Our Economy of Mothers and Others: Women and Economics Revisited

Author:Joan Williams
Position:Professor of Law, American University

I. Introduction. II. The Basic Sketch. A. Access To Economic Security Through Market Work.B. Economy Of Mothers In Comparison To Others.C. Access To Economic Security Through Family Work. III. Access To Economic Security Throught The Government. A. The Linked Fate Of Women And Children. B. Domesticity And Government Redistribution Programs. IV. Designing Policies To Change The Relationship Of... (see full summary)


    Joan Williams, Professor of Law, American University, Washington College of Law, Director, Program on Gender, Work & Family. This paper was written for The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice's fifth annual symposium, The Feminization of Poverty (Oct. 23, 2000). Many thanks to Professor Sherry Colb for helpful comments and a close reading, and to the other members of the Symposium, the Rutgers Faculty Speaker Series, the California Western School of Law, and the American University, Washington College of Law Faculty Speaker Series, where this article was presented in draft form. Particular thanks to my colleague Professor Walter Effross for suggesting I use the phrase "mothers and others" as the title of this article.

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I Introduction

A property lawyer coined the term "feminization of poverty" in the late 1970s to highlight the prevalence of women among the poor.1 The feminization of poverty is an important topic in an age when the disparity in incomes is growing in the United States, and welfare is being "reformed"- that is, from the view of many recipients, abolished as an entitlement.2 This take on the feminization of poverty, while important, is limited in a country with a current poverty rate of 11.8%.3 This article will argue that we need to fold the traditional debate on the proportion of women among the poor into a more sweeping analysis of the relationship between women and economics.

In doing this, we should follow the lead of the growing international awareness, which focuses more broadly on women's relationship to economic security.4 Statistics show that women are the poorest of the

Page 412world's poor. Women are not only fifty-nine percent of those in poverty and seventy percent of those in extreme poverty,5 but they also "earn less than a tenth of the world's income and own less than one percent of the world's property."6

If our goal is an analysis of women's economic welfare, what better place to start than with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics?7This classic treatment, published in 1898, established the framework we still use today. Gilman's central focus is on women's dependence:

[W]omen, as a class, neither produce nor distribute wealth . . . women, as individuals, labor mainly as house servants, are not paid as such, and would not be satisfied . . . if they were so paid . . . wives are not business partners or co-producers of wealth with their husbands, unless they actually practice the same profession . . . they are not salaried as mothers, and that it would be unspeakably degrading if they were, what remains to those who deny that women are supported by men?8

And, tartly, "the female of the genus homo is supported by the male." He is her food supply.9

Gilman has no doubt that women are supported by men. This support is both an affront to their dignity ("the pitiful dependence of the human female"10) and corrosive of their character ("the sluggish and greedy disposition bred of long ages of dependence"11). Her solution is to restructure the tasks performed by wives along the industrial model. For instance, houses without kitchens will mean that professional chefs will cook the meals. Even childcare will be professionalized under this model.12 The Page 413 Gilman tradition, echoed virtually unchanged some sixty years later by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, dominates popular imagery of American feminism to this day.13 Feminism today is still associated with an insistence on employment for women with day care centers as the solution for the conflict between work and family demands.

I have argued that the Gilman model14 is flawed because it accepts too readily three basic elements of the housewife/breadwinner system historians call domesticity. First, it accepts the current construction of paid labor, which reflects the ideal of a worker who starts to work in early adulthood and works for forty years straight, taking no time off for child-bearing or child-rearing.15 Second, it accepts the dichotomy between home and work, and the notion that household work is not "work."16 Reva Siegel documented that before the nineteenth century, society openly acknowledged the economic value of women's household labor.17 However, the advent of domesticity's new sex/gender arrangements erased the economic value of household work.18 Consequently, today there is an attitude among homemakers that they "don't work."19 Finally, the Gilman model embraces the privatized theory that reproductive work is a private responsibility and not a public necessity.20

We need to change each element of domesticity in order to create a new model for the analysis of women and economics. I will begin with a broad overview of the elements for this new model. Then I will describe each element in greater detail. Finally, I will propose an analytic framework that

Page 414changes gender arrangements in both market work and family work.

II The Basic Sketch

Discussions of women and poverty tend to focus on "welfare," the social safety net designed for the impoverished. Yet, the social safety net affects only women's relationship to a small fraction of our economy. Welfare programs constitute a tiny fraction, three to four percent,21 of the federal budget; much more important are "entitlement" programs such as social security, unemployment insurance, our elaborate system of tax and other social expenditures.22

If the goal is to analyze women's relationship to the public distribution of wealth, it makes no sense to focus our attention only on a small fraction of government budgets. We need to bring the analysis of other government programs (now considered topics of interest only to specialists) into the mainstream of gender research. Thus far, the only government program other than welfare that has received extensive gender analysis is tax. Critical tax theory can provide many of the tools we need for analysis of the public sector.23 This is an important step, but we need to go further. To gain a balanced picture of women's relationship to economic security, we need to examine women's relationship to private as well as public wealth.

To the extent that we discuss women's relationship to the private economy, the tendency is to focus on women's workforce participation. Yet this approach itself is gendered. The economic security of most men depends on their employment status, but the economic security of many women does not. American women still do eighty percent of the childcare,24 and this Page 415family work often affects their participation in paid work.25 For this reason, in order to analyze women's relationship to private wealth, we need to consider not only their paid but also their family work. In the United States this boils down to a discussion of divorce law, but the real issue is one of who owns what within the family.

To summarize, we need to widen our analysis of women and economic security to include the social safety net and the disproportionate percentage of women among the poor. We also need to consider how other government wealth-distribution programs, from social "entitlements" to the tax system, systematically favor men over women. Finally, we need to analyze women's relationship to private as well as public wealth through a consideration both of women's relationship to paid work, and their entitlements based on family relationships.

A Access To Economic Security Through Market Work

Today two statistics frame the way we look at women and paid work. The first is women's workforce participation, a demographic measure that documents the demise of the breadwinner/housewife model as women entered the workforce.26 The second is the wage gap, which measures the gap between the wages of men who work full-time against the wages of women who work full-time.27 Both statistics reflect the Gilmore model; they are designed to measure the extent to which women are in the labor force working shoulder to shoulder with men, as ideal workers who become employed in early adulthood, and remained employed, full-time and full- force, for forty years straight.

While the work patterns and wages of women without children are looking increasingly like those of ideal-worker men, the same is not true of mothers. If we look at mothers during the key years of career advancement, aged twenty-five to forty-four, two out of three do not perform as ideal workers even in the minimal sense of working forty hours per week all year. What is more dramatic is that ninety-two percent work less than fifty hours per week.28 In an age where virtually all good jobs require full-time work, and many of the best jobs require overtime, mothers are cut out of the labor Page 416pool for many desirable jobs, blue- as well as white-collar.

B Economy Of Mothers In Comparison To Others

Women without children earn ninety percent of the wages of men, but mothers earn only sixty percent of the wages of fathers.29 The "family gap" between the wages of mothers and other adults increased during the 1980s30and may still be rising among the least privileged women.31 If we look not at women's workforce participation but at whether they perform as ideal workers along with men, what emerges is a picture of the fragile hold women have on market work in a society where...

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