The Magazine

No Country for Burly Men

How feminist groups skewed the Obama stimulus plan towards women's jobs.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS
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A "man-cession." That's what some economists are starting to call it. Of the 5.7 million jobs Americans lost between December 2007 and May 2009, nearly 80 percent had been held by men. Mark Perry, an economist at the University of Michigan, characterizes the recession as a "downturn" for women but a "catastrophe" for men.

Men are bearing the brunt of the current economic crisis because they predominate in manufacturing and construction, the hardest-hit sectors, which have lost more than 3 million jobs since December 2007. Women, by contrast, are a majority in recession-resistant fields such as education and health care, which gained 588,000 jobs during the same period. Rescuing hundreds of thousands of unemployed crane operators, welders, production line managers, and machine setters was never going to be easy. But the concerted opposition of several powerful women's groups has made it all but impossible. Consider what just happened with the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Last November, President-elect Obama addressed the devastation in the construction and manufacturing industries by proposing an ambitious New Deal-like program to rebuild the nation's infrastructure. He called for a two-year "shovel ready" stimulus program to modernize roads, bridges, schools, electrical grids, public transportation, and dams and made reinvigorating the hardest-hit sectors of the economy the goal of the legislation that would become the recovery act.

Women's groups were appalled. Grids? Dams? Opinion pieces immediately appeared in major newspapers with titles like "Where are the New Jobs for Women?" and "The Macho Stimulus Plan." A group of "notable feminist economists" circulated a petition that quickly garnered more than 600 signatures, calling on the president-elect to add projects in health, child care, education, and social services and to "institute apprenticeships" to train women for "at least one third" of the infrastructure jobs. At the same time, more than 1,000 feminist historians signed an open letter urging Obama not to favor a "heavily male-dominated field" like construction: "We need to rebuild not only concrete and steel bridges but also human bridges." As soon as these groups became aware of each other, they formed an anti-stimulus plan action group called WEAVE--
Women's Equality Adds Value to the Economy.

The National Organization for Women (NOW), the Feminist Majority, the Institute for Women's Policy Research, and the National Women's Law Center soon joined the battle against the supposedly sexist bailout of men's jobs. At the suggestion of a staffer to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, NOW president Kim Gandy canvassed for a female equivalent of the "testosterone-laden 'shovel-ready' " terminology. ("Apron-ready" was broached but rejected.) Christina Romer, the highly regarded economist President Obama chose to chair his Council of Economic Advisers, would later say of her entrance on the political stage, "The very first email I got . . . was from a women's group saying 'We don't want this stimulus package to just create jobs for burly men.' "

No matter that those burly men were the ones who had lost most of the jobs. The president-elect's original plan was designed to stop the hemorrhaging in construction and manufacturing while investing in physical infrastructure that is indispensable for long-term economic growth. It was not a grab bag of gender-correct programs, nor was it a macho plan--the whole idea of economic stimulus is to use government spending to put idle factors of production back to work.

The president-elect responded to the protests by sending Jason Furman, his soon-to-be deputy director at the National Economic Council, along with his senior aides to a meeting organized by Kim Gandy and Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal. Gandy described the scene:

I can't resist saying that this meeting didn't look like the other transition meetings I attended. In addition to the presence of more women, the room actually looked different--because Feminist Majority President Ellie Smeal had asked that the chairs be set in a circle, with no table in the center.

The senior economists listened attentively as Gandy and Smeal and other advocates argued for a stimulus package that would add jobs for nurses, social workers, teachers, and librarians in our crumbling "human infrastructure" (they had found their testosterone-free slogan). Did Furman mention that jobs in the "human infrastructure"--health, education, and government--had increased by more than half a million since December 2007?

One could pardon him for not being argumentative. His boss at the economic council, Lawrence Summers, had become a national symbol of the consequences of offending feminist sensibilities and had been opposed by feminists in his appointment to the top White House post. Gandy and Smeal found their circle partners to be engaged and curious and were delighted that they stayed longer than scheduled: "We left feeling that all our preparation would bear fruit in the form of more inclusion of women's needs, and we were right."

They were right indeed. Our incoming president did what many sensible men do when confronted by a chorus of female complaint: He changed his plan. He added health, education, and other human infrastructure
components to the proposal. And he tasked Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein, Joseph Biden's chief economist, with preparing an extraordinary report that calculated not only the number of jobs the plan would likely create, but the gender composition of the various employment sectors and the division of largess between women and men.

