The Rise of Women?

Recent claims from both the right and the left that women are surpassing men in American society have been drawing a lot of attention. (Including the upcoming symposium at Boston University Law School centered on Hannah Rosin’s book, The End of Men, described by Danielle Citron in Concurring Opinions here.) Historian Stephanie Coontz does a good job of answering these claims in her op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times. As she points out, much of what we’re seeing is the rolling back of the, as Coontz puts it,  “patriarchal dividend — a lifelong affirmative-action program for men” that had long been in place in this country. This dividend was the result of women’s exclusion from many of the most desirable jobs and other paths to societal rewards.

In Coontz’s words, “The curtailments of such male entitlements and the expansion of women’s legal and economic rights have transformed American life, but they have hardly produced a matriarchy.” Coontz then goes on to show the areas in which women have made progress, as well as the areas in which their progress has stalled during the past 15 years.

One important point about this issue that Coontz doesn’t make is that the concept of equality is by definition relative: all it does is compare two groups. As I used to tell undergraduates in my feminist political theory class, comparing the equality of women and men therefore tells us only a limited amount about the desirablility of a particular state of being: women and men could be equal because they’re all dead, a state of affairs that is hardly optimal. To get a real handle on current claims of the rise of women, we need to consider more than their relative equality: we need to consider substantive measures as well.

From this broader vantage point, claims like Rosin’s that women have pulled decisively ahead of men don’t give women much to crow about. To the extent that Rosin’s assertion of women’s rise relative to men is accurate, much of it results from men’s loss of many of the markers of stability, income, and wealth that they had possessed in previous eras, rather than women’s attaining these same markers.


Take the widely touted fact, published in the New York Times in February 2010 that, for the first time, women outnumbered men in the U.S. workforce. (That outnumbering was temporary. During the following year, women’s participation slid down to 47%.) It was also widely reported that mothers had become the primary breadwinners in 4 of 10 American families.

Yet women were overtaking men in job numbers and catching up on breadwinning rates not because they were making so many gains; in fact, both men and women were losing jobs in the recession. Men were, however, losing jobs faster than women: the same proportion of women were working as in the past, but somewhere between 78% and 82% of job losses befell men during this time period. Thus, in Feb. 2010, at the time women overtook men in the workforce, men had lost 7.4 million jobs, whereas women had lost only 3.9 million jobs.

In other words, both sexes were worse off after the downturn, it’s just that women were less worse off than men. It’s hard to be thrilled about women’s comparative gains given this fact.

To make matters even worse, the jobs that men lost during the recession tended to be better than the ones that women held onto. Women who are employed make 77% of what those male workers earn who are still lucky enough to have a job. And the jobs that men lost during the recession were more often good union jobs with benefits. So in absolute terms, families were doing worse as a result of the recession, even though women were doing better relative to men than at the start of the recession. (As Rosin notes, men have now partially caught up to women on these measures: as of June 2012, men had regained 46.2% of jobs lost in the recession, compared to women regaining 38.7% of lost jobs.)

Indeed, many women have moved into the workforce during these last decades because of the decreasing wages earned by their male partners. Men in the bottom two quintiles of income have seen their wages stagnate since the late 1970s. They have also seen their benefits cut and their job security decimated in these decades. The rising real income of families in the bottom two quintiles of income has occurred solely because women have entered the labor force since that era. But this means that these families are pressed for time for themselves and their children in order to sustain their standard of living. And it means they are living with fewer benefits and less security than they had in the past.

It may be then that the real story here isn’t the rise of American women. It’s the fall of the American middle class.

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