An exchange which can serve as a State-of-the-Union for feminism of the soft, non-gender-bending variety can be found in an interview of Melinda Gates on Marketplace, a program affiliated with NPR. Her topic: balancing the burden of unpaid work.
According to Mrs. Gates, women do an outsized portion of the household chores, both in poor countries and in rich ones. She may be right, and if so, then shame on the men who don’t do their fair share. If Mrs. Gates wants to take up hectoring men, fine. She wouldn’t be the first to take her scolding outside of her own household, to the households of all the rest of us.
But that is unfortunately not where she leaves it, and this is the reason she’s the subject of this commentary. What Mrs. Gates wants to bring to bear on this chore inequity is a dubious economic argument, and the strong arm of the state intruding where it doesn’t belong.
Gross Domestic Product
The theme of Mrs. Gates’ economic argument is that women are suffering from a lack of time, and it’s costing all of us. How, you might ask, is unequal sharing of household chores “costing all of us?” Well first, Ms. Gates touches on Gross Domestic Product, puzzled over why household chores and child-rearing (of one’s own children) aren’t somehow included in it. But it’s not really puzzling that GDP doesn’t attempt to measure the work of maintaining one’s own household, or caring for one’s own children. It doesn’t because in devising this economic measure, we presupposed that these were private matters. Personal chores aren’t in GDP because they’re personal.
Including family chores and childrearing effort in GDP would implicitly take them out of the domain of private effort for private purposes, and into the public measured economy, for public purposes – thereby blurring the distinction between private and public efforts. That is the insidious core of seemingly nice feminism, as the rest of Mrs. Gates’ remarks exemplify.
To state what is hopefully obvious, inclusion of private chores into GDP or any other economic measure won’t change the amount of private work to be done. The only purpose of quantifying the private work would be to facilitate public encouragement, first, and then economic inducements, and finally coercion, in place of respecting private, family decisions.
“Labor Force” Participation
Mrs. Gates argues that when women’s work in the home decreases, women’s participation in the labor force increases. The inference we’re supposed to draw – in fact, the inference that Mrs. Gates quite explicitly asks us to draw – is that society would “unlock this huge potential . . . and [currently] we’re not tapping into that.”
There’s a lot of knotted-up illogic here, so it’s not easy to identify the best place to start. But let’s start with this. Another way to make this observation is to simply notice that if a woman works less at home, she can work more outside the home. That’s a truism, not an insight.
Second, because this would be only a change in the type of work women do, not a reduction, this would only have appeal for those women who prefer to work outside the home. In other words, as is usual with feminism, it favors the elites and the careerists, at the expense of the majority, who do not consider work outside the home–of the type they are able to get–to be inherently more meaningful for themselves, or better for their children.
Third, reduction of “women’s work” (Mrs. Gates’ phrase) doesn’t cause greater labor force participation, because there is no net reduction of work. If Mom was doing more chores before, now Dad and children have to do more. If Dad and children do more, then less of their working effort can go to outside labor force participation (or in the case of the children, their own educations).
Fourth, this transition would necessarily mean less effort available from Mom and Dad for child-rearing. This “unlock[ing] . . . of huge potential” has a cost, and by the reasoning of Mrs. Gates, it would be borne most heavily by the children. Maybe hubby deserves the extra work. But the children? Coercing a shifting of women’s efforts from unmeasured home work to measured outside work results in no net gain for them; in fact, it results in a qualitative net loss for them. As in so many “progressive” undertakings, we’re asked to take (not just borrow) from our children.
Fifth, and finally, Mrs. Gates is necessarily saying that the “workforce” work is more valuable; that the work at home, including child-rearing, is less valuable. It would be hard to be more explicit than she is, in saying that child-rearing just isn’t important. It’s notable that Mrs. Gates cites Scandinavian countries as her ideal paradigm for women’s work. It would appear that native Scandinavians agree with her about the worth of personal investment in children. They are having fewer and fewer of them.
Here’s where it gets creepy
You can be all for shaming lazy husbands, and you can be all for collective nagging, but is it really a good idea to slip the government in amongst the private decisions of families? That’s where Mrs. Gates, like other feminist standard-bearers, inexorably goes with all this. It is where so-called progressives always go: transfer of individual authority to the state. In this case, the transfer of authority within a family to the state. If those lazy men won’t get off their barca-loungers on their own, let’s bring in the government to force them. Isn’t it obvious that this weakens family ties rather than strengthens them? Contrary to the default “progressive” line, force is not always the answer.
Mrs. Gates’ word for dealing with inequity in the work of the home is “redistribute.” Fine, if all she does is encourage “conversations at home,” and “rebalancing at home.” But she wants more. She wants “great social policies,” again like those magnificent Scandinavian countries.
“Policies.” That’s a nice, soft word. It suggests prevailing ideas, or normative cultural protocols for how we go about doing things. But that is not what is meant at all. What it means is law. Every time you hear the word “policy,” substitute “law.” And remember what law is. It is a constraint or a compulsion required of us by force. Mrs. Gates’ “policies,” like all government “policies,” would put limitations on our freedoms to decide for ourselves. The issue is not whether the policies are “great” or not. The issue, as with so many things, is “who decides?” Freedom can be messy, but it is always better.
Talk of “policies” instead of coercion leads us to acquiesce to an operating ethic that all decision-making be collective; even including that made privately by a man and a woman in their most intimate family decisions. Even including their decisions about what is best for their own children. This drift cannot help but erode the personal husband-wife-child bond that is so crucial to children’s development. The line between families and the nanny state grows ever thinner.
The personal is indeed the political.