Betsy Reed | The Nation

Betsy Reed

Betsy Reed

Digesting the news about women and men, policy and politics.

The Gender-Bending Recession

Are men opting in--at home? Maybe, but mostly because they have little choice, and they're not altogether happy about it. That was the gist of a story the other day in the New York Times--based, it appears, on a somewhat sturdier foundation than the paper's claim a few years ago that upper middle-class women had embarked on an "Opt Out Revolution," fleeing the rigors of the corporate boardroom for the joys of the kids' playroom.

As noted in my previous post on gender and unemployment, the current recession is hitting men hard--they've lost four out of every five jobs in the downturn. Studies from past recessions have found that laid-off men are not nearly as likely as women to spend their newfound free time with their children, and in fact, they often end up spending even less time with the kids than they did while they were employed. It's quite possible that, overall, this pattern still holds. The Mr. Moms of Westchester County may be a fascinating subculture but a statistical anomaly. We don't yet know.

But there are some signs that the dynamics may have shifted. In addition to the grim stats about lost jobs, each month brings new numbers that show how many people are dropping out of the labor force completely. And what's interesting is that, unlike in past recessions, when laid-off women were much more likely than men to stop looking for work and turn to caregiving and other pursuits, men and women have been quitting the labor force in roughly equal numbers. As this Forbes.com column notes, "the increase in the number of women dropping out from December 2007 to March 2009 was 38%. The increase in the number of men dropping out was 90%." That's pretty striking. Over at Slate last month, Emily Bazelon collected some tantalizing anecdotes suggesting that this time round, jobless men (or at least a "significant minority" of them) are pitching in at home.

The point is not that the "he-cession" is going to usher in a long-awaited feminist domestic revolution by decimating the ranks of employed men. Indeed, the "shame" and "pain" expressed by the newly-minted stay-home Dads suggest that we have a long way to go. But there is the hope that, when better times return, the habits and bonds forged during this gender-bending recession will endure.


GOP to New Orleans: Liberals Did It

One of the more deeply twisted--and, one would have hoped, now thoroughly discredited--right-wing storylines of the Bush era is currently enjoying a comeback: all that chaos and suffering after Hurricane Katrina, all those people stranded on rooftops, left to die in jail cells and swelter in the Superdome, that was big government's fault! Writes the Washington Legal Foundation's Daniel J. Popeo in the Washington Examiner, "From the Hurricane Katrina response, to ongoing dysfunction in providing adequate medical care to veterans, to keeping out illegal aliens, the federal government has done little to inspire public confidence."

The Katrina disaster, in this telling, had nothing to do with Bush's decision to gut FEMA and hand the reins to the incompetent former International Arabian Horse official Michael Brown; instead the problem was that the citizens of New Orleans were foolish enough to expect the federal department of emergency management, to, well, manage an emergency.

Notoriously, Bill O'Reilly made just this point while the city was still under water: "If you rely on government for anything, anything, you're going to be disappointed," he said, noting, moreover, that the lesson of Katrina that should be taught in school is, "If you don't get educated, if you don't develop a skill, and force yourself to work hard, you're most likely be poor. And sooner or later, you'll be standing on a symbolic rooftop waiting for help."

Since the desperate plight of post-Katrina New Orleans was the doing of big-government liberals, it naturally follows that, under Obama, we have more Katrinas in store. This breathtaking logic is on vivid display in a creepy email blast distributed by Townhall.com from Independent Living publisher Lee Bellinger (cited in Tapped): "Think about the widespread collapse of order and emergency services in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina--except on a national level. The implementation of gun-confiscation laws, looters and thugs terrorizing the elderly with impunity, besieged hospitals without power, doctors and medicine. People forcibly herded into ‘containment zones' and denied access to food, water, and medical attention." Think about it, indeed.

(Recall that, before this, the last person to try to use Katrina's legacy as a Republican talking point was Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal in his response to Obama's state of the union address, in which he praised Sheriff Harry Lee for defying government bureaucrats who were allegedly preventing volunteers with boats from rescuing people on rooftops. The story turned out to be, at best, colorfully embellished.)

