and incest are usually (except for South Dakota) written into abortion-restrictive laws. Presumably, that kind of sex was not fun and therefore, it's not punishable.

Also, The Constructivist is absolutely correct when he makes the point that women are denied contraception and insurance coverage. Emploers' health insurance does not have to cover abortions or birth control if the employer decides they don't want to cover it. I have had to take my prescriptions elsewhere myself, as my local Albertson's grocery store has refused to hand it over when I need to refill. And they are allowed to do that--it's a store policy that if the pharmacist has a "moral difficulty" dispensing any prescribed medication, they do not have to provide that medication to you.

Do men have trouble buying condoms? I would think that since condoms are available over the counter, as they should be, that most likely you have never had a cashier refuse to ring them up for you, but I'm only guessing. Do men have trouble obtaining the medical care they desire? Or prescriptions? If you were prescribed antibiotics for a venereal disease, would your pharmacist refuse to dispense it?? Perhaps you did miss that little news item, but a pharmacist did just that to a woman not long ago, because her scrip was written by a clinic that performs abortions. She had an infection, for pete's sake. What difference should it have made how she got that infection? It made a difference because women are supposed to stay pure and let you guys take care of us. Because even though our rights are supposed to be guaranteed, just like yours, we are not perceived as equal in many ways. That is why feminism is still alive (though maybe not as well as it used to be).

I don't agree with you regarding the "closed" wage gap, although I will grant you that financially, working women are better off in many ways than we used to be. That doesn't mean that we are paid the same wage for the same job a man does. And I don't agree that's the main reason feminism is still regarded as necessary. Feminism is still necessary because you feel that it's all right to imply, in your very first paragraph, that feminists are radical by definition, i.e., you do not differentiate between "radical feminists" and, oh, I don't know, "mainstream feminists"; this allows you and anyone who agrees with you or think in the same vein to trivialize the entire enterprise of equal rights and protections for women. Perhaps you could define these terms for me, if you feel that there are really two distinct camps of feminists.

The Constructivist said...

No time for a link round-up, but there have been major debates among feminists this summer over claims that highly educated women who have kids are betraying feminist ideals. Here's one response worth reading..

The Constructivist said...

O, check out Becker and Posner when you get a chance on this topic....

The Constructivist said...

O, you really should read this if you still believe women's contraceptive choices aren't subject to impositions in some states.

The Constructivist said...

Here's some grist for your anti-Hillary mill (her recent firedoglake event).

The Constructivist said...

More reading, from Belle Lettre.

John said...

hmmm getting a degree at home is a better choice, especially when you have a kid... you don't need to go outside the house and save some gasoline too...

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