This house believes that a woman's place is at work—rebuttal
Christina Hoff Sommers gives a rebuttal to Linda Basch's opening remarks for the ongoing online debate in The Economist

Article Highlights

  • The women’s movement was about freedom and equality. It was not about imposing a single life-model on all women

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  • We should all be pro-choice when it comes to determining a woman’s place

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  • Women are diverse and have different preferences about balancing work and family

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Linda Basch rightly celebrates the advance of women in the American workplace. She is certainly correct that the entry of so many women into the labour force has been good for the economy, good for society and good for women themselves (I would add that it has been good for men as well). But she is wrong when she implies that full-time mothers have made an unworthy choice. Women “belong” in the workplace, she says, “so that they can live to their full potential as productive and self-reliant individuals”. Shouldn’t it be up to individual women how they choose to realise their potential? Isn’t there more than one way to live a worthy life?

"We should all be pro-choice when it comes to determining a woman’s place." --Christina Hoff SommersThe women’s movement was about freedom and equality. It was not about imposing a single life-model on all women. Women are diverse and have different preferences about balancing work and family. Ms Basch’s insistence that women must be in the workplace is just as bad as the old diktat that “women belong in the home”. It is unfortunate that women’s advocates have talked themselves into opposing this natural and wholesome diversity.

It would be even more unfortunate if feminism came to stand for maximising gross domestic product. Our national economic accounts serve many useful purposes, but there is much, including many good things, that they miss. Let us concede Ms Basch’s statistics showing that increased women’s labour-force participation increases GDP by 3–4%. What does that really mean? If all women stayed home and cared for their homes and children and husbands, their work—which economists call “home production”—would not be counted (for the most part) in GDP. Now let all of them take a job and spend part of their income on hiring others to care for home and children—so that the workplace and home earnings enter the national accounts. Voilà, GDP has increased.

Measurement sleights-of-hand aside, our goal should not be to increase GDP; our goal should be to live fulfilling and productive lives. For some, that will include paid work; for others, caring for children; for still others, charitable work. Yes, many women have to work full-time. But polls and surveys show that many women, especially those with young children, would prefer another arrangement. Shouldn’t we have a women’s lobby dedicated to helping women achieve what they want, rather than what it believes they should want?

Consider what is going on in the Netherlands. Dutch women are arguably the freest, best-educated and happiest people in the world. In studies of life satisfaction and well-being, Dutch women (and men too) consistently score at the top. But more than 70% of Dutch working women work part time—and when asked if they would like to work more, the vast majority say no. Is it because they are held back by inadequate child-care policies? No, even childless women and those with grown children abjure full-time employment. “It has to do with personal freedom,” says Ellen de Bruin, a Dutch psychologist and the author of “Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed”. “What is important,” she says, is that “women in the Netherlands are free to choose what they want to do.”

But the Netherlands would get failing grades for workplace equity in the World Bank or UN reports cited by Ms Basch. (A UN equity committee recently censured the Netherlands for the “low number of women who are economically independent”.) A 2010 Slate article is less censorious: “Women in the Netherlands work less, have lesser titles, and a big gender gap, and they love it.” The author concludes by advising her American sisters, “Maybe we should relax and go Dutch.”

That may not be the answer for all women, but it has to be a respected option. Those who chose it do not deserve a scolding. I suspect that the Netherlands is leading the way to the next great wave of feminism. Call it Freedom Feminism, Happiness Feminism, Feminism 4.0.

Finally, a weary word about the wage gap. The “gender pay gap” must be the most durable false statistic in American policy debate. No doubt some employers will still try to pay Jill 78 cents and Jack $1 for the same job—but it is against the law, and if Jill sues she will receive her 22 cents and then some. The claim that American women as a group face systemic wage discrimination is groundless. The 78 cents figure is just the ratio of current earnings of all full-time male and female workers. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. When these are taken into consideration the gap narrows considerably—in some studies, to the point of vanishing or reversing. Wage-gap activists say, no, even when we control for relevant variables, women still earn less. But it always turns out that they have omitted one or two crucial variables. Why play this game?

I urge readers to vote against this reactionary resolution. It is based on statistical legerdemain and the outdated notion that women must be replicants of men. We should all be pro-choice when it comes to determining a woman’s place.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.

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