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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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.