Women, the Recession, and the Stimulus Package

Women, the Recession, and the Stimulus Package

Last winter, as Barack Obama’s transition team developed a stimulus package to jump-start the U.S economy, feminist economists and historians organized petitions, e-mails, and meetings to call attention to women’s needs. Their activism was unprecedented; I have not seen the like during all my time in the nation’s capital. While it bears some resemblance to the work of academic women around welfare reform in the early 1990s, this mobilization was more spontaneous, more rapid, and probably less visible to the public. It also faded fairly quickly. The mobilization targeted the transition team, largely through e-mail petitions. Although feminists wrote op-eds and letters to the editor, there were no press conferences or ads in the New York Times, as there had been during the longer welfare reform campaign. Arguably, though, this mobilization was more successful in its outcome.

Several developments may help to explain this success. First, feminist scholars have the knowledge and resources to intervene. In considering where feminism has become most institutionalized, higher education stands out among other social institutions (for example, business; religion; or government, where women are stalled at 17 percent representation in the U.S. Congress). And although economics as a discipline lags behind in mainstreaming feminist intellectual work, compared to disciplines such as history and literature, the International Association for Feminist Economics and its journal, Feminist Economics, are both well established. At its eighteenth annual summer conference, economists from Europe and Latin America as well as the United States shared information about their efforts to develop and promote gender-sensitive responses to the worldwide financial crisis.

Women and men have different economic roles and work in different locations in the economy. For example, in the United States, more men work in the manufacturing and construction industries (27 percent of male workers vs. 8 percent of female), whereas more women work in education and health services (35 percent of female workers vs. 10 percent of male). Feminist economists argue that economic policy must address these differences.

Feminist historians were motivated by their knowledge of the 1930s and the way women were excluded from many government programs. Not only did women receive few of the jobs created by the New Deal, some working women were pushed out of their jobs in favor of men. And despite the enormous economic progress women have made since then, they are still more vulnerable than men.

AS A LABOR ECONOMIST, I am most often struck by the gains women have made in the labor market—they are working more and more consistently, preparing themselves through education and training for lifelong participation, and earning more per hour and over their lifetimes than previous generations. Yet the bottom line is that women experience more poverty than men do...