Committee Of Correspondence

Women in America

Barbara Bergmann
7:58 a.m.  Friday  11/15/96 

       A “Woman’s Agenda,” in my view, would have the following items:
       1. There should be public identification of employers in whose establishments sex and/or race segregation by job title is extreme. Those with highly segregated work forces should be required to engage in affirmative action.
       2. The Labor Department should issue guidelines on pay equity for major occupations, based on the type of job evaluations already used in the public and private sectors. For example, such guidelines might suggest a pay ratio for clerical staff as compared to truck drivers.
       3. We should try again to establish a national health insurance system. If an incremental approach is necessary, all children and their parents should be brought under coverage next.
       4. A major child-care program should be launched, based on vouchers, with full support for children in the bottom income quintile and a sliding scale for the next two quintiles.
       5. Child-support determination and enforcement should be taken out of the court system, and run by the IRS. Amount owed should be based on current income of the absent parent. Child-support assurance–a government guarantee of at least a minimum payment–should be instituted.
       Comment: Items 3-5 would drastically reduce poverty among women and children, would motivate those now on welfare to take jobs, and would constitute a “welfare reform” worthy of the name.
       Final note on Herb Stein’s comments: The tax-paying public, including non-parents, are already supporting public education to the tune of $370 billion a year and nobody grumbles about the extra cost of providing them to families with many children, or providing them to children born out of wedlock. Extending support to child care and health care could be done without raising the tax burden if lower-priority spending were cut. Just as public schools produce economic and political and social benefits for everybody, so reducing poverty among women and children at an additional cost of $80 billion would give us lower crime, greater productivity, less resentment, and less misery, which would benefit us all. The need for big government still lives; we simply don’t have leaders who are willing to make the public understand that. Katha Pollitt
9:25 a.m.  Friday  11/15/96 

       I must say I’ve found this forum a somewhat frustrating experience. Why on earth did we devote so much time to the preposterous notion that reducing taxes on husbands would cause moms to stay home where they supposedly want to be–although so far the only women who’ve called for it are hard right-wingers like O’Beirne and Chavez? (I wonder how many weapons systems they’d be willing to forgo to pay for this tax cut, by the way). For me the chief lesson of the week is that conservative pundits love pie-in-the-sky at least as much as liberal ones. The electorate had an opportunity to vote itself a 15 percent tax cut on election day, after all, and quite properly declined to bite. In his Thursday comment, Herb Stein says we all agree that women don’t work because of “economic necessity.” If he means wives work for pin money, I don’t accept that at all. Women’s earnings are what has prevented working-class and middle-class families from losing ground as male wages stagnate. “Economic necessity” is a rather flexible concept that can mean anything from good-clothing-shelter basics to saving for college tuition and retirement. There are plenty of couples that could get by without the husband’s income–but no one would suggest he’s just working for fun.
       In her Thursday posting, Linda Chavez raised the issue of class. Maybe the exhausted practical nurses and sales ladies she grew up with would indeed have preferred to be suburban matrons. (This still leaves us with the interesting question of why suburban matrons don’t want to be suburban matrons–surely it can’t simply be brainwashing by man-hating feminists?) But you know, the world needs PNs and sales ladies just as much as it needs pundits and think-tankers–more!
       The way to improve those women’s lives cannot be to find them all rich husbands, but to raise pay and improve working conditions and opportunities for advancement and self-expression. Again, no one would suggest that what working class men really need is to marry doctors and lawyers.
       Well, to end on a positive note: At least no one suggested bringing back compulsory virginity, the vaginal orgasm, and the girdle. Betty Friedan
1:01 p.m.  Friday  11/15/96 

