Women, Work and Wages

It is said that women have more good sense than men, that they have more heart and more imagination, more wisdom and virtue. And yet, statisticians inform us that they are earning much lower incomes than men. American women may earn only sixty to seventy cents for every dollar earned by men.

Some social critics explain the income differential in terms of injustice and exploitation. They are ever eager to lay blame on someone, on corporations and employers, chauvinistic man, or even the capitalistic system. They see exploitation and conflict in most social relations and, therefore, favor more laws and regulations. Economists, on the other hand, explain the differential in terms of personal productivity. They deny the possibility of exploitation wherever there is freedom of choice and unhampered competition. There can be no conflict, they contend, as long as government does not restrict competition through licenses and franchises and does not pass laws that benefit some people at the expense of others.

The messengers of conflict rely on laws and regulations that prescribe and enforce social relations. They can be found in the courts of law filing their complaints and charges, and in the halls of Congress clamoring for more laws and stricter enforcement. In contrast, the believers in harmony and freedom shudder at such appeals to coercion and force. They oppose any and all political intervention in social relations, favor open and honest competition, and advocate voluntary cooperation among all members of society, regardless of differences in race, color, creed, or gender.

Cooperation is most advantageous among people with unequal productivities. Male physique usually embodies more physical strength than women can muster. It permits men to offer more physical labor than women can offer, and causes income differentials wherever physical labor is required. Throughout the ages this difference assigned heavy outdoor tasks to men and lighter housework to women, giving rise to a “natural” division of labor.

There are few women who devote their whole lives to income production, but many who dedicate their lives to their families. Rightly or wrongly, many employers are living in constant fear of losing their female workers to home and family. As one may put it: “There are many jobs we may teach a woman; but it does not seem worth the effort and expense to teach her because the brighter she is, the more likely she is to go off and get married, just when she is beginning to be of some use.” Or, she may leave because she is pregnant, or her husband is transferred. Or she may refuse to be transferred for reasons of family. In fact, she may not even want to shop around in the labor market in order to sell her labor at the highest price. Family considerations may be more important to her. Therefore, she must expect to earn less than an equally capable male worker.

Most women merely spend a few years of their lives in economic pursuits. The common age at marriage being 21 to 25, they may spend a few years before they are married and again later when the children have left the nest. The amount of work a wife may supply to the market may depend not only on her wage rate but also on the total income of the family. Observers and researchers have found that female market labor responds negatively to husbands’ incomes; the more husbands earn, the less wives are likely to work. But there is a positive response of a woman’s ability to earn income to her inclination to work; the more she can earn the more she is likely to work.

In recent decades women throughout the capitalistic world have flocked from home to office or factory. In the United States, more than forty percent of married women now are estimated to be earning extra incomes. This shift from home to market must be explained not only by the phenomenal reduction in physical exertion as a result of modern technology and application of capital, but also by the growing opportunities of office work. As American industry provided an ever increasing variety of goods at lower prices, it became more advantageous to buy them in a store than to make them at home. In other words, an hour’s work in the office became more productive in providing goods for the home than an hour’s work at home, which persuaded millions of married women to seek market employment. But even then they may want to limit their labor to times and places that allow for family chores. The office hours should not conflict with family hours, the place of work should not be too far from home, and above all, the office demands should not be overly exhausting, depriving her of the strength needed at home.

It is in the interest of all members of society that woman should develop her ego and join man as equal, freeborn companion and partner. She should develop her personality in accordance with her inclinations, desires and economic circumstances. But the basic differences in sexual character and physique cannot be outlawed any more than other inequalities of the human race. She cannot escape the burden of motherhood, of childbearing and child-rearing that consume her energies and tend to remove her from the labor market. Pregnancy and the nursing of children take many years of her life and deprive her of the opportunity to be active professionally. While man may be pursuing ambitious goals, woman is a child-bearer and nurse, carrying the burden of human reproduction. In order to compete with man and develop her abilities in economic life she may have to renounce her womanly functions and deny herself the greatest joy, the joy of motherhood. A few extraordinarily gifted women manage to achieve both, perform great deeds in spite of motherhood.

Affirmative-action judges are blind to the obvious. They actually find employers guilty for considering sexual limitations and situations. Oblivious to human nature, they issue court orders that seek to suppress it. They are actually hurting the very individuals they seek to benefit. By raising the cost of female labor they are reducing its demand which, in simple economic language, is tantamount to creating unemployment. The “marginal” employees, whose productivity was barely covering their employment costs before the judge’s order, are rendered “submarginal” by the order, that is, they are made to inflict losses on their employers and thus, for purposes of employment, are made unproductive. In short, they are rendered unemployable. A Supreme Court decision that interprets the law in such an “affirmative” fashion may condemn many thousands of American women to long years of unemployment.

Society cannot rest for long on a judge’s order and the power of the police to enforce it. It must build on the solid foundation of freedom and morality, which are the principal elements of social peace and the guarantors of its prosperity.

April 19, 2005