Romer and Bernstein delivered "The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan" on January 10. They estimated that "the total number of created jobs likely to go to women is roughly 42 percent." Lest anyone miss the point, they added that since women had held only 20 percent of the jobs lost in the recession, the stimulus package now "skews job creation somewhat towards women."

In triumph, Gandy, Smeal, and their sister activists turned their attention to Congress. They perfected a special "handshake pitch" for members of Congress to be used when reminding them of the importance of rebuilding our human infrastructure, intoning, "That infrastructure is fragile too." With Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on board, the revised recovery act sailed through Congress, and President Obama signed it into law on February 17.

In her March "Below the Belt" column on the NOW website, Kim Gandy could not contain her elation over "this happily-ever-after 'stimulus story.' " When she and her allies saw the final recovery package, they were amazed to find "over and over" versions of "very specific proposals that we had made." More than that, the programs NOW had proposed had vast sums of money next to them--"numbers that started with a 'B' (as in billion)," Gandy said gleefully. "It's impossible to convey just how many hours we put into this issue during December and early January and how fruitful it really turned out to be."

Right again. It is now four months since the bill was signed into law. A recent Associated Press story reports: "Stimulus Funds Go to Social Programs Over 'Shovel-ready' Projects." A team of six AP reporters who have been tracking the funds find that the $300 billion sent to the states is being used mainly for health care, education, unemployment benefits, food stamps, and other social services. According to Chris Whately, director of the Council of State Governments, "We all talked about 'shovel-ready' since September and assumed it was a whole lot of paving and building when, in fact, that's not the case." At the same time, the Labor Department's latest (June 5) employment report shows unemployment rates of 8 percent for women and 10.5 percent for men. "Unprecedented" is what Harvard economist Greg Mankiw called the new 2.5 percentage-point gender gap. "It's the highest male-female jobless rate gap in the history of BLS [Labor Department] data back to 1948," said Mark Perry.

There is great room for debate over the effectiveness of government stimulus programs, and over how much impact a focused "shovel-ready" spending program would have achieved by now. What is not debatable is that changes in the American economy and workforce are favoring service sectors where women are abundant and that the current severe contraction is centered on sectors where men, especially working-class men, predominate. That an emergency economic recovery program should be designed with gender in mind is itself remarkable. That, in current circumstances, it should be designed to "skew" employment further towards women is disturbing and ominous.

Here is a clue to what has happened. The op-ed attacking the "macho stimulus plan" invoked Abigail Adams's famous admonition to her husband to "remember the ladies" at the Constitutional Convention, and concluded, "Obama would be wise to do the same and balance the package." It is, of course, preposterous to think of Abigail Adams, or any of the illustrious feminists of yore, proposing to "balance a package," much less opposing an effort to put unemployed men back to work. The historical allusion is revealing.

Within living memory, the American feminist movement was a valiant, broad-based vehicle for social equality. It achieved historic victories and enjoys continuing, richly deserved prestige for its valor and success. But it has now harnessed that prestige to the ethos and methods of a conventional interest group.

Recall that the Obama administration has taken extraordinary steps to insulate itself from the machinations of organized lobbyists, establishing strict limits and procedures for contacts and communications of every sort. Yet its first major policy initiative was transformed by an orchestrated barrage of emails, op-eds, online petitions, open letters, faxes, phone calls, scripted handshakes, and meetings. And the administration went to great lengths to satisfy its petitioners that their proposals had been adopted directly into law. The administration (and Congress) must have been thinking that groups such as NOW and the Feminist Majority were crusading for social justice, when in fact they were lobbying for their share of the action, to the detriment of urgent necessities.

A Washington feminist establishment that celebrates the "happily-ever-after" story of its victory over burly men cannot represent the views and interests of many women. Those men are fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, and friends; if they are in serious trouble, so are the women who care about them and in many cases depend on them. But NOW and its sister organizations see the world differently. They see the workplace as a battlefront in a zero-sum struggle between men and women, where it is their job to side with women. Unless the Obama administration and Congress find the temerity to distance themselves from the new feminist lobby, the "man-cession" will deepen and further mischief will ensue.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of The War Against Boys and editor of The Science on Women and Science, forthcoming from AEI press.