The Economics of the Second Sex, 1974

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“ I9

THE ECONOMICS OF THE SECOND SEX

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To reflect upon the development of onc's research interests and one's research competence usually comes as an opportunity only to those who, being awarded Nobel prizes or honorary degrees or becoming presidents of their professional associations, are asked to contemplate their careers. All such occasions must be extremely gratifying to the ego, and consequently the usefulness of the reflections may be suspect. While at first glance this conference on the-impact of the Women's movement on professional research interests may seem to afford me an equally ego~gratifying opportunity, such is not the case.

(I find myself resenting the entire thing and wishing very much that

I had not agreed to do this stint.) Rather than ruminating about

the research developments one has observed during a professional life- time, one is required to do a proper research job on oneYs own career development. Whichis a roundabout way of leading up to the necessary autobiographical statement. i .

Economics is a man's field. ‘Because my first professional employ—_ ment as an economist occurred during World War II when women were welcomed into every field, and because my graduate training took place immediately after World War II in England where women were Cabinet Ministers as well as university professors, this simple fact about my profession did not dawn on me for a good many years. But the truth is I didn't know to what extent economics is really a man's field until quite recently. Perhaps it was because I was fortuitously preserved from personal discrimination in my field, or perhaps it was just dumb innocence, but in any event, I spent a good part of my pro- fessional career being incensed at the idea that there needed to

be any particular concern for women in economics.

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At Wellesley College, which had always held economics not as a special goal, but as a perfectly ordinary goal, like physics, astronomy and higher mathematics, and French and biblical history and renaissance literature, as proper goals for women, I was busy training economists. Although I knew that women were supposed to be interested in certain fields, I was not interested in training young women to specialize in them. I was interested in training economists who would be managers or research economists, policy makers in and out of government, business executives or college professors, and anything else that a

liberally educated young person with a solid grounding in‘a highly pro~

fessional discipline like economics could become. To some extent,

therefore, I suppose I resented the idea that there could be any particu- lar concern for women in the field because I insisted that women were amfléodu/die»; people and t .were economists, rather than saying, "Look, here is an economist who is a woman." I regard myself as having always been a feminist but, if I may

borrow the word from the gay liherationists, I had for.a long time been a subversive feminist, and I only came out of the closet a few years

ago. It may be of some interest to this conference to know that I was

«propelled into being an activist by one of my former students, Peggy

Howard, whose tragic deathU one year ago has deprived not only my profession of economics, but the women's movement however defined, of

a brilliant and accomplishing person. Peggy got me involved in the Politics of organizing women within the professional association of economists; but Peggy did not involve me in any economic research

on feminist issues. Nevertheless politics, although at a national

level, did arouse such a research interest on my part.

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Beginning at about 1969 this country gradually slid into a period of lessening economic activity characterized by a decline in the rate of economic growth, a rise in the rate of unemployment, a reduction in the hours of work, an increase in the number of bankruptcies, and a general agreement on the part of most economic indicators that they country was being enveloped in recession. What was most disturbing. was that these indicators were accompanied by rising prices, and a most unseemly response, to conventional restrictive policies, of in-, flationary developments. The late 50's were the first time during recent economic history that American economists were confronted with

the twin problems of inflation and unemployment rates increasing at

the same time. This wasn't supposed to happen them, nor was it supposed

’to happen during the $9 to'7l recession. Nevertheless, it did. To

some of us (and I am old enough to not only remember an earlier period, but to have taught during this earlier period!)p the scenario was all too familiar. Oddly enough, many of the persons were the same. Richard Nixon had become President in 1968; Richard Nixon was Vice President

in 1958. Richard Nixon's Presidential Council of Economic Advisers included Paul McCracken and Arthur Byrnes; during Nixon's Vice Presidency Arthur fiyrnes and Paul Mccracken had been Eisenhower's chief economic advisors. ‘ "

During the recession/inflation of the late 1950's there was a

great controversy among economists about structural vs. aggregate un- employment. Those people who believed in the aggregate demand thesis argued that if total expenditure in the economy rose, unemployment would decline. Those people who believe that structural factors were determinant said that if total demand in the economy rose, there

would still be people who could not find jobs because they were not

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sufficiently educated, traned, or otherwise equipped to occupy a place in today's highly technical economy calling for skilled workers.

These "structuralists” called for massive retraining for programs to pinpoint employment opportunities or relocate industries, and for all kinds of micro—economic policies to place specific people in specific jobs. Opposing them, the aggregate demand diagnosticians argued that all we had to do was to increase total employment- Then everybody would sooner or later find a job, whether or not specific retraining. programs or anything else had been undertaken.

