Popular Culture  •  March 12, 2006

Economic and Historical Implications of Feminism

The recent study conducted by the two sociologists at the University of Virginia sparked a series of debates on the Internet, arguing whether women are happier staying at home or working. According to the study, stay-at-home wives are overall happier than their working counterparts. In the various arguments I read, no one mentioned the point that has concerned me for years: the unfortunate consequence of feminism on our household economies. My theory is not backed up by any research, but it seems apparent to me that women joining the workforce decreased the amount of money one person can earn for the household.

Before I go into the economic implications of feminism, let me give you an example of how our capitalist economy always spoils any attempts to quickly and easily make extra money. In the early 90s, I started noticing some over-the-counter services ask for tips. I first noticed it at Katz’s Deli here in New York City. As he was making my sandwich, the man behind the counter eagerly said, “I’ll give you the best part. See this? I’ll give you a little extra too. Here, have a taste of this.” His behavior felt strange to me, and sure enough, after he handed me the sandwich, he shook a cup of change asking for a tip.

In the past, I argued that this type of attempt to make extra money is ultimately harmful, not only to themselves, but to others in similar positions. It is because the market will always adjust your overall income by taking into account the amount of money you make through tips. Suppose your job paid $20 an hour. If you start making $100 a day from tips, the next time the owner hires someone for the same job, he would say to the new job candidate, “Your wages will be $10 an hour, but you will make about $100 a day in tips.” In other words, you will end up with the same amount of money, but you will get stuck with the fluctuation of the market since the amounts of tips you receive fluctuate day to day. In essence, you will be taking on part of your boss’s financial risks. If you were financially savvy, you would realize that every risk has its own price. You should, for this reason, be compensated for taking the risk, but most people in these positions rarely have the power or the skills to negotiate such a thing. In the end, they simply get exploited.

How does this relate to feminism? When women first started joining the workforce in the 70s, it functioned in much the same way as these tips; it brought extra income to the household. I would imagine that during the 70s and the 80s, before the market started adjusting to the double-income situation, these couples were able to make a lot of money, just as the first generation of the tip-demanding over-the-counter clerks did.

In our highly dynamic capitalist economy, the wages for the lower class workers are determined by the lowest amount that they can tolerate: the poverty line. For the sake of the argument, let’s disregard the rate of inflation, and let’s suppose that $10,000 a year was and is the lowest that most households could survive on in the 50s and now. Our economy does not care how this amount is earned for each household, as long as they can survive. Before the feminist revolution, this amount was earned by one person per household. The economy had no choice but to pay these working men at least this amount. Since the feminist revolution, many women have joined the workforce. Initially, they might have earned a combined income of $15,000 per household, but the market soon caught on to this new situation and realized that it could lower the wages for both men and women, so that a combined income would be $10,000 per household again. All that the market needs to adjust are the people who are willing to accept the lowered wages. And, since it is possible to survive on $10,000 a year, there will be many desperate people who are willing to accept the lowered wages.

The situation we have now, especially in the urban areas (so it seems), is that the market assumes that, in every household, there are two people earning income. (If not two, something in between, like 1.5 persons per household.) This means that in the lower class, it is impossible for a household to survive if only one person were working.

If my theory is correct, it means that feminism had an unfortunate consequence of making us work harder for the same amount of money, which in turn means less happiness for most people. This also means that if you are a stay-at-home mom, and if your household is doing well financially, it’s a good enough reason to be happy, because many lower class wives don’t even have the choice of staying at home. Ironically, feminism altered the economy in such a way that it took away their choice of staying at home.

I do not mean to imply that feminists were wrong, or that their contributions to our society were overall negative. As I described above, this was an “unfortunate” consequence. The only way that this can be remedied is for every household to send only one person to work. It doesn’t matter whether that person is a man or a woman. If only one person worked in a household, we’ll be able to raise the wages of each person who works. Of course, this is only a hypothetical scenario and it will never happen. When you are struggling just to survive, you cannot afford to stay home for such an ideological reason.

Historical implications

This study by the University of Virginia has another interesting implication for me, which is also something I have thought about since I moved to this country from Japan, the country often thought of as being male chauvinistic. In my view, the Americans tend to be so ideologically driven that they are in fact ahead of their own realities. And, it is assumed that these ideological people are the ones who lead the rest of the people into the future.