Conservatives are reaching desperately here into a tattered bag of tricks, claiming that the very government services that they have systematically starved are ineffective and thus unworthy of funding. At a moment when economically anxious Americans are looking favorably on government, this tack seems likely to be self-marginalizing. On the paranoid, shrinking Republican base, though, it's sure to be a hit.

Unemployment: A New Boys Club?

The LA Times is calling it the "he-cession." The stark facts show that the economic crisis is hitting men particularly hard: The official male unemployment rate just spiked to 8.8 percent, while the figure for women is on a slower rise, now at 7 percent. So we can add to the old-fashioned gender gap in wages (favoring men, who make one dollar to a woman's 80 cents for the same job), a new gender gap in unemployment, favoring women.

With women working more, there has been a role reversal of sorts, but it's hardly the kind feminists envisioned. As men lose their jobs, households are depending increasingly on the relatively meager wages of women to stay afloat. And the newly unemployed men aren't spending their freed-up time packing lunches and schlepping the kids to soccer games. According to an analysis of time use data by economists Alan B. Krueger and Andreas Mueller, they're more likely to devote those hours to looking for new jobs--and sleeping more, and watching more TV.

The picture of domestic life that emerges is not the gendered suburban dystopia of Revolutionary Road. But vestiges of that old order persist, mixing in new and potentially combustible ways with the legacy of feminism (the increased participation of women in the labor force), its unfinished business (their lower wages, and the lack of social supports for working motherhood), and the vagaries of this particular downturn, which has been especially merciless in male-dominated sectors like construction and manufacturing.

To put it another way, the "second shift" that sociologist Arlie Hochschild described in her classic book of that name is alive and well--even as it's increasingly women alone who are working the first shift.

These complex dynamics were the subject of lively discussion at the symposium "Achieving Equity for Women" last week in Washington, organized by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. A few months ago, feminists were writing skeptical op-eds about President Obama's "macho stimulus package," which emphasized "shovel-ready" projects that would boost employment in traditionally male occupations over investment in childcare, education and health, where women are more likely to be employed.

Now that we know men have lost four out of every five jobs in this recession, the conversation among feminists is focusing on how the jobs women have hung onto weren't so great in the first place. For example, while childcare workers in many states make just minimum wage ($7.21 in Florida), construction workers, when they can get work, routinely earn upwards of $30 an hour. And childcare, meanwhile, continues to be woefully underfunded, with the stimulus package alotting just $2 billion to support care for low-income kids. To build a truly decent universal system--making life sane for all working parents--the price tag would be more like $100-$200 billion.

With women poised to eclipse men the labor force--they're at 49.1 percent and counting--it's nice to have proof that the much-celebrated "Opt-Out Revolution" was the smoke and mirrors working mothers always knew it was. But there's no reason to cheer this milestone if it mainly reflects the obliteration of jobs for men. Likewise, the narrowing of the gender gap in wages (which has been cut in half in the past 25 years) has been in part an illusory victory, since it has reflected not just the advancement of upper-income women, but the fact that the real wages of low-skilled men were eroding.

In other words, if men take two steps back, and women one, we all wind up behind.

Shamelessly Exploiting Natasha Richardson

Now this is truly sick. "Canadacare May Have Killed Natasha" says the New York Post, trumpeting an article written by Cory Franklin, first published by the Chicago Tribune (and given splashy play by the Daily Beast). Just as we are gearing up to begin debate in this country over a much-needed public healthcare plan comes a story perfectly calculated to arouse the fears of Americans that "socialized medicine" would endanger their health. Leaving aside for a minute the baselessness of those fears--and the bad taste involved in this nakedly political exploitation of an admired (and progressive) actress's tragic death--there's one little problem with Franklin's theory. It's wrong.

Richardson, Franklin writes, "required an immediate CT scan for diagnosis" after the head injury she sustained in a skiing accident. But, he claims, the hospital in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, where she was treated, was not a "facility capable of treatment." Franklin notes that, while "it hasn't been reported whether the hospital has a CT scanner, …CT scanners are less common in Canada." And he goes on to say that people who criticize the private US system for having too many specialized services like CT scanners are ignoring that "it is better to have resources and not need them than to need resources and not have them."

So Franklin's argument is based on the assumption that the hospital in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts lacked the equipment it would have needed to diagnose Richardson, all because of the decrepit state of government-run medicine.

