The Thinking 

Women and Work

May 7, 2009


It is an axiom of modern life that women must work. The days of single-income families are irretrievably gone. This statement is repeated so often that very few question its validity. More importantly, very few ask why this is so. Why must women work? What has changed? 

There have been significant changes to the American economy in the past 50 years and they have indeed affected the livelihood of the average family. Let’s look briefly at these changes and, as we do, let us ask ourselves, Are they irretrievable? Is there no going back?

    Globalization. America has opened its markets up to the world in ways that would have been  inconceivable to those who fought for its sovereignty. Under the heady influence of free trade orthodoxy, America has lost millions of jobs. 

    Immigration. America has welcomed an unprecedented influx of immigrants, more than its economy could possibly sustain comfortably. Millions of low-skilled and middle-class jobs have been downgraded to attract a cheaper, foreign labor supply. 

    Working women. It may seem a tautology to say women work because women work, but it’s a simple equation. The entry of millions of women into the workforce has depressed the wages of men. When you double the labor supply, you necessarily lower wages. The protection of women from the necessity of working was always behind customary job discrimination against them, job discrimination that was never absolute in America.   

    Increased costs. Here is the chief irony of it all. As more women work, family expenses, particularly college tuition, adjust themselves to two-income families, causing more women to work. It becomes a seemingly unbreakable cycle.

I won’t attempt to address here the purely cultural reasons why women work at the levels they currently do. In looking at all these economic factors, it seems the answer to the question of whether the seeming necessity that women work is irreversible is that it is not.  That is because none of these factors is irreversible. It is not too late to recover lost markets. It is not too late to control immigration and lessen its effects. It is not too late for more women to withdraw from the labor market.

In the meantime, even with these factors in place, the single-income life is attainable – and not just for the wealthy. It is attainable. It involves sacrifice. But, then many of our ancestors came to this country with little in the way of wealth. It’s true they faced immense possibilities and hope. But, they also experienced what we would consider material hardship. Did they have a worse life than we have? No, they had a better life. In contrast, we live lives of emptiness amid plenty. For there is no greater emptiness on earth than that of the empty home.


——-Comments and Discussion——


Mike Berman writes:

Why single out college tuition? This argument can be made for every expense. Housing costs provide an example of how moving from a single earner family to a two earner family model drove up prices. If the supply of houses remained constant but the amount of capital and income available to each family to bid on a home doubled, it was only inevitable that the cost of each home would double.

I should add that women entering the workforce actually set families back financially because they now face the added financial burdens of childcare and housecleaning services.

Laura replies:

Absolutely. The extent to which prevalence of two-incomes has affected common expenses can probably never be measured. But, it is certainly a factor in tuition, housing, and food costs.

As for the added household expenses directly caused  by women working, that’s a whole other subject and will be examined more fully at another time. Some of these also can never be calculated. They are borne by both individual families and society at large and include the expenses of obese children, psychotherapy, marriage counseling and divorce. 

We will also look at the expenses to American business. Countless workers spend company time doing personal business, making doctor’s appointments, attending to sick children, paying bills, etc.

Of course, many people have already spoken and written at length about the financial consequences of women working. But, it is not said nearly enough. It must be repeated again and again for the enormity of  this mess to really sink in.

Mike continues:

Children of working mothers are the true victims of the feminist movement. I devoted too much of my career to picking up the pieces of disaffected, angry students who acted out their pain in every self-destructive way imaginable. And when they turned their anger outward it became everyone’s problem. 

Laura adds:

Many elementary school teachers and principals agree. Who are their most well-behaved students?  The students whose mothers are home. The teachers will only admit to it in private. And yet, the world tells these mothers they are shleps for staying home.

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