For instance: racism. We assume that if it weren’t for the progressive thinkers like Martin Luther King Jr., segregation would still exist. I would argue that this is a wrong assumption. It was only a matter of time. When you are dealing with people who are decidedly foreign, it is easier to distance yourself and treat them inhumanely. I believe this was a major factor in being able to justify dropping the atomic bombs in Japan, as opposed to dropping them in Germany. The Americans being predominantly white, dropping an atomic bomb on a country inhabited by the same white people would feel too close to home. In contrast, the Japanese people looked, felt, and sounded decidedly foreign to most Americans, and so it was much easier to create the distance needed to do something inhumane.

With respect to racism, it was only a matter of time that the feeling of foreignness faded in Blacks. As they got to know one another, conscientious White people could no longer create the distance required to treat them inhumanely. In this way, the demand for the end of segregation came also from these White people. And, with or without Martin Luther King, the end of segregation would have happened. He functioned only as a symbol of that collective sentiment. In other words, these symbolic figures are not necessarily the leaders that we think they are. They are easily replaceable. If not one, another would fill in that spot.

The same goes for feminism. Part of what drove the feminist movement was the technological advancement. It minimized the merits of the division of labor based on gender. Full-time stay-at-home mothers are no longer necessary in today’s society. Doing laundry, cooking, and cleaning, for instance, take far less time than they used to take. The surplus of time available to them naturally got them to think about a different way of living. Feminism would have happened without people like Simone de Beauvoir. Instead of discussing in terms of how women can explore traditionally male roles with the time we gained from technological advancement (and vice versa), and how our society should evolve to accommodate that change, the feminists framed the argument as men’s oppression of women that went on for thousands of years. Personally I find this counter-productive.

To me, what the study by the University of Virginia shows is that regardless of how anxious or eager these progressive thinkers are, if the people are not ready, they are not. Ideologically, both men and women may be ready for gender equality, but our heart says otherwise. And, I see no point in rushing if we are not ready. In fact, what would be the point of rushing? To be happier, faster? But, are we any happier now than a hundred years ago? Is there even a point in comparing the degrees of happiness in different generations? Wouldn’t the definitions of “happiness” be entirely different from generation to generation? If so, wouldn’t we be comparing apples and oranges?

When I was in junior high school in Japan, I read an essay in a textbook by a Japanese woman who was critical of American feminism. To her, the American feminists cheapened the value of the traditionally female roles by implicitly assuming that traditionally male roles were nobler human endeavors. Instead of focusing on the value of traditionally female roles, they all focused on their rights to take on traditionally male roles. In that effort, they reinforced the notion that traditionally male roles were superior.

Coming from Japan, American feminists’ arguments always came across to me as self-defeating, like an expression of self-hatred. For instance, they would point out the discrepancy in the number of historically recognized women, as compared to men. This assumes that being historically recognized is nobler than not being recognized. You may ask, “How could it not be?” In a culture like that of Japan where people are far more socialistic, one thinks of oneself as a part of the team. A lone hero who saves the entire nation single-handedly (a typical Hollywood fantasy), for instance, is not necessarily viewed as virtuous. In such a culture, people give less credit to famous figures in history, and more credit to the ordinary people, that is, to themselves. The American media has a way of making us all feel like we don’t count unless we are rich and famous. Not all cultures are like that. So, it is only an assumption that being recognized in history is a good thing. Being an invisible contributor to our society can be something to be proud of.

A stereotypical example that many Americans use to describe male chauvinism in Japan is how a woman is supposed to walk several steps behind her man. Firstly, if you go to Japan, you will immediately realize why it is not practical to walk side-by-side (the streets are way too narrow for this.). Secondly, why assume that walking in front is a better position? Even if it were the other way around, it could still be argued that it is a form of male chauvinism: A woman walks in front as a shield to protect her man from a potential danger ahead of them, and to open all the doors along the way for her man. In this fashion, American feminists assume that whatever position men take, whatever is traditionally associated with men, are superior to the female counterparts.

I feel that, as a backlash to the feminist movement, some women are starting to take a stand for traditionally female roles. If this becomes a widespread movement in this country, American feminism will be forced to wind the clock back a bit to adjust to the reality. In this sense, progressive thinkers don’t really contribute much; at least not as much as we give them credit for. We are not going to be ready for something we are not ready for. How we make this kind of ideological progress, doesn’t hinge as much on these ideological thinkers as we commonly assume. I would say that they are rather easily replaceable. Instead of giving them credit by adoring and praising them in the media, in schools, in history, and in arts, we should give ourselves the credit. This in turn would have the effect of diminishing the significance of men in general, since most historically famous figures are men. They are indeed overrated.