These arguments were not repeated during the recession which began in 1970. _But, as in the earlier period, some people explained un—. employment in terms of the structure of the labor force, although no one claimed that it was untrained or unskilled. But, these people pointed out, the labor force structure was at fault. The trouble with it, in the most recent period, the reason there were so many unemployed people, was that the labor force contained so many women.

For some reason, this explanation annoyed me. As an economist, and particularly as an economist who had been saying all af her life that women were people, that there was no such thing askwomén economists, there were just economists who happened to be women, I was truly "irritated with a so—called economic explanation couched in terms of the sex of the labor force. I could not make any economic heads or tails of this. So I began looking into the details of unemployment statistics, about which I knew nothing.

My research was disgracefully simple. I went to the Wellesley College library and looked for the data which support the articles and

statistics reported in the Monthly Labor Review, the official publication

of the U. 3, Dept. of Labor which of course I had been reading since I was an undergraduate. I discovered, to my great glee, that detailed. tables offer many fascinating statistical details of classifications and cross—c1assifications dealing with the labor force, employment, unemployment, those not in the labor force, those having dropped out of the labor force, and so on and so on and so on. I also discovered that the regular monthly releases of unemployment data, which came out of the Labor Department and% under President Nixon's regime out of" the White House, used a standard format. I think they probably had a press release all printed up with appropriate paragraphs so that all they had to do was plug in the numbers. Now I quickly realized that anytime you have a standard format like this, you have absolutely no incentive to plug in any new numbers. For example, the unemployment rate for married men had been used as the chief indicator of the health or ailments of the general economy for a long time. The idea was that, since men supported families, when unemployment for married men increased the country was'in real trouble. Their unemployment rate was a much more sensitive, critical indicator than the overall unemployment rate. And so it may have been, twenty years ago, but over the intervening period as more and more women entered the labor force it was no longer this critical or sensitive. First, many more families depend utterly or partially upon the earnings of women and, therefore, unemployment rates for women loomed large in economic welfare. Secondly, married men who lost their jobs had'much less incentive to find new ones, or at least to become employed quickly, because they had working wives. So for predicting the impact of economic

policy this rate of uncmployemnt was no longer a very good indicator.

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As an economist, I reailzed that the unemployment rate for married men . ‘ ‘ 7' V I

could be deceptive; people could think the economy better off than it was. Further- wore, it vould he used to justify economic policy that would be less appropriate to the real circumstances. But along with continuous quotations of the unemployment rate For married men came constant references to the increased number of working women and ingenious efforts to reinterpret the nature of unemployment because Women More inVnl\Pd. For example, the Secretary of the Treasury called it a "social change,” explaining that because women formedrsuch a high proportion of the labor force six percent unemployment was not critical, as it had been in earlier years. And the Council of Economic Advisers recalculated all the numbers, to show what unemployment would have been, if women had not gone to work in

. - I . - the previous years. As a woman, these arguments annoyed me. I have to onfess that my research interests, as an economist, were aroused by my emotional reactbn as a woman.

Anyway, I did some extremely elementary analysis, pointing out the .

number of families (including grown men and children) dependent on women's earning, and rchinding the Council of Economic Advisers that if women had not gone to work in the previous years unemployment might have been lower but so would total . p » R production and income. I made a speech in Washington, pre—p1anned to attract publicity, I wrote some articles and sent off reprintsato all kinds of public figures and managed to stimulate quite a bit of comment. I caused some people irritation and gained eonoideruble support from others. And the white House has stopped using the rate of unemployment for married men as their chief indicator in the monthly releases of data from the Labor Department.

But other results, totally uneppected to me, deal more specifically with the s‘.ubject matter of this volume. In the first pl{l(‘(‘. l :u_-quirml iu:.st.'mt fmnu as an expert on the labor force, which of course I am not at all. This showed me how tremendously powerful n veg'small piece of research revealing hitherto

unknown facts about women could be. Next, my reputation as an authority 00 VOW?“

and the labor force somchow spilled over into other exnnnmix questions, economic

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and otherwise, having to do with women. I am now called for £Qf’discussions of women and investments, the impact of'working women on marketing, sex discrimination in pensions, women in advertising, affirmative action and training programs, dual—career families, child care, and all sorts of things that would not have entered my frame of reference five years ago. finally, I am asked to participate in public and private affairs more frequently that I can cope with making statements, giving speeches, serving on boards, attending conferences, and the like. But

this area covers wider economic interests than women: I am evidently how

. Q I regarded not only as one expert in the economics of women (dubious) but as

an economist, clearly female. What has all this done to me, as a responsible

_economist as far as my own research is concerned? It has made me at once both

more cynical and more cautious.