       I don’t want to see this discussion deny the increasing equality of women and men. If we accept an obsolete definition of masculinity that is based on knocking the other guy down, and measures men only in terms of dominance over women or of white men over all other men, then men are in trouble. But men are changing too. And men are acquiring more strength that comes from tenderness and flexibility and not from machismo, bluff, and bravado.
       Both men and women are facing economic problems today. Forty percent of the wealth of this nation is now in the hands of 2 percent of the people. While the top 20 percent of people in this country are doing OK, 80 percent of people have incomes that are stagnant or declining. The great majority of women now work outside the home from a combination of economic necessity and opportunity, as well as the need to participate in the larger work of society. The income of women has been increasing to the point where younger women are earning about 80 cents on the man’s dollar because jobs, education, and training are open to them that weren’t open before. They’re certainly doing better than their mothers did.
       But women now are facing a certain economic pinch. Two thirds of women that now work outside the home are carrying the bulk of the income-earning burden. The idea that children should only be the concern of the mother or should not be the concern of society really bothers me. It is a fact, however, that women, more than men, still put a priority on care of children, not only accepting a major responsibility for raising children themselves, but also understanding that society and government must give a priority for children, old people, and the sick. And they don’t just prioritize so-called women’s issues like parental leave. Women’s issues are every item of foreign policy and domestic policy–women are going to begin to use their power to demand that. Those who want their support and their vote will have to understand that. Linda Chavez
2:29 p.m.  Friday  11/15/96 

       Women’s lives have improved dramatically in the last 100 years. They live longer, are healthier, better-educated, and better off financially. More opportunities are open to them and more choices are available about how they will lead their lives. But with women’s growing independence has come greater responsibility and obligation, including, far too often, sole responsibility for the security and welfare of children.
       Some of the panelists have proposed elaborate social engineering and government assistance to solve this problem, but I doubt their proposals would work even if there were political and popular support to enact all of them, which there isn’t. I don’t think the solution can be found either in government or in “society,” which Herb Stein rightly suggests is a pretty amorphous entity anyway.
       I view the decline in stable marriages and the increase in illegitimacy with alarm; these phenomena are bad for women and children, and they’re also bad for men, who live less long, are more violent, and less productive when they live apart from women. But I am not convinced that what the United States (and the West, in general) is experiencing in these disturbing trends is necessarily an irreversible change in basic social structure. Men and women need each other, and certainly their children need both their fathers and mothers to help them grow to be happy, healthy, self-reliant adults. I believe men and women are capable of rediscovering these basic principles as they see how poorly everyone fares under alternative social organizations. It may take time and involve suffering for many–but it will happen.
       In the meantime government should at least do no more harm than it already has by fostering policies that increase government dependence and decrease men and women’s individual, mutual, and voluntary dependence on each other. The best way to get fathers to be financially responsible for their children is not to use the Internal Revenue Service to track down deadbeat dads, but to encourage fathers to marry the mothers of their babies and to stay married, at least until their children are grown. So long as women can count on Uncle Sam for a welfare check, or count on government to track down their child support payments, they will have far less incentive to marry in the first place if they become pregnant, or to stay married, either. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that women should stay with abusive partners, but domestic abuse is actually less likely to occur in marriage than in non-marital relationships, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.)
       Enacting government policies–including tax policies–that favor marriage and families is ultimately in everyone’s interest, even those persons who are single and childless, because it produces safer, more stable, and more productive communities. Herb Stein
2:43 p.m.  Friday  11/15/96 

       I am sure that we have not found “the answer” but I believe that we have come closer, although still not all the way, to discovering what the questions are. What struck me most is the way that the “women’s” question fused into the “children’s” question. I was not surprised that there was a connection, because of the unique relation of women to children, but I was surprised by the extent to which children dominated the discussion, overshadowing all other aspects of the subject. The children’s question, of course raises tough and touchy issues, including the division of responsibility for the rearing of children–not the division between mother and father, but the division between the parents and the state.
       There are many aspects of this subject that we have not even touched. For example, what is going to be the effect of the Internet, which seems to be predominantly a domain of men? Is that going to create or widen a gulf between the sexes?
       I cannot respond now to Friedan’s frequent references to the poor economic condition of the majority of the American people, although I am sure that she is wrong. I expect this subject will come up in our next panel starting Nov. 25, the week of Thanksgiving Day, when we will be “Counting our Blessings.”
       For myself, for S
LATE, and for our readers, I thank our panelists most sincerely for the vigorous and thoughtful discussion they have provided. They have given us much to ponder.