Fox-Genovese: Women & Entitlements

Marjorie Murphy Campbell

As we consider the 2012 election results and the large percentage of single women – as well as the significant share of married women – who favored the current administration’s approach to women’s issues, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese offers much food for thought. 


New Feminists, like Fox-Genovese, like me, start with this premise:  women raising children cannot humanely and justly be expected to provide 100% of the resources for the care of the family. 

For all of human history, men were expected to provide most of the financial resources for the care and upbringing of children they fathered, at least within wedlock, and their failure to do so warranted social, religious and legal action. The economic burden of raising children has shifted radically toward women, perhaps as an unintended consequence, as women embrace and exploit educational and economic opportunities opened to their participation only within the last 50 years through the often grueling work of feminists.  Simultaneously over the last two decades, the social and cultural expectations which defined and bounded family constitution and responsibility throughout Western history have undergone dramatic reconfiguration.  Perhaps, again, as an an unintended consequence, this reconfiguration has fueled and accelerated the transfer of responsibility and cost of children to the women who conceive, bear and keep them.  It is hardly surprising in this new reality that “progressive” feminists insist that the only legitimate pregnancies are pregnancies planned and intended by the woman.  If women are going to get assistance within this new paradigm, even for intended, planned child-raising, it must come from the government – the authority which once served as a safety net secondarily to its role of enforcing shirked obligations against men, but which, increasingly, substitutes entitlement care in their stead. 

Consider this excerpt from Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s “Feminism Is Not The Story of My Life” which I’ve entitled Women and Government (italics added).

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Throughout most of our history, it was possible to assume that women and children would be privately cared for by the men under whose guardianship they fell.   Frequently men failed in their duty, but the public services that developed to compensate for those private failures treated the women and children they served as exceptional.  Today, when men in record numbers leave women and children to their own resources, women and children who require public support are no longer exceptional.  Some conservatives may want to turn the clock back, but the growing numbers of women and children without adequate private resources testify that the clock cannot be turned back.  

So is the solution to abandon the children?  Our sterile and deadlocked discussions of abortion suggest the possibility.  Certainly, the feminists’ reluctance to regard abortion as a story about children and reverence for life points in that direction.  But then, so does the conservatives’ reluctance to regard abortion as a story about women who do not have the resources to support the children they bear and cannot readily assume that others will step in to care for or adopt the children.  Willy-nilly, these two positions have combined to free us from our obligations to women and children

It is as if we were, however unintentionally, treating the children as extensions of women’s sexual freedom rather than as the future of our society

And because society has been so reluctant to meet its responsibilities to children, it has sent a message that for women to prosper they must be freed from children as well.  Feminism has seized upon this message, arguing that to hold women responsible for children is to punish them by restricting their freedom and independence.  Conservatives, who normally express concern for the sanctity of life and the needs of children, want poor women not to have them unless, of course they are married.  In contrast, feminists, who normally want women to be able to lead independent lives like men, defend poor women’s right to become single mothers. 

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In 1990, single mothers headed one quarter of all households in the United States, and, for black Americans, the figure rose to more than one half.  No moral pronouncements about the superiority of the private care for children can withstand these figures without risking public exposure as punitive, indifferent, contemptuous, or hypocritical.  Conservatives who continue to preach the moral superiority of the world of the Donna Reed Show are not talking about the world we live in. 

And if you do not talk about a world people recognize, they may be expected to ignore you.  A just and humane society must embrace standards that the majority of its people can, if with effort, meet, or it must support its people so that they can meet those standards. 

Without one or the other, people may well decide, as many seem to be deciding, that moral standards are beside the point.  If conservatives wish to encourage private virtue and responsibility, they need to provide social conditions that permit people to act virtuously and responsibly. 

The feminist preference for extensive public day care has an inexorable logic.  Feminists assume that mothers, whether married or single, prefer to work and need day care to do so.  They have a vested interest in the idea that children will do as well or better without their mothers as with them.  They also have an interest in the expansion of public programs, which provide women with jobs – jobs with benefits.  In 1980, women already held 70 percent of the social service jobs in the government sector.  And although the jobs do not pay as well as many in the private sector, they are considerably more secure.  In this respect, the welfare state is becoming a women’s preserve. 

Jobs and salaries play an important, if largely hidden, role in these debates.  We are accustomed to dividing federal expenditures according to the program on which they are spent:  so much for the military, so much for fighting crime, so much for social services, and so forth.  We are even conscious of the tendency of the federal agencies to allow their suppliers to jack up the cost of goods.  But we are rarely reminded of how large a share of public expenditure goes into nonmilitary salaries and benefits for the more than 2.8 million nonmilitary federal and 17 million state and local employees.  As best, we know that programs are difficult to cut, in part because the cutting of programs inevitably entails the cutting of jobs.  Since the beginning of the republic, patronage and spoils have loomed large in political struggles, and now more so than ever.  Even when administrations change, social service jobs remain difficult to cut, and today a large share of those jobs continues to go to women.  The protection of public employment, however important to individuals and their families, should not dictate our public policies.  After all, when President Clinton downsized the military, to the applause of feminists and the Left, he cut many thousands of jobs.

If we start with the needs of children, the failure of the private sector may well justify the existence, or even expansion, of publicly funded social service programs.  But it is one thing to turn to the federal government to see people through a crisis, as we done during the Great Depression, and another to regard dependence upon federally funded social service programs as a positive good.  Many personally admirable and socially responsible left-wing feminists forcefully insist that the failures of federal supports for women and children may be attributed to the demeaning conditions imposed upon those who use them.   Feminists like Valerie Polakow argue that the United States should long since have followed the lead of European welfare states in making support for women and children universal like Social Security, rather dependent upon the indignity of proving need.  The United States remains one of the few industrialized countries not to provide universal child allowances.  Western European countries also provide statutory housing allowances, health care benefits, maternity benefits, and subsidized child care as a matter of course.  Consequently, the benefits are seen as a “right” or entitlement rather than a stigmatized form of public assistance.  Thus welfare, with aura of dependence and deviation, plays a much smaller role than in the United States.  Unfortunately, those social entitlements are placing increasing burdens on the national budgets and, as already happened in the United Kingdom, even the generous policies in France and Sweden are in danger of being cut back.

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