Bryan Caplan  

The Prevalence of the Populist Critique of Working Women

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The noble Michael Clemens is taking the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to double world GDP to the masses.  But one passage made me furrow my brow:
All the economic and social arguments against immigrant entry to the workforce could be - and were - deployed decades ago against female entry to the workforce. ("But men built those companies! Why should we allow women to work when there are qualified, unemployed men? Why should a man pay taxes for a woman's unemployment insurance? Will female employees assimilate and act just like men as we all wish? And what harm will be wrought in the homes they abandon?")

Now these arguments sound worse than ridiculous.
My question: When, if ever, was this litany of arguments against working women common in public discourse?  I grew up in the Seventies and Eighties.  The only objection to working mothers (not working women) I remember hearing was "Think of the children."  And even that wasn't common.  I distinctly remember hearing it once in a church sermon, and once on a talking heads show.  That's about it.

Still, I'm happy to defer to the older and wiser.  Does my memory of my early years fail me?  Was I just not paying attention?  Or can we make Clemens right by interpreting "decades ago" to refer to, say, the Thirties?  Inquiring minds want to know.



COMMENTS (11 to date)
John Thacker writes:

I'm pretty sure that, to the contrary of his piece, the worry wasn't that women wouldn't "assimilate and act just like men as we all wish" but that they would assimilate too much.

There were social science arguments that women couldn't handle rigorous work (used by Louis Brandeis to defend Progressive laws restricting women from working), but I don't think that the arguments he's claiming actually existed.

It wouldn't make sense, since most women were expected to marry, and generally income earned by women would stay within the family; the idea of it being unfair to men rarely came up.

One exception-- I'm sure that the argument about there being out of work men who should work before women came up-- I'd actually expect to see that argument at the end of WWII, with demobilization approaching. ("Alright, women, thanks for the help in the factories, now go home")

Steve Cunningham writes:

Funnily enough, if you read the comments to the article, those arguments appear a number of times.

J Storrs Hall writes:

I grew up in the 50s and 60s and I heard those arguments and ones like them fairly often.

mark writes:

"And what harm will be wrought in the homes they abandon?" This seems like a valid question and not a ridiculous argument. I can't imagine not asking that question in a time of historic change.
"Will female employees assimilate and act just like men as we all wish?" I think the answer is no, women can get jobs and be held to different physical standards then men so apparently the standards are meaningless. Why the standards exist, I do not know.

Matt R. writes:

I believe Claudia Goldin's work discusses "marriage bars" where school districts commonly let female teachers go after the teacher got married. I'm not sure if the motivations were the ones mentioned in the post.

David W writes:

I can't comment on the others, but I know this question occurred:

Why should we allow women to work when there are qualified, unemployed men?

My mother had to pay for her own college education because her father, my grandfather, sincerely believed she would be stealing a job from a man who needed it to support his family. He was happy to pay tuition for her brothers who wanted school, so it wasn't just financial constraints.

In practice, of course, it was more complicated than that, because her mom disagreed and provided covert support, and also some of the money came from scholarships. And by the time she graduated, he'd come to accept her decision. But she was strongly tempted to ask him not to attend the graduation ceremony out of resentment, only giving in because it would hurt my grandmother too much to ask.

Arthur_500 writes:

Indeed there was a real effort after WWII to get women to return to the home as housewives so there would be jobs for men. However, women have worked, and continue to work, all throughout the 20th century. There has been discrimination and there have been barriers to entry to certain jobs but women have and continue to be an important part of our workplace.

Any woman entering the workplace needs to prove herself just as any man does. Women often get special treatment and often incompetence is accepted where a man would be terminated.

HOWEVER, there is nothing that makes any woman good at being a mother or a housewife just because she is a woman. Our society has failed itself as many women are housewives when in fact they are simply lazy useless individuals living off their family. Many of these women could be productive members of society if they didn't have the excuse of being a housewife.

It should be the goal of any society to utilize the contributions of all its citizens to maximze the 'economy' of society.

kharris writes:

Have to agree with the commenters who agree with Clemens. I recall hearing just the sort of arguments he cites, absent the one about men "building" companies. My father built a number of small businesses, but nobody I knew thought in such lofty terms. Back then, starting and running a small business was "working", not "building". That lofty stuff was reserved for people with expensive suits. Same father was a primary sponsor (Republican sponsor, by the way) of the ERA in the Indiana Legislature. I was around for a pile of arguments against women getting equal treatment, including arguments just like the ones Clemens mentions against workplace equality.

Gotta say, it does you little credit to scoff at Clemens ("litany", "the Thirties") based on no more than your own limited knowledge. I suppose if you had evidence, you wouldn't need to scoff.

Devil's Advocate writes:

John Thacker is correct in stating that the Progressive arguments against having women in the workplace (particularly in the pre-New Deal era) were based in social science, and were often couched in condescending terms of protecting the "weaker" or "more delicate" women seeking to work - such work being deemed to be harmful to their health and morals. These things were explicitly stated in legal opinions and in the infamous "Brandeis Brief." Because legislation could be couched in terms of protecting women, they never had to address the fact that the real goal was protectionist in nature.

The fig leaf of protecting the "weaker" sex is not available when the primary difference between the workers in question is their country of origin. Robbed of the argument of protecting the most vulnerable, the argument now turns more explicitly on what was the actual purpose all along - economic protectionism. Especially in the current economic environment, some people seem to feel that xenophobia is more acceptable than sexism.

Also, the size and scope of the social safety nets in developed nations further affects the calculation. Even Ron Paul has been a little more circumspect with regards to immigration because of the perception among many members of the public (whether accurate or not) that immigrants will burden our social services and drive up entitlement costs. Until there are reforms in those areas, there will continue to be pushback against more open immigration.

Evan writes:
Or can we make Clemens right by interpreting "decades ago" to refer to, say, the Thirties? Inquiring minds want to know.
I seem to recall coming across such arguments when reading about women working at around the Turn of the Century. So yeah, the best way to make Clemens right is to interpret "decades ago" loosely.
ezra abrams writes:

I bet if you look at what Gen Colin Powell said, arguing against gays in the military, it would look like plaigarism of what people said against letting blacks serve in teh military, and that probably is plaigarism of what people said against letting ordinary people have the vote...

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