More cynical, because by serving on committees and attending con- ferences and giving advice I have entered the "establishment”in a way and have learned more about the male-dominated aspects of my professional field. I have discovered that a number of male economists either aren't very bright‘

or are extremely sloppy. I do not think it appropriate to say that some are both not very bright and sloppy, but you may have your ideas on this. I am continually surprised at the people who ask me, Where did you find this out? What sort of reseaich have you done? How do you know this? What sources do you have that we can use? I have been embarassed to say that all I did~was to read existing data, that publications available have shown me what the facts are and, in some cases, to say her%is the - r

page number, there is the footnote number, and look it up for yourself.

I am amazed and, to some considerable extent, I am appalled .bt the highly sophisticated research in my field, with complex model building

and very elegant theories for which there simply are no appropriate data I )

for testing. I object to predicting the labor force participation rate

of women by a regression analysis using variables that'depend on what

<19 data already exist: marital status, number of children, age of children,

         

  

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_T8_ education and income of husband, age at first child, and so on. The method seems inadequate because each of these variablesxrefers to a_woman's role as wife and mother, which, if what you're trying to explore is her role as employee, may

not be totally explanatory. Nobody predicts the labor force participation of

men in terms of their roles as husbands and fathers. I suspect that such I analysts, because they insist on using whatever data are available, fail to

ask the right questions. Not that I know what the right questions are - far from it.

But I have begun asking new questions. I have started to look at things which economists have taken for granted - like the unemployment rate —from'the point of View of women. For example, I have been revieweing the distribution of ‘income with special reference to women and have concluded that women's position as family members has almost entirely obscured the economic stance of women in the economy, or as contributors of labor services. I have specialized for many years in the fields of household consumption.patterns, with special reference to marketing, and of income and saving. I am one of the few economists who . think businessmen respectable; in fact I believe that economists interested in consumer choice might well benefit from business interests in marketing research and vice versa. It follows that I have long been aware of the impact of working women on income and consumption patterns. For example, at one point I tried to interest insurance companies and some large retail chains to give some thought about how to market their products to working wives. Nothing came of.this probably because I didn't sdJ_hard enough; I suppose I'm not a profit maximiser for myself. But now I can use this knowledge frequently in“ my newfound situation as an expert.

The other impact on my own research has been to make me more cautious. I am conscious of a responsibility not only to my own profession but to women in general to be extremely careful about what I say. For'one thing, I can no longer afford the gesture of exaggeration to make a point. I have not yet learned this totally —,jL's very hard for me to take mynelf this seriously - but I am»

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$7‘ . coming to realize that other people do pay attention to what I say, repeat it, " and cite me as an authority. I have learned this the hard way through being miS' {H quoted, and I have not yet learned how to handle the repercussions ffbm this. It's been extremely painful; I have had letters, for example, saying something ‘like-"Dear Profonsor hell please don't knock those of us on welfare. I have worked hard all my life and I am poor and I need this. Why do you say I shouldn't *. get it? You professors are very cruel." It's painful to receive such letters, quoting things I have never said, referring to articles written without my E I knowledge which misuse my statements. Ifican write tomtka my correspondeno, and of course I do, and I can complain to the periodicals that have offended, but it is troubling to think of the corrections I cannot make because I have not found out that they should be made. And it does mean and that I am very careful of what I say because I know that I will be quoted; Of course I feel a responsibility to my own profession, as well, to be cautious.

which brings me to my last observation as a professional: I still hang

~ -59- f on to the notion that some economists happen to be women, na:hnmathan¢thaea&.2L——

¥mmnen—eeoaomistsr within the American Economic Association, where I havegfihaired _/

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an extremely competent and activist operating committee for the past two years, I want

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to be known as an economist rather than as a woman. I don't know

how many other professional women would have the same feeling, but

 

I suspect many of them do. I hope they can articulate, better than / < I, this extraordinarily schizophrenic feeling that I have. Onfl the one hand, much as I hate the term, role model, I am pleased to demon-

strate to young women that it‘s a fine thing to be a women economist.

On the other hand, I would please like to be an economist who happens

to be a woman.