Why Do Women Do Market Work?

Super-misogynist Gavin McInnes of Vice fame unleashed an odd hyper-masculinist performance on HuffPo Live last week, complaining, among other things, about working women. McInnes apparently thinks feminism is to blame for women becoming unhappy corporate strivers, instead of domesticated homekeepers. In making these remarks, McInnes refers to women striving to be CEOs, which suggests that when he talks about working women, he has in mind upper-class, highly-educated women trying to move up the economic power ranks.

In the reality of most women, working in the labor market is not a discretionary activity undertaken voluntarily for self-liberation purposes. Like men, women work because they have to work in order to survive. There is no option. This is most obviously true for single women, but it's also true for husband-wife families. In anticipation of a piece I am preparing with Elizabeth Stoker on this McInnes blow up, I calculated the following numbers. They all come from the Census' latest ASEC microdata, which covers 2012.

In 2012, there were around 59 million husband-wife families. In around 36 million of those families (or 60 percent), the wives earned money last year. The wives in the remaining 23 million husband-wife families (or 40 percent) did not.

Focusing on those 36 million husband-wife families with working wives, I wanted to see what their financial state would be like if the wife did no market work and had no earnings. This is the result.

This is the same graph, but done in terms of percents of families, not raw numbers.

So, of the 36 million husband-wife families in which the wife does market work, 54 percent (far right red bar) would be below 2x the poverty line if the wife didn't do so. It's not uncommon to describe those below 2x the poverty line as being in or near poverty. So under that convention, 54 percent of husband-wife families in which the wife works would be in or near poverty with just the husband's earnings. Thus, like I said at the top, most women (even those in husband-wife situations) don't have the option to not work. To carry on like they do is to pretend most women are the affluent, professional women the chattering class loves to focus on.

To be clear, I am not trying to get into this discussion of whether women should or shouldn't do market labor, as that's not really for me to say. I am just saying that the whole discussion is incoherent from the beginning because it assumes that for the great majority of women, there is even such a choice. Or more realisticially, it is a discussion that simply ignores the plight of the majority of women, which is doubtlessly a reflection of the sort of people who get to participate in public sphere debates.

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