Franklin, it turns out, is either guilty of deception or shockingly shoddy journalism, or some combination of both. A phone call from The Nation to the Centre Hospitalier Laurentien in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts elicited some interesting information. The hospital has a CT scanner. Its director of communications would not, out of understandable deference to the family's wishes to protect her medical privacy, divulge whether or not Richardson received a scan. But there's no reason to believe that she did not.

Of course it is possible to miss the proverbial forest for the trees here. The larger point is that, even if the facility had lacked adequate resources, that would not have been the fault of Canada's socialized medicine. Indeed, its national health system has been under assault from its own homegrown neoliberals, especially in Quebec, called "ground zero for healthcare privatization" in a recent report. The proliferation of private clinics has created a two-tiered system that effectively undermines the public system, draining resources and rendering it less functional and less popular. This gambit--eviscerating government services to the point that people lose faith in government, which in turn reinforces the key tenets of conservative ideology--is sadly familiar, a US export Canadians would have been better off without. Let's hope that in the coming healthcare debate, we'll heed the lessons Canada's experience has to offer--grounded in fact, not right-wing fantasy.

A 'Clean' CEDAW

In the coming months, the Obama Administration and the Senate will have the chance to right a major wrong of the Bush era: the US government's refusal--along with such beacons of women's liberation as Sudan, Iran, Qatar and Somalia--to ratify CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the General Assembly in 1979.

What does CEDAW promise? Guaranteed maternity benefits. The right to equal pay. (And no, Lily Ledbetter didn't give us that. The right to sue after you've been discriminated against for years is not the same as the right to be free from discrimination.) A commitment, at the broadest level, to eliminate acts of discrimination against women--i.e., to prohibit them, and to punish them when they do occur.

It's good stuff. One of the best things about the treaty is that it requires governments periodically to review and evaluate their policies and programs relating to women's equality, provoking what Human Rights Watch's Marianne Mollmann calls "a democratic dialogue" about women's rights, which has already occurred in some of the 184 signatory nations, including Peru.

Another admirable aspect of CEDAW is its stipulation that, when traditional cultural or religious practices collide with women's rights, the state is obliged to intervene on the side of women.

This dimension, quite naturally, drives religious conservatives nuts. In some countries they've found a way around it: Saudi Arabia signed the treaty but attached conditions stating that it could only be implemented in a fashion consistent with Sharia law. Needless to say, that isn't exactly what the framers had in mind.

Here in the USA, the Obama administration, which has been very pro-CEDAW, lost no time in dispatching the treaty to the DoJ , which will decide whether to attach conditions--called "reservations, understandings and declarations" (RUDs)--before it goes to the Senate (where it needs 67 votes for approval). Last time round, in 2002, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee--largely at the behest of now-departed Senator Jesse Helms--sandbagged CEDAW with nearly a dozen RUDs, which in the view of some feminists essentially gutted it (and it didn't pass anyway).

One of the most egregious addressed abortion. It read: "Nothing in this convention shall be construed to reflect or create any right to abortion and in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning." As Janet Benshoof, president of the Global Justice Center, recently noted, this language was "…drafted to be used as an antiabortion tool. Under U.S. law nearly all abortions, including those needed by women due to serious health problems or fetal abnormalities incompatible with life, are defined as abortions as a ‘method of family planning.'"

Moreover, as Benshoof points out, the inclusion of this provision would undermine women's access to reproductive health services around the world. Already, CEDAW has been cited in court rulings striking down laws criminalizing abortion in signatory nations, such as Colombia. An endorsement of this qualification by the US it would weaken the legal position of women's advocates in these cases, giving aid and comfort to abortion rights opponents everywhere.

Will the Obama administration, and Senate Democrats, bow to pressure from antiabortion Republicans and include such conditions in this year's version, in a bid to ensure passage? Or will they push for a "clean CEDAW," as many feminists are urging? Senator Barbara Boxer, who heads the relevant Foreign Relations subcommittee, has pledged to begin hearings with a clean version of the treaty, but pressure will quickly mount to muck it up.

This past December, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, King Mohammed VI of Morocco lifted the "reservations" that his country had imposed on the implementation of CEDAW, and embraced an unqualified version. Wouldn't it be a fitting tribute to the late Senator Helms if the United States did the same?

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